Bike Activists and Firefighters Clash in Baltimore

It started with a disagreement over a bike lane; now, activists allege, the arguments are turning violent.

Baltimore, Maryland (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

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Baltimore City Council is investigating allegations that fire department employees and officials are bullying and intimidating bike activists, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Bike advocates had sued the city to prevent the city’s transportation department from removing a bike lane in Canton that residents argued posed a safety risk because it narrowed the street such that emergency vehicles could not navigate it. (The lane also removed parking spots.) Then, those advocates alleged, the fight got ugly.

A Baltimore firefighter was charged with assaulting a city employee at a meeting about bike lanes, the Sun said. Then a cyclist said a fire department employee cut her off with his truck and screamed, “I still hate you!” And Liz Cornish, director of the bicycling advocacy group Bikemore, said that the fire department sent vehicles to intimidate her while the department was filming a video about how protected bike lanes harm firefighting efforts.

Fire chief Niles R. Ford told the Sun that the fire department had taken action against some employees but could not comment, yet denied that the trucks were meant to intimidate Cornish. Despite having been in meetings with Cornish on multiple occasions to discuss bike lanes, “Quite frankly, most of us would not know who she is if she walked up and talked to us,” Ford said. “The goal was not to intimidate.”

The city is frustrated by delays to developments and new bike lanes that it says are caused by a fire code issue requiring minimum street widths. After the Canton bike lane lawsuit, which both parties agreed to settle, Baltimore Fishbowl reported the fire department began to “exercise a veto over projects.” A number of projects are now stalled due to what the fire department says are code issues, the city council says.

The rules mandating 20- and 26-foot clearances for fire access are “impractical and oftentimes factually impossible to create in an urban built environment,” Joshua Greenfield, vice president of government affairs for the Maryland Building Industry Association, told Fishbowl.

Last month, fed up by the delays, the council told the fire department to make “demonstrable progress” on the projects that have been delayed by the fire code, or the council will remove required street clearances from the code.

In response, the fire department made a nine-minute video showing the problems with narrow street clearances; it was during the filming of that video that Cornish said vehicles were sent to her street to intimidate her.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey had other problems with the video, Fishbowl reported, saying the department intentionally used one of the largest trucks in its fleet and chose to park it in the middle of the road rather than in a nearby alley. He called the video a “phenomenal waste of employee time and resources.”

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the fire department video showed the opposite point of what the department intended.

“The video shows clearly the fire department can get to the fires on these streets,” Young told the Sun. “It clearly showed me that they can respond to fires despite the fact these development projects are being held up. I’m glad I saw the video because it showed me those trucks can get to those fires.”

Council members also questioned the fire department’s seeming antipathy toward bike lanes but not parking lanes. “You should be more of an advocate about parking being removed,” City Councilman Leon Pinkett told the fire chief, according to the Sun. Ford said that the issue is that the city is “tak[ing] something that meets code, and turn around and make it not meet code.”

Council members said they don’t actually want to pass Dorsey’s bill, which would substitute more flexible guidelines for the firm street widths currently in place unless they can’t work out a compromise with the fire department.

“I’m committed to finding a way not to pass that bill,” Council Member Eric Costello told the Sun. “But we do need to see demonstrable progress on some development projects and cycle track projects.”

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Rachel Kaufman is Next City's senior editor, responsible for our daily journalism. She was a longtime Next City freelance writer and editor before coming on staff full-time. She has covered transportation, sustainability, science and tech. Her writing has appeared in Inc., National Geographic News, Scientific American and other outlets.

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Tags: bikingbaltimorebike lanes

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