Mythbusting: Roland Avenue Cycletrack

Two children bike in a cycletrack in Seattle. Soon children will be able to bike in a protected bike lane along Roland Avenue here in Baltimore. Photo Credit: Adam Coppola Photography

Two children bike in a cycletrack in Seattle. Soon children will be able to bike in a protected bike lane along Roland Avenue here in Baltimore. Photo Credit: Adam Coppola Photography

In case you missed it, according to at least one news source, there is a civil war going on in Roland Park. What is causing the divide is the inclusion of a parking protected bike lane (or cycletrack) on the recent road resurfacing project. While the project has the support of the Roland Park Civic League, Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, and the Roland Park Elementary and Middle School Principal, parents and faculty there is a vocal opposition comprised of Roland Park residents and business owners that want to delay the installation. 

Today Baltimore City of Department of Transportation issued a very reasoned response to concerns about the Roland Avenue Cycletrack. They state definitively that construction will go on as planned. We thank them for sticking to the City’s promise to design more complete streets that accommodate all modes. You can read the full letter from Director Johnson to Roland Park Stakeholders here. 

So knowing that the the cycletrack will move forward, we thought it still important as advocates to take time and dispel some myths both about this specific project and cycletracks in general. As more of the Bicycle Master Plan gets implemented, we will undoubtedly be forced to both come to the defense of DOT’s planned improvements, while maintaining a critical eye in hopes of getting the safest facilities possible for all road users. 

At the heart of the concerns of residents and business owners who oppose the project on Roland Avenue are two issues: 1.) a general feeling that they were not adequately informed of the project’s design and scope and 2.) that the cycletrack will do nothing to improve safety along Roland Avenue, and may in fact make it less safe by placing those exiting parked vehicles closer to traffic. 

Residents’ concerns came to a head at a recent Roland Park Civic League where the mood could be described as tense. There was yelling. There was cursing. There was a lot of throwing about flagrant lies both about the project and the process. All because of a change in the roadway design. 

We felt it was important that we lay out the facts of both this project and the cycletrack’s design to help those confused about the project’s goals gain some clarity. News reports have done little to clarify the project for readers, and in our opinion have only served to further sensationalize the project’s divisiveness. In the end you have neighbors on both sides deeply concerned about the safety of the major roadway in their neighborhood--and that’s a good thing. Neighbors should care about the safety of people where they live. But it’s become clear that the cycletrack has in some ways become a proxy for deeply entrenched feelings about public space--who gets priority, who’s entitled to use it, and what does the future of transportation planning look like in Baltimore City. 

Myth # 1

Baltimore City Department of Transportation did not properly notify residents and business owners of the new roadway design. 

The proposed cycle track has been part of the Roland Park Master Plan for five years. The scheduled resurfacing project provided an opportunity for the DOT to implement some requested improvements from the Master Plan. The first meeting to review the feasibility of including a cycletrack as part of the resurfacing project happened on September 9th, 2014. After it was determined that it was in fact feasible, DOT met with members of the Roland Park Civic League again on December 11, 2014 to review preliminary designs. These dates are important because they happened before Tom Palermo’s tragic death on December 27th, 2014. Palermo was killed while traveling in the unprotected bike lane just north of the proposed project by a drunk driver. These facts show that the cycletrack was not a reaction to the public outcry that followed Palermo’s death, but something that had been requested by the community long before, and given the timing of the resurfacing project had finally come to fruition. 

In January, the proposed plans were presented at a meeting of the Roland Park Civic League, where it was met with support. A DOT community meeting was then scheduled for April 29th, 2015 to present the full design. Due to the curfew imposed that week as a result of the Uprising, the meeting was rescheduled for June 11th, 2015. In between, the plan was presented at the annual Roland Park Civic League meeting on May 21st, 2015 with over 50 attendees. Again the project was met with support. 

Bikemore attended the June 11th DOT community meeting. It was here that of the 30 or so folks in attendance, a few were hearing of the project for the first time and were displeased with the design. Roland Park Civic League President Chris McSherry cited the multiple notices of the project in the Roland Park Civic League newsletter, that each resident of Roland Park receives. 

DOT’s follow up with the community was to then hold six additional meetings with stakeholders both opposed to and in support of the project. DOT met with business owners, school officials, and community groups. This also doesn’t account for the multiple written correspondence between DOT and stakeholders that further sought to clarify the project. 

While we can be critical of the DOT’s past track record of external communications on projects across this city, this particular project--the Roland Avenue Resurfacing and the subsequent upgrade in facilities to include a protected bike lane seems to have received an abundance of communication efforts. Whether or not one chooses to attend neighborhood meetings or read neighborhood communications is ultimately a choice, but if DOT cannot reasonably expect the official neighborhood group to effectively communicate the desires of the community, what other avenues should they pursue? At what expense? As a city agency they are required by the City’s adopted complete streets policy to assess all new road projects for the inclusion of multiple modes. They then assess the feasibility and community support to determine whether or not to move forward with a project. Those steps were taken. And one’s choice to remain ignorant to the details of a road project shouldn’t be used as the basis to call the communication inadequate. That responsibility lies with the neighborhood to assess how effective and inclusive their neighborhood group is, and if improvements can be made to ensure more voices are at the table, then steps should be made to work toward that. 

But in the end, while community input should be carefully considered, transportation projects that have the direct aim of improving safety of all road users on a public roadway should not be allowed to be derailed simply by public opposition of residents. The fact remains that this facility as designed is not an aberration, but actually quite common across the United States. And it has been reviewed by engineers at the local and state level that are required to certify the safety and effectiveness of proposed designs. The cynicism that was present at the meeting, that asserted that professional traffic engineers would bring something that would in fact make the road less safe is absurd and harmful. We have to move toward designs that do better at considering all users, and now that the DOT is beginning to do that more frequently, we can’t undercut that progress with unfounded fears. 

Myth # 2

The addition of a protected bike lane will do nothing to improve road safety or calm traffic. It will in fact make it a more dangerous road for pedestrians, residents utilizing public on street parking in front of their homes, patrons and delivery trucks accessing business along Roland Avenue, and emergency vehicles. Oh, and yes, even bicyclists. 

Because Roland Avenue is not the exact same width throughout the length of the project, the overall width of the cycletrack varies. At its narrowest the bike lane is 4 feet and the buffer between the parking lane is 2ft. It is true that this is below NACTO minimum desired width for one-way protected cycle tracks of 5 feet for the bicycle travel lane and a 3 foot buffer between parking lanes--and was the part of the project Bikemore criticized early in the design.  

The parking lane on the outside is 7 feet. Making the combined width of the parking lane and buffer 9 feet at it’s narrowest and 10 feet at its widest--still below the NACTO recommended guidelines of a combined 11 feet. So while this makes the design imperfect, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is designed to fail. Facilities of similar width were determined to be safe and viable in other communities where road width didn’t allow for NACTO minimum widths. And when you understand the politics of the neighborhood the design actually makes a lot of sense. The average daily traffic (ADT) and average vehicle speed present in the roadway demand a protected bicycle facility--meaning that the existing unprotected bike lane was inadequate. So when faced with a width issue there are a few alternatives to the proposed design all of which we believe would have faced too much cost and potential for community opposition to lead to installation: 

Widen the road: This alternative would be incredibly costly, and nullify any dollars saved by addressing this facility upgrade as part of a resurfacing project, and honestly put it fiscally out of reach. Additionally it would encroach on people’s private property. Something that I think we can safely assume would be off the table for garnering Roland Park resident support. 

Place the bike lane along the center median: See the costly argument above, but also you would have to contend with people who see the green grassy medians as part of the Olmsted vision and would not allow it to be modified (even though Olmstead’s vision most certainly included bicycle paths and not lines of parked cars). Not to mention the lengthy disruption caused by construction to the neighborhood. So while long term, Bikemore would support designs like this--it doesn’t seem feasible at this stage given available funding and the neighborhood’s willingness to endure even more construction. 

Remove street parking: One of the biggest contentions of the opposition to the cycletrack is that somehow the free public parking that fronts their property adds value. They are opposed to it being moved 6-8 feet from the curb as in the current design, and thus would most likely oppose its elimination. People must remember only 15 spaces are being removed along the project, and most of the on street parking is preserved at the request of residents. 

Eliminate one travel lane in each direction: While a road diet of this kind would certainly calm traffic, reduce traffic noise, and improve the safety of vulnerable users, that given current vehicle numbers traveling through on a daily basis, DOT did not see this solution as feasible. While idyllic, it doesn’t account for all the ways the road is used. 

The important thing to remember is that the installation of this design at this time, does not mean that the facility couldn’t be improved at a later date. As bike ridership increases, local money allocated for projects, and our overall competitiveness for state and local dollars will increase--leading for more options becoming fiscally viable in the future. 

We also see attitudes shifting. It was noticeable that the people in the room most enthusiastic about the project were families with school aged children, and the ones opposed were elderly residents with children no longer in the home. As communities’ desires shift, so does the political will present to put forward designs that go further to create transportation equity among all modes. 

Perhaps the most explosive part of the Roland Park Civic League meeting was when a mother leapt from her seat holding a sign depicting the roadway conditions in front of her home. Her concern was how safe would she be while loading and unloading her children while parked on the street.  This idea that the design pushed those exiting parked vehicles further into traffic and in harm's way is complicated. Yes, on street parking is no longer “protected” by the bicycle lane that was previously present on the outside of the parked cars. The bike lane as it was designed saw only light use--which is typical of unprotected lanes adjacent to traffic, so it’s presence really did create a safe buffer from which to exit the vehicle. So while parking along Roland Avenue will be different, it has not degraded to a standard of safety that warrants hysteria like the woman in the meeting exhibited. Like most on street parking in Baltimore City, you’ll have to look before exiting your vehicle and even maybe wait for cars to pass to exit safely. We believe it is always best to load and unload your children and elderly passengers on the side of the vehicle away from traffic. And the buffer between the parking lane and the bike lane will give plenty of room to leave a door open so you can use both hands to guide a car seat or an elderly passenger into the car. Additionally many properties that front Roland Avenue have alley access and parking pads available on their property. Many other residents report preferring to park one block away on the side street to avoid the moving traffic on Roland Avenue. While we do believe that the added facilities such as the cycle track, ADA and pedestrian accommodations at intersections, and lane narrowing will calm traffic to an extent, the reality remains this is a four lane road. And a side street or rear alley will provide a much calmer place to load and unload a vehicle of your most precious cargo. 

But we agree with residents who believe more can be done to calm traffic on Roland Avenue, including enforcement of posted speed limits and adjustments in traffic signal timing. And we will support and advocate for any resident who wants to see continued efforts to calm traffic along Roland Avenue. 

We know that protected bike lanes increase bike ridership. We know that increasing bike ridership is the number one way to improve the safety of people on bikes. We also know that in this particular project, given the enthusiasm from parents at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School (that has over 1200 students enrolled) that families are now more receptive to the idea of walking or biking with their children to school that just one generation before them. This means less cars in the drop off/pick up lane, less congestion on Roland Avenue during peak travel times, and happier, healthier families and kids. 

Myth #3

I’m an avid cyclists, and I will not use the cycletrack because it will mean biking slowly behind children/grandmas/families using those trailer thingys) therefore I oppose it. 

It’s true, for many cycling teams and amateur athletes alike, Roland Avenue provides excellent access out of the city and onto many roads that are perfect for training rides. But we have good news. You don’t have to use it. And before everyone whips out their Maryland law book--we know the law states that when a bicycle facility is present you have to use it, except in cases where it doesn’t make sense--like left hand turns. But we worked with DOT to ensure that protected facilities are classified differently. Protected bike lanes--meaning any bike lane with a permanent barrier are classified as bike paths. And therefore not subject to the same level of enforcement as a bike lane located in the roadway. Is this legal sleight of hand? Perhaps. But until Maryland takes meaningful steps to update it’s road laws to better accommodate people on bikes, we know the existing law is punitive. People on bikes should be able to use their judgement and ride where they will be most safe. As long as bicycles are classified as vehicles, on city streets--people on bikes should have the right to use the full lane. So if that is where you prefer to ride, you’re welcome to. Our number one goal as a bike advocacy organization is to increase bike ridership--not because we believe everyone should ride bikes (although we would love it if everyone at least tried) but because even a small shift in the percentage of people riding bikes to their everyday destinations has a tremendous positive effect. 

Last month, when the Pope visited D.C. many offices encouraged employees to stay home or telecommute. During peak times on the two key days of the Pope’s visit a 2 percent reduction in volume led to a 27 percent reduction in traffic congestion. Currently in Baltimore, bike ridership is at .7 percent of the overall mode share. So when we talk about getting more people on bikes, or building facilities that have proven time and time again to increase ridership, we aren’t declaring a war on cars. We aren’t suggesting that families that have complex transportation needs or physical limitations that preclude them from riding a bicycle for their everyday trips are inferior. As bike advocates we are trying to nudge the needle a little bit. Because that little bit can have significant impact on things that matter like getting to work on time, reducing chronic disease, improving air quality, and a increasing a family’s bottom line. Things that impact a person's quality of life. 

A year from now, there will be close to six miles of additional protected lanes constructed in this city. So while Roland Avenue may be the first, it will certainly not be the last. We are done allowing our funded projects to be delayed, we are done falling behind nearly every city in America that has chosen to start designing it’s public roads with more of the public good in mind. We are done with people peddling lies about what bicycling is or isn’t, or sensationalizing the struggle to get these sensible, tested facilities built. We are advocating for safer streets for all users, which is why we support the Roland Avenue Cycletrack.