Baltimore Then Moves to Build The City's
First Parking Protected Bike Lanes
And That's When Things Got Complicated
Two days after Christmas in 2014 the weather was fine, and Tom Palermo decided to go for an afternoon bike ride. He never made it home. As he was riding in a bike lane on Roland Avenue in Baltimore, he was struck from behind by Heather Cook, an Episcopal suffragan bishop who had been drinking and was texting.
This story received coverage in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Cook pled guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and driving under the influence and texting while driving. In October 2015 she was sentenced to seven years in prison and immediately taken into custody. She is currently being held at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.
And then, earlier this year, Roland Avenue got two protected bike lanes, one on each side of the street, heading in opposite directions. Essentially, the existing bike lanes were moved to the curb, and the lanes of parked cars were moved away from the curb, so they would protect bicyclists from moving cars in the traffic lanes, including people like Heather Cook.
I hope that's clear. The parking lanes were on the right, by the curb. They moved to the left. The bike lanes had been on the left. They moved to the right, by the curb.
So, a fitting memorial. Community and government working together to improve the safety of the built environment. Right? Well, not quite.
Everyone is quick to point out that the new bike lanes had been in the works before Tom Palermo died. They were part of a larger repaving project for Roland Avenue. The bike lanes had been included in the city's bicycle master plan, the local civic organization supported them, and the principal of the 1,200-student Roland Park Elementary/Middle School supported them, along with many teachers and parents.
There are quite a few schools in this area, including the Gilman School, Roland Park Country School, and the nearby Bryn Mawr School. I'm thinking protected bike lanes might increase the number of children riding their bikes to school. And that might actually put a small dent in the car traffic. Call me a dreamer.
However, this being about bicycle lanes, you will not be surprised that opposition arose. You will also not be surprised that it arose very late in the process. And so the city and the local civic organization held yet another meeting. It was standing-room-only at the Roland Park Presbyterian Church, with the Baltimore Sun reporting that the audience of 200 seemed about evenly split between the pros and the cons.
It was a contentious meeting, so much so that a few days later a local bicycle advocacy group called Bikemore issued a white paper entitled "Mythbusting: Roland Avenue Cycletrack."
A basic claim from the opposition was that there had been inadequate communication about the project. It just wasn't true in the case of the Roland Avenue bike lanes, and the white paper runs through a litany of the communications efforts, which I won't bore you with. Bottom line: "Whether or not one chooses to attend neighborhood meetings or read neighborhood communications is ultimately a choice." However, "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."
The opposition also claimed that the new bike lanes were making the road less safe. My favorite objection comes from the lady who said she had been using the old bike lane as a buffer when she pulled her child out of the driver's side of the car, and therefore moving the bike lane removed that buffer and made her less safe. It was suggested in response that the typical street in Baltimore does not have a bike lane that motorists can use as a buffer, and that perhaps it would be a better idea to remove the child from the other side of the car. As the white paper says, "We believe it is always best to load and unload your children and elderly passengers on the side of the vehicle away from traffic."
The white paper also addressed the concept that the objecting neighbors had a right to veto the project: "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 City of Baltimore stuck to its guns and built the bike lanes. More than that, there are other bike lanes that are in the pipeline and on track.
I take away several lessons from the story of this battle. First, Tom Palermo's death clearly had no effect on the neighbors who objected to the bike lanes. Second, bike lane proponents should always be prepared for late-arriving opposition. Third, specious arguments must be rebutted in detail. Fourth, near neighbors have no right to veto transportation projects affecting much larger areas; it's important to make that argument clearly, forcefully, and repeatedly. And finally, people in favor of a bike lane need to attend the public meetings in force.
I've been wondering about the effect of Tom Palermo's death on the various city officials who were involved in the Roland Avenue bike lanes. After all, I'm from Philadelphia, and I've watched shovel-ready bike projects languish for years. Did Tom Palermo's death stiffen the administration's spine enough to overcome bureaucratic inertia and near-neighbor tantrums?
I spoke about this with Liz Cornish. She's the executive director of Bikemore, the Baltimore bike advocacy group that produced the white paper I've been quoting from. She didn't want to speak for the city administration, but for Bikemore, she said, "It certainly stiffened our spines."