Arbitrary and Capricious: City Only Applying Fire Clearance Rule to Bike Projects

Nearly 10 months ago, rumbling began over the proposed width of the car travel lane in the redesign of Potomac Street that included a protected bike lane. Neighbors cited a portion of the Baltimore City adopted International Fire Code, which states that Fire Apparatus Access Roads must maintain 20 feet of clear width, and that Aerial Fire Apparatus Access Roads must maintain 26 feet of clear width. 

Our existing street network analyzed for clear width. Purple streets would need parking removed on both sides of the street to be compliant. Red streets would need parking removed on one side of the street to be compliant.

Our existing street network analyzed for clear width. Purple streets would need parking removed on both sides of the street to be compliant. Red streets would need parking removed on one side of the street to be compliant.

We've written about that battle extensively. It received national attention. We filed suit against the city since we felt this fire code ruling was being applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner to one street. We were granted a temporary restraining order to halt removal of the bike lane while we negotiated a solution with the city that worked for all parties.

In those negotiations, we were told by the Mayor's Office and the Baltimore City Department of Transportation (DOT) that, at the time, Potomac Street was the only project under consideration for re-design or re-evaluation, and that a clear protocol for Baltimore City Fire Department review and approval of city street redesign would apply going forward. 

Weeks later, in a Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Commission meeting, we learned from now departed Bike Share Coordinator Jay Decker that all bicycle construction projects were on hold citywide pending review of the "entire bike plan."

Along with that news, we also knew of many ongoing resurfacing projects throughout the city that didn't involved bicycle projects, and that many of these projects failed to meet the Baltimore City adopted IFC clearance standards. So we decided to investigate.

On September 29, we requested a list of resurfacing and reconstruction projects occurring in Baltimore City. On October 11, DOT provided us with their Orange Code list for 2017, which details all resurfacing and reconstruction projects planned, ongoing, or completed for the year.

That very day, we evaluated all street resurfacing and reconstruction underway or planned for July 2017 or later, giving a few months of leeway after the Potomac Street issue was raised, and we were told, addressed.

Using GIS centerline data for city streets, we determined the streets highlighted above failed a 20 foot clearance if the street contained parking. In total, at the time of our evaluation:

  • 40 of 62 streets completed since July 2017 failed clearance.
  • 12 of 33 streets currently under construction failed clearance
  • 24 of 55 streets to be completed failed clearance.

On October 11, we immediately reported this information to the new Director of DOT, Michelle Pourciau. We requested an urgent meeting to discuss the inconsistency of moving forward with what appeared to be every resurfacing and reconstruction project in the city except for those with bike lanes.

We were not given a list of available meeting times until November 6, and the available times were at the end of November. Knowing this would allow all seasonal paving to be completed before our meeting occurred, we immediately filed a Public Information Act request with DOT and Baltimore City Fire Department. 

In lieu of a timely meeting with DOT, our goal with this request was to get clarity on the fire clearance policy that the Mayor's Office and Baltimore City Department of Transportation said was developed in response to the Potomac Street fight, and better understand why exceptions were granted and signed for resurfacing and reconstruction of some non-compliant streets but not others. Maryland state law requires receipt of disclosable records within 30 days.

Immediately after submission of the PIA request, we received an email granting us a meeting with Director Pourciau on November 16. At that meeting, we had not yet received the results of our Public Information Act request, and were told that the City Solicitor's office had advised against disclosing any information that may be a part of the official PIA request. Regardless, we learned the following:

  • All construction work had been stopped on the Downtown Bike Network, even on streets where the re-striping would not affect clear width.
  • No construction work had been stopped on resurfacing of streets without bicycle infrastructure. DOT claimed that "resurfacing of existing conditions" was not a part of the new fire clearance policy.
  • No construction work had been stopped on reconstruction of streets without bicycle infrastructure, even ones like Preston Gardens and Saint Paul Street, which are total reconstructions that provide a new clear width identical to Potomac Street, but are adjacent to skyscrapers instead of two story row homes.

We were told at this meeting that over the winter, DOT would evaluate these projects and their road width policies and fire clearance access rules. This seemed to imply that these things had not already been done, which was a departure from our discussion around Potomac Street. We asked why bike lanes couldn't also continue non-conforming construction like other projects, and were given no answer.

Today, we received the response to our PIA request, 60 days after the request and 30 days after the legal deadline for disclosure of records. The paving season is completed, the non-compliant projects we questioned were installed.

The response to our PIA request verifies what we suspected.

  • Since the Potomac Street debacle, DOT and Baltimore City Fire Department have created no tool to evaluate streets for compliance with Baltimore City adopted fire code.
  • No fire apparatus access road classification map exists.
  • No single list of project evaluations exists, and no promised written exemptions are available.
  • And, the only record of an evaluation of a street was a single bike lane striping.

Both Chief Niles Ford's affidavit and the City Solicitor's argument in our Potomac Street suit clearly state that a lack of 20 foot clearance is a life safety issue and severely hampers fire access operations. If this sworn testimony is true, the city is grossly negligent in not using resurfacing as an opportunity to improve clear width to fire code standards, particularly when we experienced a 5-year high in fatal fires in 2017. If we accept that the testimony was hyperbolic to prove a point, we must acknowledge that it was simply a vendetta against a bicycle lane. Neither of these possibilities is acceptable.

We are encouraged that DOT has committed to developing a standard for road clearance over the winter, and we hope it will result in uniform application of law.

And, since other existing major reconstruction projects have continued, we expect the Downtown Bicycle Network to be installed in the first week of the spring paving season without fire clearance based redesign. 

If this doesn't happen? Well, we're familiar with the terms arbitrary and capricious.