For bicyclists, tough road in the suburbs

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Bicyclist Karl Nelson was struck by a vehicle driven by a Whitemarsh Township officer earlier this month. No citations were issued, but it underscored how the suburbs lag in accommodating bicyclists. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

It felt like a hard tap on the shoulder.

He didn't fall off his bicycle, or suffer any injury, but Karl Nelson, out for a Saturday morning ride with friends, quickly realized he had been hit by a car while biking.

"It's more jarring than anything else," the 31-year-old Philadelphian said. "It's sort of like being shoved by somebody."

He was surprised by who was driving the car.

Whitemarsh Township Police Cpl. Christopher Wilhelm hit Nelson with his patrol car's passenger side mirror on June 6 while passing a group of cyclists on Hector Street, according to a statement from police. State law requires that motorists leave a 4-foot gap between their vehicles and bikes when passing. Nelson and the police car were forced toward each other by a parked car on the right and oncoming traffic on the left, Nelson and police said.

No citations were issued, and Nelson chose not to file a complaint, but the incident underscored a major source of concern for regional planners. While Philadelphia has become one of the nation's most bike-friendly cities, the suburban counties lag far behind it in accommodating bicyclists.

With more than 200 bike-lane miles, the city has almost 10 times as many as Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties combined.

In the Whitemarsh incident, Police Chief T. Michael Beaty noted that the riders with Nelson were occupying too much of the road by riding three abreast. However, he also said his officer could have acted differently.

"Better decisions could have been made by the bicycle riders and the officer to minimize the potential danger," he said.

Nelson and Beaty both said they see an opportunity to raise awareness of bike safety.

"We know we have a big bicycling community," Beaty said. "We actually work to promote that and support it."

Not enough room

Education, however, doesn't solve the problem of navigating busy suburban roads, Nelson said.

"That road needs a bike lane," he said. "There's not enough room for cars to safely pass."

Regional planners would concur.

"You come out to Montgomery County - and even, I would venture to say, Bucks and Delaware and Chester Counties - and you don't have the bike infrastructure," said Jody Holton, executive director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission.

Accommodating bicyclists is a growing priority for the region's planners, Holton said. On Thursday, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission for the first time allocated a significant pot of money - eventually $5 million - exclusively for bike trails. The money will be available in 2018 for projects in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties. The Perkiomen and Schuylkill River Trails in Montgomery County attract about a million cyclists a year, according to the DVRPC.

Bicycles are increasingly popular not just as a means of recreation, but as an alternative to driving. In the region, an average of 17,600 a year biked to work from 2008 to 2013, according to the DVRPC. Holton said that providing resources for cyclists can be good economics. A 2011 DVRPC report found that homes within a quarter mile of the Perkiomen Trail gained more than $4,700 in property value.

"Every segment of the population is interested in places where you can go where you can go to a store, walk to a store or ride your bike, places you can be outdoors in your daily life," Holton said.

As for the Whitemarsh incident, having more bike lanes in Philadelphia's collar counties "would go a long way toward stopping these sorts of confrontations," Bicycle Coalition spokesman Randy LoBasso said.

Complicated process

Creating an extensive bike-lane network is a complicated process. The state requires that municipalities be responsible for maintenance and liability for any bike lanes on state roads. Busy roads most in need of bike lanes tend to be state roads, said Greg Krykewycz, who manages the DVRPC's bike planning.

Municipalities are loathe to take on the added cost and responsibility for bike lanes, he said. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation this year began a study of bicycle and pedestrian trends, a PennDot spokesman said, and is considering making changes to the rules governing bike lanes on state roads. LoBasso noted that bike lanes work best in more urbanized communities.

Bike lanes have been added in expansions on major thruways in the region, such as Route 202, PennDot spokesman Eugene Blaum said.

The Circuit, a regional trail system with more than 300 miles of bike trails, is potentially a better alternative to bike lanes for suburban riders. The $5 million from the DVRPC will go toward Circuit projects. Planners anticipate that the Circuit, which includes the Schuylkill River Trail, eventually will span 750 miles and offer a contiguous bike route from the city throughout the neighboring suburbs. It is developing slowly.

As much as possible, Holton said, planners vary their strategies to create as much access for bikers without endangering them, or inconveniencing motorists. Along with bike trails and dedicated bike lanes, planners attempt to route bicycles onto low volume, residential roads.

Biking has been central for Nelson since he was 16, he said. He rides for pleasure and often commutes by bike from the city to his mechanical engineering job at Widener University in Chester.

"It's a scary enough thing to be riding a bike and to be hit by a car," he said. "When it's a police officer, that's even more unnerving."


jlaughlin@phillynews.com

610-313-8114 @jasmlaughlin