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New Protected Bicycling Lanes in Baltimore Hit by “Bikelash”

Tom Pelton

Baltimore, my home, has its troubles. But one thing the city has done remarkably well over the last year is to encourage urban bicycling – which cuts down on traffic and air pollution, and supports a healthier quality of life.

As part of a new network of bicycle lanes, the city last fall opened a protected, double-wide bike lane down 2.6 miles of Maryland Avenue, connecting the Johns Hopkins University campus at 29th Street, in the north, to Pratt Street and the Inner Harbor, in the south.

In past decades, city officials have painted numerous bike lanes on streets, of course. But these have been essentially meaningless, because cars drive right over them, sometimes killing cyclists. But this new Maryland Avenue bike lane is different. It’s a biking superhighway, 10 feet wide, totally protected from traffic by a line of white plastic divider sticks, and then a row of parked cars, which have been moved a dozen feet away from the curb.

I cruise down the lane almost every day and love it – as do a growing number of cyclists. But now the protected lane and others like it across Baltimore are threatened by “bikelash,” an angry backlash from car drivers who don’t like changes to their parking spaces. The forces opposed to the new street design have found a receptive ear in the administration of Mayor Catherine Pugh, who has (so far) not been willing to stand up for the protected bike lanes.

Here’s the back story.  Under the previous mayor, Stephanie Rawlings Blake, Baltimore started designing and building the Maryland Avenue bike lane, along with plans for about six more miles of protected tracks like it, across the city.  The project was driven not primarily by city officials but by a $2.5 million grant from the federal government. The Obama Administration gave the funds as part of a national program that was designed to help cities like Baltimore, Washington, New York, Seattle and Portland encourage alternatives to driving and burning fossil fuels.

“For a long time, particularly in Baltimore, city planners were really only looking at how quickly we could move cars in and out of the city,” said Liz Cornish, Executive Director of Bikemore, a bicycling advocacy group that helped to plan Baltimore’s new network of lanes. “There was a population that was dwindling in the city, but the jobs were still located here, and so people believed that this (reliance on cars) was the most efficient way to get the most out of Baltimore’s transportation system.”

Mass transit has been badly neglected in the Baltimore.  The city’s street car lines were ripped out during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Governor Larry Hogan killed a proposed new rail line.  Meanwhile, biking to work was often seen as a dangerous proposition in an urban area so dominated by cars.

“You know, 33 percent of Baltimore residents don’t have access to a car,” said Cornish. “And so we have to start thinking differently both from an equity perspective and from a sustainability perspective.  This idea that we are going to continue to always rely on cars as our sole form of transport just isn’t something that fits in the future.”

Not everyone has the same perspective, however.  And as a result, a clash has arisen in the city between the entrenched car culture and the growing bicycling culture.  

When the city recently built a double-wide bike lane down Potomac Street in Canton, residents were infuriated by the change in the parking arrangement. Their line of parked cars was moved 12 feet out into the street, allowing for a protected bicycle track.  The change removed only a handful of parking spaces, as is typical of the protected bike lanes.

“I do not like it,” said one local resident, Melissa Zimmerman, of the remodeled Potomac Street. “This absolutely makes parallel parking more challenging over here. If someone doesn’t park exactly on the curb, you cannot even get into your parking spot if you have more than a four-door sedan.”

Another city resident, Susan Herd, looked over at the new bike lanes and said: “Yeah, I think they are stupid. Okay, why are you putting cars in the middle of the street?  To allow for a bicycle?  Come on, give me a break!  When I was a kid, we rode our bicycles on the sidewalks.”

Because of complaints like these from drivers, the Baltimore’s whole plan for protected bike lanes is on hold and could be cut back or eliminated.  Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office last week sent a letter to Canton residents saying the city’s fire code requires a slightly wider path for fire trucks than the new bike lanes allow.

As a result, the new protected lane on Potomac Street will be eliminated in some places, and narrowed in others, according to the letter signed by James Smith, Chief of Strategic Alliances for the Mayor. 

“Mayor 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,” read the letter.

The mayor’s office and the city Department of Transportation declined to be interviewed for this program, or to provide more details. But bike advocates say they worry that if city officials start applying the same strict interpretation of the fire code across the city, it could potentially mean rolling back or killing the city’s new plan for protected bike lanes. 

Mandating an extra wide space for fire trucks to maneuver and deploy their equipment on all streets could also theoretically require the elimination of parking along many of the city’s old and narrow streets, which could further enrage drivers.

Meanwhile, cycling enthusiasts are urging people to write and call Mayor Pugh to save the protected bike lanes...and to “Fight for Bikes.”

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.