City Discriminatorily Applying Fire-Clearance Rule to Bike Lanes, Cycling Advocates Say

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A map of Baltimore’s street network analyzed for compliance with fire code standards. Purple streets would need parking removed on both sides to comply; red streets would need parking removed on one side. Map via Bikemore.

City officials have been arbitrarily applying international fire code standards to avoid installing bike lanes while proceeding with construction on streets that violate the same rules, say leaders of the cycling nonprofit Bikemore.

At issue are international fire code rules requiring 20 feet of clearance for fire engines, and 26 feet of clearance for ladders and other equipment. Residents in Canton cited the 20-foot rule to try to block the implementation of a bike lane along Potomac Street in the spring of 2017. The city at first moved to modify the design of the lane; when Bikemore protested the new plan, the mayor’s office said it would just tear out the lane altogether.

Bikemore sued successfully to stop that from happening. Both parties settled and the city agreed to commit to a plan to install the bike lane.

But two weeks later, officials told Bikemore all bike-lane installation projects would be put on hold pending a fire code review of all streets where lanes were proposed, according to a blog post from the group published yesterday.

Group leaders said they met with City Transportation Director Michelle Pourciau in November and were told construction work had been halted on installation of the Downtown Bike Network, “even on streets where the re-striping would not affect clear width.” Meanwhile, roadwork had proceeded for streets not awaiting biking infrastructure, even if they weren’t wide enough to comply with fire code standards.

Data obtained yesterday by Bikemore in a public information act request determined that as of early November, when the request was submitted, 40 of 62 streets with completed road work since July 2017 failed the fire code standard requiring 20 feet of clearance for fire apparatus. Another 12 of 33 streets under construction failed the standard, and 24 of 55 streets awaiting construction failed the standard.

A map (shown above) illustrates that most of Baltimore’s streets would either need to have parking removed on one or both sides to comply with that standard.

“Our issue was basically, why the streets or bike lanes? Those were of course allowed to move forward, but for some reason for streets with bike lanes, construction was halted,” said Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish in an interview.

Bikemore had hoped the June settlement would result in a process for the Department of Transportation and Baltimore City Fire Department to work together on bike-lane installations, Cornish said.

“We wanted this to be a one-time solution, with the goal of the city actually developing a policy so that the fire department works with the department of transportation to make sure safety of streets is not compromised, and vice-versa, to meet fire access codes.”

Bikemore requested a meeting with Pourciau in October after finding many of the city’s ongoing construction projects would violate fire code standards. The department denied their request at first, then agreed to a meeting in late November – only after paving season had finished, group leaders maintain.

Responding to Bikemore’s map and blog post published Thursday, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said, “DOT is taking the winter to evaluate all of our projects in regard to compliance with all applicable standards.”

Jed Weeks, Bikemore’s policy director, said other cities like San Francisco and Boston have dealt with fire-access clearance issues, too. Officials in both locales resolved to review bike-lane installations case-by-case, without holding “a hard-and-true foot width” clearance, he said. Fire departments in both cities also agreed to replace their fleets with smaller, more adaptable vehicles with doors that open above parked cars and other features, reducing the necessary clearance.

Cycling advocates have drawn up Complete Streets legislation with Councilman Ryan Dorsey. The bill, which would require the Department of Transportation to provide more bike lanes, sidewalks and public transit options in an equitable manner for the city, is currently in the Land Use and Transportation Committee.

“We are all for fire safety, but we are also for the safety of every road user using the street, and these are not exclusive issues,” Cornish said. “Our city just seems either unwilling to do that, or lacks the resources and talent to accomplish that.”

Ethan McLeod
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  1. Education for our disenfranchised is more important than funding hipster bike lanes. As soon as these entitled folks start breeding, off to the county they will go.

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