Baltimore Repeals Fire Code Rules to Make Room for Bike Lanes


They are going with NACTO guidelines instead.

Historically, if you get into an argument with the heroes in the fire department, you lose. They like big powerful trucks and big wide roads to drive them in and usually get what they want.

But these days, there is some pushback from urbanists who note that big wide roads where cars can go fast kill a lot of people. In Baltimore, City Council wanted to install some bike lanes, but surprisingly, ran into opposition from locals. Luke Broadwater writes in the Baltimore Sun:

The fire code issue arose last summer when some Potomac Street residents in Canton argued that a bike lane on their street, which removed parking spots, posed a safety risk because it narrowed the road too much. The dispute prompted the city Transportation Department to consider removing the lane until the cyclist organization Bikemore filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Interestingly, the Fire Department does not appear to object to parking of cars on streets, even though it had the same effect. "Most streets in the city do not comply with that part of the code. The Fire Department appears to be inconsistently objecting to bike lanes but not to parking spaces, critics say." The fire officials even made a video to show that their large trucks don't fit, even though they do. In the end, Council voted unanimously for the bike lanes, according to Broadwater.

On Monday, council members backed a bill sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey that would repeal a section of the fire code, which requires 20- and 26-foot street clearances for fire access, and replace it with more flexible guidelines adopted by the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide (NACTO).

Bikemore notes that it has been a slog.

For 14 months Bikemore staff worked tirelessly to pressure the City to come to a solution. And on Monday we saw that hard work pay off and scored a significant win. Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to remove Appendix D from the Fire Code and state that all new street design must conform to NACTO standards. This means that the Fire Department can no longer arbitrarily block the construction of bike lanes by pointing to a section of the fire code that makes zero sense in an urban environment.

It's now on the Mayor's desk for signature.

This is not a new issue, although it is unusual to see the Fire Department being used as pawns by anti-bike lane residents. It is not the only victory either; Celebration, Florida, was not, in the end, destroyed to make room for fire trucks.

CC BY 2.0. Seen in Copenhagen: cute little fire engines/ Lloyd Alter

Seen in Copenhagen: cute little fire engines/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But as Bikemore notes, these codes make no sense, demanding highways down the middle of existing cities for big fire trucks. As we have noted many times, in European cities (and now even in San Francisco) the fire apparatuses are sized to the streets, not the other way around. As the number of deadly fires continues to drop thanks to the decline in smoking and the introduction of smoke detectors, perhaps it is time for more cities to look at this.

I have written about this on sister site
Why do we have such big fire trucks for so few fires?
Why designing streets for fire trucks gets it backwards