Philadelphia has a higher rate of traffic deaths than New York City, Los Angeles, or Boston. But plans to reduce the number of serious accidents are on a collision course with an overreaching City Council, whose more confused members are blocking good ideas to make the streets safer for motorists, cyclists. and pedestrians.
In its ambitious Vision Zero plan to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2030, Mayor Kenney’s administration wants to provide bike lines on busy streets because they slow traffic and channel bicyclists away from cars and pedestrians. Since 2009, when former Mayor Michael A. Nutter put protected bike lanes on Pine and Spruce Streets, crashes have fallen more than 30 percent.
Kenney is rightly continuing the important work to make streets safer. This past summer, the city opened a bike lane on Chestnut Street from 45th to 33rd Streets in West Philadelphia, the byway for Drexel and Penn students as well as residents. With a planned extension to 23rd Street, the bike lane can connect University City to Center City.
But there’s a brewing problem. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who supported the Chestnut bike lane, now seems to be reneging. She says that since the bike lane opened in August, “All I do is get complaints every day about the lack of traffic access on Chestnut.”
She’s not alone. South Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson says he won’t support a proposal to protect bike lanes on South and Lombard Streets because of community opposition.
Councilman Bill Greenlee has been blocking a bike lane on 22nd Street near Spring Garden Street since 2014 because some residents don’t want it.
Greenlee sponsored a bill in 2012 granting Council dictatorial powers over bike lanes. It is a version of Council prerogative, a sometimes- abused power grab that gives members control of land use within their districts. But in this case, Council’s obstructionist instincts could jeopardize public safety.
Council members are caught in a culture war between longtime residents and people who ride bikes to work or school and have been at the heart of revitalizing the city.
It’s Council’s job to represent both constituencies, but its members are not traffic or safety engineers. They must try to understand that it’s far better to leave these decisions to those experts. Meanwhile, their critical role is to bridge the gap between the cyclists and those who, in many cases, simply don’t want to share the city’s streets.
Full details of the Vision Zero plan are expected to be released in about six months. When they are revealed some on Council are likely to wage battle over slowing traffic on the city’s deadliest streets.
The preliminary report notes that half of Philadelphia’s traffic deaths and severe injuries occurred on just 12 percent of Philadelphia’s streets. Among the most dangerous are Broad, Chestnut, Frankford, Passyunk, and Girard, and of course Roosevelt Boulevard.
Kenney wants to make Philadelphia’s streets less deadly. That’s a noble goal and one any responsible Council member should get behind.