City Council's bike lane bill won't make Philadelphia's streets safer | Opinion

Cyclists use a green bike lane on South Street near 27th Street heading east.

When the protected bike lane on Chestnut Street between 34th and 45th Streets was installed in 2017, it was an incredible victory for bike safety advocates.

But a new bill currently in Council might undo the progress made.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s recently introduced ordinance (Bill 180134) would impede the ability of the Streets Department to implement simple and necessary street safety measures. The bill effectively requires a Council ordinance any time bike infrastructure is upgraded (including repainting) or modified, stating that Council needs to approve “any modification to an existing bicycle lane that would affect the flow of traffic.”

This is bad for all of us who want safer city streets, whether on bike, car, or foot. It will further constrict the ability of the experts at the Streets Department and the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) to design and build overdue safety improvements.

We should never require a Council vote that could compromise safety over convenience. Not now, not ever.

Up until 2012, the Streets Department was able to stripe bike lanes following an evaluation of the street by professional engineers and community engagement. However, in 2012, Council passed legislation mandating its approval for any modifications to travel lanes in the city. This gave district Council members the power to veto new bicycle lanes while dismissing professional opinions on the matter. Because of this dramatic expansion of “councilmanic prerogative,” bike lane implementation ground to a screeching halt after years of steady progress under Mayors Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter.

The Kenney administration has chosen to defer to councilmanic prerogative instead of defining a clear agenda on the roll out of safer street infrastructure, even in cases where the mayor has clear legal authority to act administratively.

For example, last year the city hesitated to add protective barriers to the existing bicycle lanes on Spruce, Pine, and South Streets, even though they were already fully funded — and ultimately backed off when Council members refused to sign on. In October, Emily C. Fredricks was killed while riding in the unprotected lane on Spruce. Fredricks was one of 96 traffic-related deaths in 2017, and 45 percent of those victims were cyclists and pedestrians. Her death was preventable, and we should not allow City Council to get in the way of stopping future tragedies.

In 2017, the city installed a protected bike lane on Chestnut in West Philadelphia with the support of Councilwoman Blackwell, who wrote the legislation making the lane permanent. This was the result of nine years of arduous planning and outreach by the Bicycle Coalition, University City District, and Mayor’s Office. Several traffic engineering studies were included, proving its minimal effect on traffic flow. Even in light of all this, Blackwell capitulated to her loudest constituents and insisted at its unveiling that the lane was only “temporary,” saying it would be reassessed at a later date.

If Blackwell’s latest bill passes, any future protected bike lane opportunities like Chestnut’s could be preemptively suppressed by any grudging Council member. This is especially egregious in light of the Kenney administration’s campaign promise to install 30 miles of protected bike lanes. If the second mile provoked this kind of response, we can say goodbye to any more.

Why does Council want to make it even harder for us to protect vulnerable people on our streets going forward? The saga of the Chestnut Street protected bike lane should be seen as a wake-up call, not a success story. How many people’s lives could have been saved in those six years had the city acted sooner? How many injuries could have been avoided had elected officials limited the chances of reckless driving through cheap and simple traffic-calming measures?

We need to make it easier, not harder, for our city’s transportation and street experts to implement street safety measures and protect vulnerable users in our bicycle lanes. If you agree, please sign this petition that calls on Blackwell to rescind her bill and encourages Council to introduce legislation repealing Bill 120327. This would return street striping power to its rightful place: the professional traffic engineers in the administration.

We do not want another power grab that will do nothing but allow injury and death on our streets. If Philadelphia’s elected officials care about our reputation as a progressive, forward-thinking city, then they need to change their attitude on fixing the city’s most dangerous streets.

Dena Ferrara Driscoll is a family biking advocate who co-chairs 5th Square PAC.  @bikemamadelphia