Bike Party
A Baltimore Bike Party event in 2014.

A great deal of careful planning has gone into equipping Baltimore City with a network of safe lanes for cyclists. Now, officials are reportedly having second thoughts.

Anthony McCarthy, the spokesman for Mayor Catherine Pugh, said yesterday that the city is reviewing all of its bike lanes, as well as angled parking, to see if they comply with international fire code standards that require 20 feet of clearance for emergency vehicles. He told the Sun that officials haven’t committed to any major changes to the bike network – save for in one location in Canton.

The mayor’s office sent out a letter last night to residents of Potomac Street, where the city had planned to reconfigure a mostly installed two-way bike lane by restoring curbside parking from Eastern Avenue to Fait Avenue, and narrowing another stretch from Fait Avenue to Boston Street while keeping the lanes along the curb. The city has now scrapped those plans, according to the letter signed by James T. Smith, the city’s chief of strategic alliances:

After further discussion, we have determined that the appropriate approach to ensuring that Potomac Street has both safe access for emergency  vehicles and safe bicycle transportation is to restart the infrastructure design process on Potomac Street. This will ensure that residents, advocates, and emergency management professionals have an opportunity for input on the Potomac Street bike lane design.

The new plan, Smith wrote, is to remove the nearly finished bike lane entirely, draw up new concepts, get comment and approval from city agencies and the fire department and hold a public meeting to get input from cyclists and other community members.

Under the old plan, the city would have created an eight-foot-wide lane with a 1.5-foot buffer between cyclists and traffic for the first stretch of Potomac Street, and a seven-foot-wide lane with a foot of buffer space between cyclists and traffic. Residents complained that that plan would have impeded emergency vehicles.

Liz Cornish, executive director of local cycling advocacy group Bikemore, said the city’s decision to scrap the plan and start anew “sets a dangerous precedent” in cases where residents complain about a change in the right of way when a bike lane coming in. It also unnecessarily pits two issues — emergency access and having safe streets for cyclists — against each other, she said.

“What this indicates is that they were unhappy with the design that was 75 percent installed,” she said. “Their position is that safe emergency access is a priority, and that that has to be considered above all other considerations. We actually don’t see those things as competitive against one another.”

Bikemore had already pushed back against the since-scrapped plan for several reasons. For one, the group said it didn’t align with national best practices for bike lanes, which set a minimum width of 12 feet and a three-foot buffer between bikes and traffic. The narrower buffers and lane widths would have jeopardized cyclists’ safety by putting them closer to oncoming traffic, the group said.

Additionally, the changes would be costly, and the city would need to pay back local and federal grants it used to install the bike lane in the first place, Bikemore said.

At a press conference yesterday, Mayor Pugh defended the reconfiguration plans, telling attendees she authorized the move based on expert opinions from the fire department. All lanes have “got to get up to code,” she said as she left the podium.

McCarthy hasn’t responded to a message requesting comment, and didn’t answer his phone Thursday morning.

In a response published online, Bikemore said it “look[s] forward to holding the mayor accountable to this claim,” given the significant amount of angled parking around the city that also violates that 20-foot barrier standard, and the planned development projects that also may not provide adequate room for emergency vehicles as currently designed.

The city’s decision to restart the Potomac Street bike lane project means other components, such as installation of planters and trees along the roadway, are now in question. The project was funded through a federal transportation grant that could disappear if a better plan doesn’t come together.

The Department of Transportation plans to tear out the “flex posts” lining the bike lane first. Canton drivers will be allowed to park curbside as soon as the lanes have been removed.

This story has been updated.

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...