DC-based freelance writer Andrew Zaleski has written for Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, Backchannel, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The Guardian, and many other publications.
What happens when city residents go to war against cycling infrastructure?
At first, cycling advocates in Baltimore were ecstatic. After many years of lagging well behind other towns, in recent months the Maryland city made big strides to grow its bicycle infrastructure: It debuted a bike share program, a trio of protected cycle tracks, and a larger network of 122 miles of bike lanes by the end of 2016.
Then things got ugly. Residents living near the cycle tracks pushed back, raising questions over lost parking spaces and whether driving lanes were being narrowed at the expense of cars. This spring, opposition quickly grew around a track being constructed on a half-mile, eight-block stretch of Potomac Street, a narrow residential street in Canton, a waterfront neighborhood of tidy renovated rowhouses. The city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh, announced that the bike lane would be ripped out, triggering a two-month legal battle.
That struggle ended in June with what appears to be a first in bike-infrastructure advocacy lore: A judge issued a restraining order to halt the demolition of the protected bike lane.
“Our main focus was to make sure a two-way, protected bike lane was retained and whatever solution the city came up with didn’t sacrifice safe cycling infrastructure for parking,” says Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, the local advocacy group that sued Baltimore city in June to prevent the demolition.
The restraining order is part of an emotional summer for the city’s cycling community. (This month, a well-known rider and bike shop worker was killed after being rear-ended by a car.) But there’s a larger question that goes beyond the specific Baltimore case and addresses the anxieties that cycling advocates in several cities across the U.S. have been facing recently as more cities ramp up bike lanes, often over the objections of drivers and residents: Once you build them, can you keep them?
Cities elsewhere in the U.S. have experienced similar battles. In Pittsburgh, Mayor Bill Peduto is facing a “bikelash” from aggrieved motorists and business owners who are unhappy with the city’s bike-lane building boom. Protected bike lanes in New York City were menaced by a group of residents that sued the city to remove the Prospect Park West lanes; last September, plaintiffs dropped their lawsuit. Other protected lanes have been removed in Northwest Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and Boise, Idaho. But in each of those cases, the lanes were temporary pilot projects to judge their efficacy. Even in Boulder, Colorado, where a protected bike lane was removed after only 11 weeks, the lane was originally only planned as a one-year pilot.
Protected bike lanes that are carved out of existing streets—often set off from traffic by flexposts, parking lanes, or other barriers—can find themselves under fire because they’re perceived to be taking up space at the expense of cars, or they make it more dangerous for cars and other vehicles to navigate already-narrow roads. A common criticism of protected bike lanes that hug curbs is that parking either has to be reduced or removed entirely to accommodate a lane. Drivers in Chicago complained enough about two protected bike lanes on Independence Boulevard and Marshall Boulevard that eventually both the lanes were downgraded to buffered bike lanes instead of ones situated next to curbs and set off by flexposts.
“The design of the lanes was fine. It was an issue where people were kind of broadsided by it,” says John Greenfield, editor of Streetsblog Chicago and transportation columnist for the Chicago Reader. “People were getting ticketed for parking in the wrong spaces and people didn’t like parking next to moving traffic on busy roads.”
In Canton, residents had voiced concerns in an online petition about the loss of parking spaces. But they also introduced a novel angle, arguing that further narrowing of Potomac Street—reducing it from two traffic lanes to one—would run afoul of the International Fire Code, which mandates 20 feet of unobstructed street width to make room for full-size firetrucks.
One vocal group, Canton Neighbors for a Better Potomac Street Bike Lane, says that while it’s in favor of a bike lane, it would prefer a different design, one that doesn’t accommodate a cycle track. “By removing a lane of parking, you have residents who have to cross two lanes of traffic—a travel lane and a bike lane—to get to their homes,” says group spokesperson Steve Bloom. “Folks are not opposed to the bike lane at all. But the cycle track design that Bikemore has advocated for is indicated for a high-stress, high-speed street for traffic traveling greater than 35 miles per hour. … That doesn’t characterize Potomac Street.”
In response to the criticism, Mayor Pugh first announced that the new cycle track on Potomac would be redesigned as a buffered bike lane; then she said the city would tear out the nearly-completed cycle track entirely, undoing about $100,000 of expenses in a multi-year, $775,000 phased project that would also include stormwater management improvements a year or two after the cycle track was fully installed. That’s when Bikemore sued the city. On June 9, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the demolition slated for June 12, pending a hearing.
On June 27, the day before the hearing, the legal saga came to a close. Bikemore and the city entered a settlement agreement, preserving the cycle track currently on Potomac Street as a modified street plan is formulated by the city and presented to the neighborhood for public comment before any final construction begins.
The exact terms of the settlement are confidential. In a statement, Mayor Pugh said she is “anxious to have further discussions with the residents of Potomac Street to ensure their input is considered as we move forward,” and that’ll be the first step after the city finalizes a modified bike lane plan for Potomac Street. In August, a public comment period for local residents will last two weeks, and then final construction of a permanent, protected bike lane on Potomac Street will commence.
“What we have agreed on with the city is that the bike lane as it is will not at any time be demolished, which is one of the main things we were fighting by filing the suit,” says Mark Edelson, a Canton resident and attorney who represented Bikemore in court. “We felt that if it were demolished, it would be regressive for the city.”
It also would have been extraordinary. “The Potomac Street case would have been unique,” says Michael Andersen, staff writer for the nonprofit cycling advocacy group PeopleForBikes. “The mayor’s attempted ‘compromise’ plan would have both re-allocated road space to cars and removed the physical protection.”
That judgment certainly hasn’t ended the citywide argument over bike lanes, as this dueling exchange of op-eds in the Baltimore Sun, from the driver and the cyclist perspectives, demonstrates. Threats to demolish existing lanes are ongoing: In the city’s affluent northern enclave of Roland Park, where another cycle track has bitterly divided residents, the Roland Park Civic League is now trying to convince city officials to remove it and restore curb-side parking.
Tensions remain high on Potomac Street, too, despite the settlement. Earlier this month, cyclists reported that several flexposts along the track had been ripped out, presumably by residents. Bikemore’s Cornish, meanwhile, counsels patience. “In the short term,” she says, “as we’re trying to change behavior, that might mean some people aren’t 100 percent satisfied with the outcome.”