Disagreements between bike advocates and fire departments pop up all the time in American cities. But what’s happening in Baltimore right now is not normal.
Local bike advocates say they’ve been personally targeted for harassment and intimidation by fire department employees and even the Baltimore City Fire Department itself, which has been campaigning against the addition of bike lanes.
At issue are street redesigns that have narrowed the right-of-way for motor vehicles, which BCFD says violate the requirement for 20 feet of clearance in the city’s fire code. Residents of Potomac Street cited the fire code in a bid to remove a protected bike lane on their street.
A lawsuit by Bikemore, the local bike advocacy group, halted the city’s plans to remove the bike lane, arguing that the fire code should be interpreted more flexibly.
Two months ago, members of BCFD started lashing out. At a public meeting on bike lanes on May 14, several witnesses reported that a white off-duty firefighter, Charles Mudra, lifted Austin Davis, a black city planner (also attending in an unofficial capacity) up by his neck.
Bikemore Executive Director Liz Cornish told the local news site Baltimore Fishbowl that Mudra should be released by the fire department. He’s currently facing assault charges.
At a July 3 City Council hearing, Alyssa Domzal testified that a man driving a pickup truck with a Baltimore City Fire Department decal swerved at her as she was biking and shouted, “I still hate you.” Cornish says the Fire Department has not made any effort to investigate the incident.
BCFD recently filmed a bizarre nine-minute video to argue that bike lanes are incompatible with fire trucks. But it appears to have backfired. The trucks in the video clearly have enough room to travel on the streets with protected bike lanes.
Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the Baltimore Sun that “I’m glad I saw the video because it showed me those trucks can get to those fires.”
Strangely, part of the video was filmed right across from Cornish’s home and Davis’s home. The two happen to be neighbors. Cornish told the City Council that she doesn’t think the location was chosen by chance:
At 3:00 p.m., I was walking home from my office. As I approached my block, I noticed a BCFD tiller truck parked in the travel lane in front of my house, surrounded by around eight BCFD employees, including many senior ranking staff based on their uniforms. My initial assumption was there was some kind of emergency on my block, but as I got closer I recognized that the fire department was filming a video. Given the history of aggression and bullying over the past year, BCFD leadership showing up on my block to film a video implying they can’t fight a fire there didn’t just feel like a double down on fear mongering, it also felt like a personal message to me and to my neighbor Austin Davis — a threat.
Fire Department officials denied singling out Cornish.
The City Council is considering a resolution to strike the “clear width rule” from the city’s code and replace it with more flexible guidance from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, but did not pass it yesterday. It will be taken up again on August 5.