#FightForBikes: Potomac Street Downgrade, Other Projects in Jeopardy

Today, the Mayor’s office made a decision to redesign the Potomac Street protected bike lane. Construction of the Downtown Bike Network has also been halted, and sections of the Maryland Avenue protected bike lane may be evaluated in addition to Potomac Street for potential significant re-engineering or removal.

The Potomac Street redesign is impractical. It does not meet National Association of City Transportation Officials or Federal Highway Administration standards for a high-quality, all-ages protected bicycle facility. The original design did.

Neighbors along the Potomac Street protected bike lane lobbied the Baltimore City Fire Department around a provision in the International Fire Code that states "fire apparatus access roads shall have an unobstructed width of not less than 20 feet."

Bikemore has been working behind the scenes over the past two weeks to encourage the city to make a different choice at this crossroads between street safety and fire access.

This is not a new issue. NACTO and other NACTO member cities have commissioned reports on this particular provision of International Fire Code and its applicability to old cities with street grids where almost no street meets the 20 foot clear requirement. As early as 1997, Oregon amended their state code to ensure that standards for the width of streets adopted by local governments superseded International Fire Code provisions.

 The 20 foot clear rule is unreasonable and incongruent with the goal of reducing pedestrian and bicycle injuries and increasing bicycle ridership.

Baltimore City is effectively stating the Fire Department needs 20 feet clear to safely fight fires, despite the fact many streets in Baltimore fail to meet this standard, including the streets one block east and west of Potomac Street, which have in places just 9 feet clear.

This was not made an issue when miles of reverse angle parking installation, containing thousands of parking spaces, created the same condition as Potomac Street throughout Southeast Baltimore. 

Despite the precedent this sets, NACTO guidance, and support for the original design from Canton Community Association and the elected delegation in Southeast, the Mayor’s office has chosen to redesign the facility.

NACTO assisted with this redesign, and has produced an alternative design that meets the “unreasonable constraints” provided to them by city officials. This design is not an all-ages, high quality bike facility. The original design was.

This standard also does not take into account the reality that the majority of fire department response calls are not for fires, but for traffic crashes and medical response to chronic illness like heart disease, asthma, and diabetes that building more "complete streets" infrastructure helps prevent. 

Interpreting this provision of International Fire Code in this way will prevent some of the low-stress bicycle facilities recently adopted in the Bike Master Plan addendum from being constructed in Baltimore City. It will threaten millions of dollars of already engineered right of way improvements, and an untold amount of economic development dollars if new building construction or roadway projects cannot proceed under this interpretation of code.

After consulting national street design experts, we are unaware of any city in North America that has halted construction, or removed protected bike lanes, in response to fire access concerns.

Once again, Baltimore City is prioritizing parking of cars over people, and wasting money redesigning bike infrastructure to be less safe—money that could be used to build facilities in other neighborhoods.

You can read the letter from the Mayor to residents on Potomac Street and view the new, inadequate design here

We urge the Mayor’s office and Baltimore City Department of Transportation to prioritize the safety of Baltimore City residents and create streets that are safe for all modes of travel, and have clear emergency access. 


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