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City decision to reconfigure Canton bike lane prompts outrage from bicycling advocates

City decision to reconfigure Canton bike lane prompts outrage from bicycling advocates
A sign notes the modifications being made along Potomac Street to accommodate two lanes of parking, a travel and bike lane. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

A city decision to reconfigure a new bike lane on Potomac Street in Canton after some residents complained it made the street too narrow for fire trucks drew outrage from bicycling advocates.

Bikemore, a Baltimore advocacy group, said the move could jeopardize similar protected bikes lanes in the city.

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The recently created lane on Potomac between Eastern Avenue and Boston Street is part of a network that the city has been building to increase bicycle ridership in the city.

"This is caving to a handful of residents who decided to wield their political power on a public right-of-way," said Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore. "You may own a house on a street, but we all pay taxes for the street."

While the Canton Community Association supported the bike lane, which the city began constructing in April, some residents were opposed. They said the lane would take away already scarce parking space — the city estimates 10 spots were lost — or was unneeded on a one-way residential street that bicyclists already could use. More recently, opponents raised the issue of whether fire trucks would be able to access the street.

The mayor's office informed residents on Potomac Street in a letter Wednesday that it would revamp the lane configurations.

"Mayor [Catherine E.] Pugh is committed to making Baltimore a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly multi-modal City, while at the same time ensuring that changes made to our roadways do not have serious negative safety and emergency response implications," said the letter, signed by James T. Smith, Jr., chief of strategic alliances.

"The current bike lane installation on Potomac Street provides for a fire apparatus access road that is less than is called for by the Baltimore City Fire Code," he wrote.

The letter did not provide specific figures, but international safety standards generally call for street widths of at least 20 feet for fire apparatus.

The city said it will modify the current configuration on Potomac Street between Eastern Avenue and Fait Street of a two-way bicycle lane next to the curb, protected from traffic by a lane of parking, in the coming weeks. Curbside parking will be restored, and an 8-foot-wide, two-way bike lane will be separated by 18-inch buffers from the traffic lane on one side and the parking lane on the other.

From Fait Street to Boston, where Potomac is wider, the bike lane will remain next to the curb, but be narrowed to 7 feet wide, with a one-foot buffer against the next lane, which will be for parking.

The reconstruction, expected to take several weeks, was met with glee on a Facebook page for bike lane opponents. Members of the group did not respond to messages requesting comment.

The new bike lane had caused some confusion, with the occasional driver parking in the bike pathway next to the curb, but others were thrilled to be able to cycle from Patterson Park on the north to Canton Waterfront Park on the south.

"We are disappointed we don't have a fully protected bike lane linking the two parks and other east-west avenues," said Douglas Kaufman, president of the Canton Community Association. "But we are happy to have some of it protected at least.

"The CCA was very supportive of the original configuration, so from that perspective, it's a disappointment the city didn't stay firm on this," he said.

Protecting bike lanes from traffic helps encourage people to bike, especially if they have children, Kaufman said. Acclimating children to traveling by bicycle could produce a generation less likely to use cars — something that could produce long-term benefits in Canton, where traffic and parking are the two main complaints, he said.

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City Councilman Zeke Cohen, who represents the area, posted a video on social media calling the city's decision to "downgrade" the bike lane "short-sighted" and expressing confidence in the Fire Department's ability to fight fires on narrow streets.

"As a city, we need to move toward a truly walkable, bikeable Baltimore," Cohen said.

Bikemore's Cornish said she is concerned about the fate of the Downtown Bicycle Network, which the city has been expanding in recent years. The project envisions more than 10 miles of bike lanes, some two-way, that are protected from traffic. Lanes are already in place or under construction on portions of streets including Maryland Avenue, Cathedral, Madison, Monument, Preston and Biddle.

Cornish said city officials have said they will halt current construction of the network and reconsider or even remove sections of the Maryland Avenue lanes because of the issues raised by Potomac Street.

Anthony McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman, said no such decision had been made.

"There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the Potomac Street lane and if it is a problem that exists in other parts of the city, but under no circumstances has a decision been made or communicated to halt the placement or further development of planned bike lanes," McCarthy said in an email to The Sun.

City officials declined to answer further questions on the cost of reconfiguring the new lanes, or why the issue of fire truck access was not addressed before the project was approved and undertaken.

Cornish said the fire truck access provision seemed to be applied selectively, noting that a number of Baltimore streets, particularly those with angled parking, have traffic lanes that are narrower than 20 feet.

"Maryland Avenue no longer has 20 feet of clearance," she said. "No one has raised an issue, no one has burned up in a fire, the Number 11 bus goes down it just fine."

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