Philadelphia looks to flip bike lanes where fatal accident occurred

Darryl Carroll (left), a Philadelphia Streets Department line striper crew chief, repaints a bicycle lane line on Spruce Street as fellow worker Jose Gonzalez follows his progress. The restriping in December, which was previously scheduled, took place days after a bicyclist was killed in a crash at 11th and Spruce Streets.

Philadelphia is seeking to swap bike and parking lanes to opposite sides of the street on Spruce and Pine Streets in Center City.

The change would be a safety improvement on streets where a cyclist died last year, city officials said. Emily Fredricks, 24, was biking to work on Nov. 28 when she was hit by a garbage truck turning right from Spruce onto 11th Street.

Fredricks’ family attended a safe streets conference this month in the city and has organized a bike ride and brunch in April to raise money to improve safety and help riders replace bicycles damaged in crashes. On Tuesday, they applauded Philadelphia’s latest proposal, which bike advocates say might prevent crashes similar to Emily’s.

“At the end of May, she had moved to the city,” said Laura Fredricks, recalling that her daughter, a pastry chef, had come back to Philadelphia from Naples, Fla., to be closer to family. “I’d rather have her in Florida.”

The crash is still being investigated, police said. Vehicles, particularly large trucks, have a larger blind spot on the right than on the driver’s side, something that may have contributed to Fredricks’ death. Switching bike lanes to the left side from Front to 22nd Streets would make bicycles easier to see, officials said.

“They’re going to be able to see the bicyclist better because the blind spot is going to be much narrower,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, president of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Her organization has pushed for barriers to protect cyclists along those two streets, but the city’s proposal wouldn’t make that happen. The organization supports the proposal because switching the lanes provides some safety benefits quickly, and additional protections can be added later, Clark Stuart said.

If approved by City Council, the lanes would be painted in a new configuration during scheduled repaving over several weeks by October. The roads would not be closed to traffic during the process.

“It really improves safety at the intersections,” said Kelley Yemen, the city’s Complete Streets director. “When we look to repaving, it’s our opportunity to look for safety improvements across the board.”

The switch was not directly prompted by Fredricks’ death, Yemen said. Road repaving was already scheduled for this year on both streets, she said, and it’s become city policy to redesign streets with bike lanes painted on the left. The switch also has the advantage of keeping bikes away from buses, which generally travel and stop on the right, Yemen said.

The changes have been made to Walnut, 10th, and Chestnut Streets in recent years.

Spruce and Pine are among the most heavily biked city streets, carrying 500 to 1,000 cyclists a day, officials from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia have said. Twenty-one of the 185 crashes on those streets from 2012 to 2016 involved bicyclists, data from the city showed.

A separate study from the bicycle coalition found 61 percent of crashes from 2009 to 2016 on those roads were angle crashes, Clark Stuart said.

Shifting bike lanes to the left does help motorists see bicycles, the National Association of City Transportation Officials reported. The configuration is used in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Washington.

Philadelphia officials are presenting the proposal in community meetings on April 4 and 5, but the change has already drawn criticism. The Society Hill Civic Association recently commissioned its own safe streets study and said the bike lane switch shouldn’t be a priority on Spruce and Pine, which typically carry slow-moving car traffic. The group called for a study of traffic patterns to determine how many cyclists make right turns rather than left, saying cyclists could be in more danger turning to the right from a bike lane on the left. The group is also concerned about the proposed configuration forcing drivers to exit parked cars into the street, rather than sidewalks.

“The problem is that they have failed to collect the data to make their case,” said Rosanne Loesch, the civic association president. “There’s also a risk to pedestrians created by the plan, obvious risks.”

Spruce and Pine are central east-west arteries for bike travel, Yemen said, with riders turning off them in both directions more or less equally. Making a right turn from a left lane would be no more unsafe than it is to do the opposite, so the city is looking at designs that would create a safe space for cyclists to get from one side to the other for turns.

Yemen also noted many streets in Philadelphia already have parallel parking on the right side without risking drivers’ safety.

Fredricks’ family has embraced the cause of improving street safety to prevent another family from suffering a similar loss.

“The five of us — it was always the five of us,” Laura Fredricks said. “That’s completely broken and destroyed. We’re so sad. She was lovely.”