Fairmount bike lanes a win for us all

The new bike lane on Fairmount Avenue. (Jennifer Glaeser photo)

This week, Fairmount Avenue got bike lanes. From Pennsylvania Ave to Ridge Avenue, simple ribbons of white paint now designate separate lanes for people on bicycles to ride to the Art Museum, Schuylkill River Trail, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the many stores and restaurants and along this key Philadelphia business corridor. Cue the cheering bicyclists!

But these lanes aren’t just a win for people who ride bikes. They are a win for all of us.

I’ve ridden a bicycle on Fairmount Avenue many times in its pre-bike-lane state. I’ve also driven a car on Fairmount Avenue, and been a pedestrian in that area. All of these experiences led me to the same conclusion: Fairmount Avenue has needed bike lanes for a long time. The street is much wider than necessary for its two travel lanes and two parking lanes, allowing motorists to speed more than they do on narrower Philly streets. Bicyclists perceive the road to be a major artery (like Broad Street) and illegally ride on the sidewalk at a higher-than-average rate, endangering pedestrians. It’s a pretty classic example of a road built to accommodate cars rather than human beings. In such a chaotic situation, a set of basic bike lanes is a great first step toward bringing order to a street, simply by giving everyone their own space.

Bike lanes are the bread and butter of efforts to make roads more bicycle-friendly, and for good reason. Bike lanes elsewhere in the city have made streets safer for all users: the buffered lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets, installed in 2009, are prime examples. Serious crashes on the two streets decreased by 44%  percent from 2009 to 2010, after the installation of bike lanes. Sidewalk and wrong-way riding also decrease when bike lanes are installed, something we can all be happy about. The Bicycle Coalition’s 2011 report, Mode Shift, gives more details on all these findings as they pertain to Philadelphia streets.

Good news for the businesses on Fairmount Avenue: there is also growing evidence that bike lanes are a boon to commercial corridors. New York’s Department of Transportation released a report last year detailing the benefits 8th and 9th Avenue businesses saw after bike lanes were installed. It makes intuitive sense. Biking down Fairmount Avenue, I’m pretty much destined to stop at Bookhaven, Mug Shots, or Fairmount Bicycles (or sometimes all three, achieving that inimitable books-coffee-bikes trifecta). I’m a lot less likely to go to the hassle of finding a parking place for my car (often several blocks away) to satisfy a fleeting desire to peek inside one of these shops.

At the end of the day, though, the case for bike lanes is only as strong as the community perceives it to be. While bike lanes on Fairmount Avenue have been in Philadelphia’s bicycle plan since 2010, progress was slowed by the backlash against lanes installed on 10th and 13th street in 2011. This pushback ultimately resulted in new City Council veto powers over certain types of proposed bike lanes, and the removal of a key stretch of the 10th street lane.

Technically, Council approval was not required for the Fairmount lanes (since they do not require the removal of any travel lanes or parking spaces). Regardless, the Bicycle Coalition spent the last year or so reaching out to the Fairmount Civic Association, Fairmount CDC, Fairmount Business Association, Spring Garden Civic Association, and Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation, all of whom favored the lanes. Surveys of business owners and nearby residents showed overwhelming support for the lanes as well. Though it takes a lot of hard work, achieving this kind of community buy-in is invaluable. It is the reason that, hopefully, these lanes are here to stay.

I hope that Fairmount Avenue can usher in a new era, one in which bike lanes are seen not as political lightning-rods, but rather for what they are: important components of a safer, more livable streetscape for all of us.