In 2017, Baltimore’s transportation department committed to installing 77 miles of separated bike lanes within five years.
The idea: to allow cyclists to easily get around the vast city without hopping in a car.
Six years later, the city says it’s only installed 17.5 bike lane miles — less than a fourth of its goal. And bike advocates believe the actual number is far lower.
Jed Weeks, executive director of the bike advocacy group Bikemore, said the city may be reporting more miles completed than public records show. He thinks that part of the discrepancy comes from what he calls “counting miles twice” — when there’s a separated bike line on either side of a street, each lane counts towards total mileage individually.
Weeks believes that a lack of resources — both financial and staff — has delayed creating a citywide network of separated lanes. While Weeks said many cities have full teams working to expand bike lane networks, a Baltimore City Department of Transportation spokesperson said the city has three planners on staff working on bike initiatives.
“We’ve had four or five bike planners come in, see the resources and just quit,” Weeks said.
The city DOT said in an email Wednesday evening that bike planners worked with GIS experts to calculate the number of miles built, but acknowledged that it had not made as much progress as planned.
“Fewer miles have been implemented than called for in the plan due to limitations on advancing through the pandemic and staffing,” the agency wrote. “New leadership at BCDOT is taking proactive steps to build staff capacity and establish clear priorities to expand project implementation to the extent possible.”
Defining ‘bike infrastructure’
To understand the city’s vision for bike lanes, one needs to review a copy of its 2015 Bicycle Master Plan.
The master plan touted 161.8 total miles of bicycle facilities across the city, most of which were built after the first plan came out in 2006. Board of Estimates documents show roughly 52 miles of all types of bike facilities installed between fiscal years 2017 and 2022.
But the numbers can be deceiving, according to Weeks. He said that a simple sign on the side of the road warning drivers to watch out for cyclists or sharrows — those painted bicycle symbols on road surfaces — count towards the total.
“I wouldn’t ride with a 6-year-old on Bel Air Road, which Baltimore City counts towards its miles, because it’s a four-lane highway that has a faded bike symbol spray-painted on it,” said Weeks. “Paint on the ground doesn’t make people feel safe.”
When using the term “bike infrastructure,” Weeks and his team at Bikemore are only referring to lanes with some level of protection. That includes the city’s greenway system, lanes with traffic-diverting measures around them, and a network of top-tier separated lanes — which the city’s DOT had committed to build out.
Bikemore estimates there are roughly 14 miles of separated “all-ages” infrastructure in the city, which includes about 7.5 miles built before the master plan was updated in 2017 and the lanes installed since then. If the city had created the new lanes added by the planning commission in 2017, the total would be closer to 100 miles already.
And, aside from a couple of the major separated lanes, the 14 miles are largely unconnected, Weeks said.
The city in 2017 sought to address the lack of connectivity. It identified gaps where riders had to compete with traffic, as well as practical, “low-stress” street corridors where basic bike facilities could fill those gaps. The overall goal was to help speed up a trend that city officials identified years earlier — more and more people turning to bikes not just as a form of recreation, but as a means of running errands or commuting to work. Weeks said the plan would connect 85% of city neighborhoods with safe, all-ages infrastructure.
It appeared even more of a priority when Baltimore adopted its Complete Streets Ordinance in 2018.
“Complete streets” refers to a design approach that more and more cities are embracing — it aims to make streets accessible and safe for all modes of movement, shifting the focus away from cars taking the right of way.
Baltimore’s 2021 Complete Streets manual established a modal hierarchy — with walking, cycling and transit at the top. The manual included a letter from Mayor Brandon Scott saying that it would serve “as a check on our decisions from project planning and selection to how projects are designed.”
And the first guiding principle is safety. The manual said eliminating pedestrian fatalities should be a priority over keeping cars and traffic moving.
It would be a welcome change for Shaka Pitts, founder of Black People Ride Bikes. He’s a daily bike commuter — riding from his home by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Towson and back. He said the city is putting riders like him at risk by not adding and connecting more separated bike lanes.
“We’re not considered traffic, but we are. We’re literally part of it because sometimes we have to jump into traffic because [bike] lanes aren’t maintained,” said Pitts, adding that he often has to jump off his bike and walk for fear that debris in the lane will pop a tire or send him falling.
Last week, he said, poor road conditions took his tire out from under him. He fell to the pavement and broke his clavicle.
He was downtown, by the Convention Center, and had taken a little side street that he said doesn’t usually see bikes in order to avoid traffic. He said he wouldn’t have had to try the cut-through if there had been a separated bike lane on South Sharp Street. According to Weeks, there’s supposed to be — the project is funded and ready for installation, but hasn’t gone forward.
The mayor’s office said he is committed to promoting bike lanes and safety.
“Mayor Scott has always been supportive of a comprehensive, all-of-the-above approach to Baltimore City’s transportation infrastructure, including ensuring access to safe bike lanes,” Scott’s office said in an emailed statement.
The statement emphasizes a desire to work collaboratively with communities “in full consideration of multi-modal design, which is a stark departure [from] how infrastructure decisions have been made in the past.”
Pitts likes the idea of better collaboration with communities, but he said he hasn’t seen it done right so far. Beyond a lack of follow-through, he thinks that the way DOT and other stakeholders engage — or don’t — with people in neighborhoods leaves critical voices out of the conversation and ultimately slows the work of completing bike lane projects.
And he thinks equity should be a part of the discussion — he said the city prioritizes development and bike lanes in whiter, more affluent parts of the city than where he lives.
“The colonizing experience is traumatizing for us, and you need to approach it knowing that,” said Pitts. If you’re in a mostly Black neighborhood and want bike lanes to connect you to other parts of the city, he said, ”you gotta show that you aren’t coming with nefarious intent, and unfortunately that’s how it looks a lot of the time.”
‘We just aren’t building it’
DOT estimated in 2017 that it would cost roughly $27 million over five years to build the 77 separated bike lane miles that the city committed to. Weeks said the city rarely has money for planned bike infrastructure, and that most of the funds would come from state and federal grants.
Weeks worries that if the lanes don’t get built, the money will disappear. He pointed to multiple separated-lane projects that were held up after it was discovered the city might not get reimbursed.
“We run the risk of getting to the point of not being competitive enough to get the money because we just aren’t building it,” he said.
The city said it relies on money from the city’s general fund as well as bike grants. DOT said it “prioritizes Complete Streets projects that include bike and pedestrian infrastructure and enhancements” in its capital improvements plan and “pursues grant funding opportunities whenever possible.” There is $6.3 million allocated for bike projects in the current fiscal year, the city said.
Reservoir Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods are supposed to get one of the planned separated bike lanes. The DOT in 2017 identified a roughly two-mile stretch between Druid Hill Park and West Monument Street along Eutaw Place as a need. Despite getting an initial grant in 2018 and multiple rounds of community input, the project kept stalling.
Like other bike lane projects, Eutaw Place has had levels of community pushback. Some residents oppose the project over congestion concerns, while some local businesses worry that removing parking will adversely affect their bottom lines. Pitts also wonders who’s been left out during community engagement — he notes that he lives in a neighborhood along the proposed route and hasn’t been approached about it.
“I haven’t been asked, so you know, who else may not have been asked who could help bridge that gap?” he said.
All said, though, Pitts thinks that a more bike-friendly Baltimore is possible. But in his eyes, it will come down to city officials following through and doing it right.
“The lip service is out of season at this point,” said Pitts. “Do we just want to look good from a bird’s-eye view of the harbor? Or do we want people who live here to feel good about living here? I don’t know if it’s doable, but I know it’s possible.”
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.