In one of her final official acts as mayor of Baltimore, Catherine Pugh on March 29 all but sealed the fate of Roland Park’s controversial cycle track when she announced its removal, deeming it “just not a good bicycle facility” that needed to be taken out. Officials had been considering a pilot plan to test out a lane reduction with an expanded bike lane, but that plan died with Pugh’s announcement.
Vocal critics of the protected curbside bike lanes, which served as an expensive, years-long trial for Complete Streets cycling infrastructure, lauded the decision. Two days before Pugh’s proclamation, Roland Park Civic League president Dr. Bob Connors wrote in an email to Pugh’s now-former aide Jim Smith, “thousands of families from across the city, and indeed the entire region, will be breathing a sigh of relief once this announcement is made.”
But Connors’ peers on the RPCL board weren’t ready to celebrate. Some argued DOT needed alternate routes in place, before removal, for cyclists—including school-bound children—who used the track to traverse Roland Avenue. On April 3, the board met and voted 7-4, against Connors’ recommendations, to ask the city’s Department of Transportation to delay removing the curbside track until they had those in place.
Connors conveyed a different message in an April 6 email sent to since-resigned DOT director Michelle Pourciau, Deputy Director Theo Ngongang, 6th District representative and Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton and then-Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young. In the email, sent several days after Pugh’s announcement and later obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl, Connors wrote to say the board wanted alternate routes set up “concurrently with” the bike lane’s removal.
Those two words may not sound like much, but their inclusion by Connors effectively changed the board’s message. By his characterization, the board was OK with removing the lanes, so long as plans were in the works for safer alternate routes.
RPCL board member Ann-Barron Carneal, who backed the motion to delay removal, confirmed “concurrently with” was never part of the vote: “The motion asked for safe routes to be delineated prior to the taking out of the track and never included the option of concurrently with.”
Multiple other board members also confirmed to Baltimore Fishbowl that their motion was to delay removal until other routes were in place–not “concurrently with” removal.
After receiving a different message from Connors, it appears agencies didn’t look back. Despite protests from children and their parents who used the lane–including a phone-calling campaign to Middleton and Young–DOT proceeded with removing the cycle track over the last couple weeks by repainting road lines to place bikes back alongside traffic and cars back along the curb.
Peter Armitage, a Roland Park resident who advocated to keep the cycle track in place and supported the road diet idea, said he “was very disappointed to see that the city did not take into account the vote of the Roland Park Civic League who had voted 7-4 to ask for a delay.”
As for Connors’ email that changed the wording of the board’s motion to city officials? “If the civic league vote was not communicated properly to city leadership, that’s a huge breach of trust,” said Armitage, who’s also a Roland Park Civic League member.
Connors did not respond to questions about whether he misinformed city officials.
He did write in an email response on Saturday, “As a community volunteer and long standing homeowner in Baltimore, I care deeply about the safety of our communities.”
Connors pointed to a previous determination by a city-hired engineering consultant that he said “deemed the cycle track to not meet current guidelines and resulted in a significant increase in accidents with personal injury and property damage and that it cannot remain.” According to other emails obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl via a Maryland Public Information Act request, that same consultant, Whitman Requardt Associates, also endorsed trying out a road diet.
“As you are a responsible member of the media,” Connors continued, “it is my hope you will convey this information to your readership. Safety has always been at the forefront of every discussion I have had on the topic yet that is not always what is highlighted.”
Connors did not respond to a follow-up email with questions about misrepresenting his neighborhood association board’s vote.
The design of the cycle track–which is used by commuters and cyclists beyond the boundaries of Roland Park–has been hotly contested. Baltimore has now spent millions to install and tweak the project, and the recent removal and repainting added at least another $140,000 to that total, according to local cycling advocacy nonprofit Bikemore.
Beyond the price tag, the issue has pitted neighbors, cyclists, pedestrians and others against each other. In spring 2017, as the city was considering removal of another controversial bike lane in Canton, RPCL members voted to ask DOT to take out the protected track running along Roland Avenue, from Cold Spring Lane up to Northern Parkway, and “restore curb side parking immediately and completely.”
The group noted at the time that the cramped setup for the lane, which shields cyclists from traffic while making drivers park closer to moving cars, had prompted altercations between cyclists and drivers—not to mention five totaled parked cars, a “very large number of side mirrors damaged” and other accidents in which vehicles were sideswiped, all within an 18-month period.
After hearing neighborhood discord over the bike lanes, last year DOT rolled out a list of five options for redesigning it and solicited community input on the options. DOT even said it had a “preferred” plan: a road diet that would eliminate one lane of traffic, expand the existing parking lane and retain the curbside protected bike lane, the least expensive choice.
Despite support from nearly two-thirds of respondents for that plan, the department ignored results from its own public comment survey and instead hired a consultant to keep exploring. DOT also bowed to pressure from opponents at the time, restoring curbside parking along a busy commercial stretch of the road near Eddie’s, Starbuck’s and other businesses.
This spring, DOT signaled it was ready to try out the road diet plan. From April 17 to May 12, the plan was to study the results of reducing lanes from two to one, collecting community feedback and assessing its success.
But some residents pushed back. In emails obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl, neighbors and parents wrote to DOT officials, Middleton and other council members to oppose the road diet, arguing it’d be a major inconvenience in the mornings and afternoons when parents drop their kids off or pick them up at schools lining the thoroughfare.
“The prospect of this is truly mind blowing,” wrote developer and parent Toby Bozzuto, worried about prolonged school pickup times.
“There is no need to pilot a lane reduction that clearly will cause significant and potentially dangerous hardships,” wrote parent Deborah Lane.
Not all of the feedback was negative. “Unlike our more rabid neighbors, we, along with many other thankful cyclists, use the current cycle track regularly and strongly believe that reducing vehicle traffic to one lane each way will slow traffic,” wrote neighbors Robert and Martha Armenti.
Emails indicate Middleton had already sided with residents against the road diet plan—”It’s getting bad. I have not encountered one person for this road diet,” she wrote to Pourciau and Ngongang on March 25—in the days before Pugh made her announcement. The road diet pilot meeting was immediately cancelled after Pugh announced the track’s removal.
Exactly one month after Pugh delivered her removal announcement, as crews were set to begin removing the painted lanes running along Roland Avenue, parents and students rallied for a “bike-in” demonstration showing support among neighbors for the cycling infrastructure.
Middleton did not respond to a request for comment that week as crews began the repainting. DOT said in a statement that it was adhering to Pugh’s order from March 29, adding, “The City is committed to adding bicycle infrastructure that works for all.”
Carneal, of the RPCL board, said while she and others were not aware Connors had emailed officials with misinformation about the board’s vote, they’re now hoping to move on.
“This issue is so contentious that I want to put our energies in the right place, given that it seems like the work’s pretty much done for taking it out,” she said. “So I’m kind of at the point now where let’s just move on and make something positive of this.”
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