About Baltimore Sewer Drains

You've probably seen storm drains with grates like these:

And unless you're a cyclist, you probably haven't thought too much of it. But if you are a cyclist, they can be your worst nightmare. Why? 

Imagine you're riding along, enjoying the day, watching out for traffic, trying to be careful around pedestrians, and you encounter one. Best case scenario, you notice in time and avoid it before you end up with your wheel inside:

That's a staged photo, thank goodness, but what actually happens is that your front wheel gets trapped and you get sent head first over the handlebars and into the road, with a serious risk of injury. How serious?

The state has agreed to pay $8 million to Mickey Gendler, who was paralyzed from the neck down after his bicycle wheel got caught in a gap in the steel grate while crossing the Montlake Bridge three years ago. He was riding with a friend in the left lane headed south because they were going to turn left to go to the Arboretum. His wheel got caught and he flipped over the handlebars. The impact split his helmet and left him quadriplegic. — Seattle Bike Blog

We've had similar accidents happen here in Baltimore leading to broken bones and even traumatic brain injury. So much so that the City of Baltimore agreed to replace all the bad grates over 10 years ago, as part of a lawsuit. But, as you can see in the photo above, they sure haven't! 

That's especially outrageous, not just because the grates pose a serious risk to people on bikes, but also because they're against the law — and have been since 1980!

Any new or replacement storm drain cover, installed on a street or highway in the State, after January 1, 1980, shall consist of:

  1. Bars running perpendicular to the flow of traffic on the highway;
  2. A grating composed of intersecting bars; or
  3. Other designs approved by the Department of Transportation which meet safety design criteria as well as engineering and structural design demands.

Maryland Transportation Code

Oh, and this isn't just a Maryland issue - the federal DOT also wants us to do better:

Care must be taken to ensure that drainage grates are bicycle-safe. If not, a bicycle wheel may fall into a slot in the grate, causing the cyclist to fall. Replacing existing grates (See A and B in figure below [preferred methods]) or welding thin metal straps across the grate perpendicular to the direction of travel (C, alternate method) is required. — Shared Roadways, Lesson 18, section 8.

So what, can we do about it?

Well, I've tried using 311, at the recommendation of the Department of Transportation, but it only rarely works. There isn't a category for "storm drain grates that are going to get somebody killed" and you end up with different parts of city government claiming that it's somebody else's fault. As somebody who got caught in a drain in the bike lane around Lake Montebello (and reported it with no success), I'm lucky that I wasn't seriously injured, but I'm seriously frustrated that it's so hard to get these grates replaced with ones that won't kill me. Right now, after the city made a big deal about finishing the 28th Street "Big Jump," there's an illegal grate in the bike lane!

What I would encourage you to do is help catalog all these bad grates so that we can put pressure on the city council to get them replaced, using this site. If we can get enough of them located and documented, we can present them with a to-do list of what it takes to make Baltimore's streets safe for cyclists.

How does it work?

  1. Familiarize yourself with what makes a grate bad.
  2. When you spot a grate with openings parallel to the flow of traffic, stop — safely! — dismount, and load up this site on your smartphone.
  3. Use the Image button to take a picture of the grate.
  4. Use the Current Location button to get your precise coordinates.
  5. Fill in a description of where the drain is in relation to the roadway or other landmarks if it's not obvious.
  6. Submit your report!

I can't guarantee that this will work, but as a person who is only good at making websites and Mexican food (and I don't think enchiladas will help), this is my best shot. If you want to help spread the word, you can download a flyer and help other people find the site.



Do your best when photographing a grate to make its location clear.