How bike lanes could make Philly safer but many residents dislike them

Unseasonably warm days last week sent the city’s bikers to Pine Street in Center City, where a lane marked with bright white lines offers an exclusive channel for bicycles alongside a lane of traffic.

Except every block or so, where the bike lane was blocked by a stopped car, a maintenance vehicle, or someone dropping off groceries. Bikers hate these obstacles that force them to weave out of their lane into car traffic.

“The concept is great but in practice, because of all the people, the deliveries..." said Alan Pizzi, who lives in the Graduate Hospital area and bikes down Pine Street to his enineering job on Walnut Street. “Sometimes you almost think that it might be safer if I stayed in traffic the whole time.”

Some Pine Street residents are no happier about the streetscape. For a few minutes Wednesday morning, Rivka Rappaport parked her silver Volvo before her house on Pine Street's 800 block, in the bike lane, to pick up her mail, she said. She has lived in the stately brick rowhouse across from the original Pennsylvania Hospital for 41 years, she said, and her late husband had the home for many years before that. Now she worries about bikers’ ire and getting tickets if she parks outside her door.

“We are paying so much tax here, and we don’t have a right to stand here for a few minutes,” she said.

Expect to hear more of this debate. In March, Philadelphia’s Vision Zero task force is expected to issue the best ideas from 120 days of consultation, a short- and long-term plan to reduce traffic-related fatalities and injuries. Vision Zero proposes that engineering, education, and enforcement can reduce traffic-related deaths and injuries to near zero. Reducing automobile speed is a major goal. Advocates note that 10 percent of people hit by a car traveling 20 mph die. Mortality rises to 40 percent when a car is traveling 30 mph.

Philadelphia reported more than 11,564 traffic crashes in 2015, the most recent year for which PennDot numbers were available. Those resulted in 94 deaths.

While biking advocacy groups have taken the lead to make the city's streets safer, pedestrians are more often victims of crashes. Twenty-six people on foot were killed in traffic accidents in 2015. There were seven fatalities among cyclists.

Unofficial numbers from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reported 76 traffic-related fatalities in 2016. Pedestrians accounted for 36 of those deaths, and bikers for four.

As a concept, Vision Zero doesn’t have vocal opponents in the city, said Bob Previdi, policy coordinator for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. It has critics among the National Motorists Association, though, who say bikers are getting consideration at the expense of motorists.

“You’re going to cause congestion, you’re going to divert traffic from one street to another,” said James Sikorski Jr., a Pennsylvania advocate for the NMA. “The basic premise that you’re going to force people to drive slowly is flawed. People drive at speeds that they’re comfortable with.”

Such concerns could lead to friction when details of Vision Zero are released. Steps under consideration include increasing street repaving from about 13 miles a year to 150 thanks to an investment in equipment; rubber humps in the street to slow cars; speed and red light cameras; and even reversing the direction of traffic on one-way streets for a block in residential areas to divert through traffic to arterial roads, Streets Department officials say.  

“We’re now looking more at a traffic calming kind of thing,” said Richard Montanez, the city’s chief traffic and street lighting engineer. “Use more tools out of the tool box.”

Vision Zero implementation will certainly mean more bike lanes, some of them separated from automobile traffic by dividers such as poles or planters. This week, the city received a long-awaited $250,000 state grant that will, along with a $300,000 state grant received last year, help pay for about 25 miles of protected bike lanes. That nearly covers Mayor Kenney’s goal of 30 miles of such lanes in the next five years.

Philadelphia’s Bicycle Lanes

Mayor Kenney hopes to add 30 miles of protected bike lanes to city streets in the next five years.

SOURCE: Philadelphia Streets Department

“Protected bike lanes are a wonderful traffic-calming tool,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. 

The grant was the trigger that will let the city become more specific with its plans for protected bike lanes, said Kelley Yemen, the city’s director of complete streets. Her position was created in November to coordinate the city’s efforts to improve road safety.

“We’ll be able to start going out neighborhood by neighborhood on given streets,” she said.

Some areas where protected bike lanes may be created -- in far West Philadelphia near Cobbs Creek Park and in North Philadelphia east of Broad Street to Fairville and Feltonville -- have high concentrations of serious car crashes, Clark Stuart said. Philadelphia now has two miles of protected bike lanes, on Ryan Avenue and the Penn Street trail, providing peace of mind for bikers.

“You suddenly don’t have to worry about who’s coming behind you, are they going to swerve into you,” said Kate Mundie, 42, of South Philadelphia.

She bikes with her two children to their school at 12th and Carpenter Streets and has experienced firsthand the risks of urban biking. In 2003 a car door opened in her path, tossing her from her bike.

It may be years before the city sees the biggest changes from Vision Zero. Protected bike lanes, which can make it harder for stopped cars to access a curb, will not arrive until 2018, the street department’s website says. That’s not soon enough for some.

“We were making good progress for a while,” Mundie said. “Things have slowed down as far as putting new infrastructure in.”

But Montanez said bike lanes take time. The nearly 17 miles of bike lanes that simply involved painting new lines on the street took nine months of planning, he said. Protected bike lanes offer more challenges. One, he said, was snow clearing. Plows don’t fit in the typically five-foot-wide lanes.

About 2.2 percent of the city’s workers, or 14,167, commute to work by bicycle in the city, according to 2015 U.S. Census data, and the bicycle coalition describes the city as having a larger proportion of bike commuters than the nation's 10 other biggest cities. 

Strong feelings exist on all sides. In 2014, a proposal to put a bike lane on 22nd Street met with resistance led by Councilman William Greenlee that scrapped the plan. Two years ago one cyclist became so fed up with cars parking in a bike lane on the 3700 block of Spruce Street that he put down cones to create a makeshift protected lane.

Because of all this, officials are cautious even hinting where a new bike lane may be. A 2015 map of proposed routes published by PlanPhilly last year is dismissed as obsolete, though officials would not say it was entirely inaccurate. Any discussion of new bike lanes includes community dialogue.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Previdi, who is organizing a Vision Zero conference for March 1 at Jefferson University Hospital in anticipation of the task force’s report. “Ultimately, we have to make sure all road users are going to be taken care of to some degree.”

This spring the city will begin setting up community meetings to introduce neighborhoods to some ways streets might change, Yemen said.

 

There will be resistance from folks like Rappaport, who on Wednesday was relieved that she did not get a ticket for parking in the bike lane on Pine Street. She’s willing to share the street with bikers, but still wants easy access to her home.

“If I’m parking here for 15 minutes,” she said, “I have the right to do it.”