The bright red signs poke out of grassy lawns in Ashburton, East Arlington and along parts of Gwynns Falls Parkway with a clear message: “No Bike Lanes Here.”
The signs oppose 10 miles of extended trails to be used for biking, walking, scooter riding and other non-automobile travel. The trails are part of The Baltimore Greenway Trails Network project, a 35-mile trail loop throughout the city meant to better connect more than 75 neighborhoods. The development of the trail network — originally conceived by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, Bikemore and other community partners from across the city in 2015 — has been led by the City of Baltimore for the last few years. The remaining 10 miles would connect existing trails, including Gwynns Falls, Herring Run and Jones Falls.
Mary Hughes, who lives in Gwynns Falls, helped put signs along the parkway. She doesn’t think the project makes sense in her neighborhood as it “cuts down on aesthetics, parking spaces, causes confusion and limits mobility for cars.” She’s also wary that it could hint at early signs of gentrification.
“If they really want to help this city, listen to the people that live here,” she said.
Misperceptions can easily spread and residents become disgruntled.
In this case, most of the confusion centers on how the trail will be used. The Baltimore City Department of Transportation, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and other partnering organizations stress that the trail isn’t solely for bikes.
“It’s not a bike lane. It really is an extension of the city’s park system,” Conservancy project manager Ethan Abbott said.
Matthew Hendrickson, DOT’s project manager for the northern segments of the Greenway, agreed: ”I think it’s important that people understand that it is a trail, it is a greenway, and like other trails throughout the city, you’ll see more people walking, exercising and enjoying the green space more so than biking.”
Keshia Pollack Porter, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said this conflict over major public projects is not unique to Baltimore and plays out repeatedly across the United States.
Pollack Porter, whose work centers around health equity, said opposition usually involves common concerns: loss of parking, businesses losing customers and a lack of community input around implementation.
Bike lanes in particular seem to cause ire. In her book “Bike Lanes Are White Lanes: Bicycle Advocacy and Urban Planning,” Melody L. Hoffmann explains how a “bicycle’s meaning changes in different spaces, with different people, and in different cultures.” Hoffmann said community engagement has to be authentic and truly meet the needs of the community.
“It doesn’t really matter what the argument is,” Hoffmann said. “It’s the perception, and if people are perceiving it to be not for them, that’s the issue.”
In Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, African American churchgoers flooded city meetings in 2015 to reject a proposal for a protected bike lane that would obstruct parking. At odds were longtime Black residents and predominantly white, newer residents.
The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts passed a cycling safety ordinance two years ago which required 25 miles of bike lanes to be installed on some of the city’s most dangerous roads. Twelve hundred people signed a petition opposing the project.
Hendrickson acknowledges that COVID-19 limited opportunities to interact with Baltimore communities about the project. Multiple virtual meetings were held, followed by in-person meetings as restrictions have eased. Each phase of engagement, Hendrickson said, allows community input and also provides opportunities for education.
Arica Gonzalez, who lives in Panway, invited Rails-to-Trails to speak with residents after she realized many of her neighbors did not know about the project. She also thought misinformation was circulating. As the executive director of The Urban Oasis, she’s worked with repurposed greenspaces. She saw the potential in the project after getting a few specifics clarified and wanted her community to be better informed.
“Everybody deserves to know what the plans are for the neighborhood they’ve made their home,” she said.
On a humid May day in 2021, neighbors gathered for the session to listen and voice their concerns. Some neighbors, Gonzalez said, came to the meeting with “Black Neighborhoods Matter” signs.
Not everyone is against the trails project.
Monalisa Diallo is tired of the gentrification conversations whenever developments are considered in underinvested areas of the city. Black people in the neighborhood, she said, need to be part of conversations to make new developments less alarming and more like beautification and investment.
“We pay taxes and we deserve the same rights as everyone else,” said Diallo, a Mondawmin resident.
Diallo is an avid walker and struggles with navigating uneven sidewalks in the city with her bifocal prescription and diagnosis of transverse myelitis, which affects her motor skills.
The proud grandmother of seven is looking forward to being able to walk throughout the city with more ease.
AJ Foster, president of the Ashburton Area Association, does not agree with the signs that have been put in his neighborhood. After conducting a poll in March, he insisted that many people in the community are in support of infrastructure that increases safety and recreation.
“Those signs are a misrepresentation of our community,” he said.
Octavia Anderson-Williams, who lives in East Arlington, said it was “pure accident” that she found out about the project nearly two years ago. She supports the signs opposing a bike lane and wants more engagement and clarity about the rollout of the project.
“We’re not saying that we’re against the bike lanes,” she said. “We are saying that you have to show us how you’re going to put these bike lanes so everyone can benefit from them and we’re still able to drive.”
The city still has time to build community support, as it hasn’t finalized designs or construction schedules.
“Oftentimes they’re challenging conversations, because this is people’s communities,” Hendrickson said. “They’re passionate about these issues and they should be.”
You can find out more about the Baltimore Greenway Trails Network project by visiting railstotrails.org.