Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Potomac bike lanes will stay

Just a day before the battle over the Potomac Street bike lanes in Canton would have had its second day in court after Bikemore initially winning an injunction against the removal of the protected lanes, Bikemore announced that it will settle the matter with the City. Late on Tuesday Bikemore's Liz Cornish posted this notice:
We have good news - the Potomac Street protected bike lane will not be removed! We will not be going to court tomorrow. Instead we have entered into a settlement agreement and will be sitting down this week with the City to assist in finalizing new plans for Potomac Street. We are confident this modified plan will preserve a high quality all ages protected two-way bike facility on Potomac Street, as well as safeguard public safety and accommodate emergency vehicles. (Bikemore)
Potomac Street Bikelanes in dispute and now saved
(photo: Philipsen)
Wednesday morning Bikemore celebrated the settlement in front of the courthouse at the battle monument on Calvert Street with about two dozen bike advocates and folks connected to the issue. The small celebration drew the attention of press and TV. Constructive collaboration usually goes further than adversarial trench war, especially with a new administration which just last week appointed a new Director of Transportation. Mayor Pugh had been quite outspoken about the fact that the installation as executed "was not properly vetted" (by the previous administration and her DOT department which had some design assist from Toole Design, a firm very experienced with bike facilities and complete street design, but apparently not consulted for the details of the disputed case.
Update: In a press conference later on Wednesday the Mayor released details of the settlement which include diagonal parking on one side of the street giving enough space for the bike lane and a decent drive lane to coexist. The impact on parking was not made available. The new design will be up for public comment in a two week comment period.

Liz Cornish, Executive Director of Bikemore considers the settlement "a win for making sure all are considered and not losing a bike facilty". Neither she nor pro bono attorney Mark Edelson wanted to discuss the details of the design compromise that will be established as part of the settlement before the settlement is signed. Edelson stated, however, that the basic principles of the solution have been agreed upon "otherwise we would be in court right now". From Cornish's online statement it is clear that the principles include that a two-lane protected bikeway will be maintained in both sections of Potomac Street and that their design complies with the standards of the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO).
Attorneys Edelson and Stichel speak to WBAL
in front of the Court House on Calvert Street
(photo: Philipsen)

Councilman Ryan Dorsey who has submitted Complete Streets legislation was unsure what he could say about the matter since "technically I am part of the City which is the defendant in the case". But then he agreed to be in agreement that the application of the 20' fire lane requirement on Potomac Street was "arbitrary and capricious" since it hadn't been applied in cases were diagonal parking arrangements had left only narrow lanes in favor of additional resident parking.

Councilman Zeke Cohen called the settlement "a major win for our communities", he expressed "major thanks to Bikemore and the two pro bono lawyers" and added "tearing down a bike lane would have been catastrophic and had put Baltimore on the path of being one of the worst places for bike accommodation. He said, "it is a lane used by many people" and that "we need to think of bikes as part of a multimodal framework. It is a part of equity and a more equitable city."

While the exact details that will emerge from whatever settlement are still elusive, the following observations can be made:

1. The last minute discovery that the fire code presumably requires 20' clear width on a street so that fire apparatus can be placed to combat fires in adjacent buildings is an arbitrary application in the case of Potomac Street, since there are dozens of streets in Baltimore that have 10' single lanes between parked cars that have for decades not caused any fire safety complaints

Potomac bike lanes (Photo: Bikemore)
2. A strict and blind 20' free width rule across the city would cause excessive harm to historic districts and the burgeoning attractive tight quarters of the city. It would mean elimination of hundreds of parking spaces in dozens of streets across Baltimore and preclude protected bike lanes in many instances shown in the bike masterplan and require changes to already installed bike lanes.

3. Fire codes have in recent years been adjusted to account for historic buildings, urban conditions and adaptive reuse of existing structures. In many cases compromises have been made on minimum stair width, riser heights, hallway width and the like since fire codes made for new construction would have rendered many older building unfit for re-use and rehabilitation.

4. Excessive fire code requirements for turning radius and lane width have been for years subject of compromises even in the layout of new subdivisions because they prevented the layout and dimensions  of more traditional developments favored by New Urbanists. Many jurisdictions have adjusted the National Model Code accordingly

5. Potomac Street is a somewhat problematic poster child for protected bike lanes. It is a low volume neighborhood Street with a relatively narrow section in the northern part of its run. In the future it would be prudent to install protected bike lanes in a more comprehensive approach that includes traffic calming, street greening, urban design and practicality of use for all participants.
Bicyclists celebrate with doughnuts and coffee
(Photo: Philipsen)

6. While bike accommodation is much cheaper than other traffic measures, if  done too cheaply and hastily and solely by striped bike lanes and flex posts it can present a challenge in the longer run challenge. Protected bike lanes in Europe are usually part of the sidewalk area and not part of the section between curbs or they are entirely outside of streets. Urban design considerations, landscaping, storm-drainage, snowplowing and street sweeping need to be included into the considerations to obtain a long-term sustainable solution.

7. Without well organized advocacy even the smallest bit of progress would be annihilated by NIMBYs.

As councilman Cohen pointed out, making a city more bike and pedestrian friendly is an important piece of making a city more equitable, healthier and having a higher quality of life. The increasing popularity of electric assist bikes similar to the ones used by Baltimore's bike-share system can expand bike usage way beyond the initial bike advocacy constituents and make the bicycle a serious contender in the "arsenal of inclusion" that offers a variety of mobility choices even to the young, the elderly or the frail who have no access to cars and often have only poor transit.

It is very important to get this right, so a lot is riding on the this Potomac Street settlement. Pun intended!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN

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