Baltimore fire code eased to allow bike lanes, more flexible design

By Saumya Jain

On Aug 6, Baltimore City Council voted unanimously to approve a bill that repeals parts of the city fire code to allow for more bike-friendly and pedestrian-safe street developments. Although the bill still awaits Mayor Catherine Pugh’s signature, a mayoral spokesperson said on August 20 that they do not anticipate a veto. This is definitely a big win for bicyclists and Bikemore, the bike advocacy group in the Greater Baltimore Urbanized Region. The legislation will repeal the section of the fire code that requires 20- and 26- foot clearances for fire access, and will be replaced by more flexible guidelines from the Urban Street Design Guide by the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

For Bikemore and the City of Baltimore, this win did not come easily. A recent article by Bikemore shared how their staff had been working tirelessly for the past 14 months to convince the city to come to a solution for the stringent fire codes that were blocking development of several bike projects around the city. As with many changes to code around the country, this push for bike and pedestrian infrastructure also faced strong opposition from the city’s fire department. The fire department even made a video to show that big fire trucks cannot navigate through streets narrowed by bike lanes. But the video failed to make the intended point and City Council President, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, told The Baltimore Sun that “the video shows clearly the Fire Department can get to the fires on these streets”.

This is just the latest change to fire codes to allow more flexible street design. Earlier last year, SSTI highlighted Celebration, Florida, and similar issues with the fire codes restricting modern urban street design. But there have also been a few positive developments, such as San Francisco Fire Department welcoming compact fire trucks to allow for narrower and more pedestrian-friendly streets, and in Portland where the fire department actively participates in the street design.

As one commentator asked two years ago, “Why are our cities being designed around the needs of the trucks instead of vice versa?”

Saumya Jain is a Senior Associate at SSTI.