Why City Council shouldn't have the power to interfere with bike lanes and traffic safety | Editorial

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

Philadelphia City Council, a bastion of power and privilege,  had already grasped supreme authority over the disposal of city properties when in 2012 it expanded its sovereignty to also include construction of bicycle lanes on city streets. That should have never happened, but now Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell is taking Council’s lordship a step further.

Blackwell introduced a bill last month that says that if the city administration wants to modify an existing bike lane, it will first have to kneel before the throne of a tradition called Council prerogative. The bill is so vaguely written that it could be interpreted as saying Mayor Kenney must beg Council’s permission before the city could repaint stripes on pavement.

Council prerogative allows the 10 district Council members to control city land within their districts. If the city wants to sell a property, it needs a Council ordinance, which by tradition — not law — must be sponsored by the district’s Council member. The seven at-large members usually go along because they need district Council members’ votes for their own initiatives. There are no real rules guiding prerogative and some Council members have used that power to obstruct city projects and, in a few instances, to use it for leverage.

Now this proposed escalation of Council control to include bike-lane modifications threatens to take prerogative from the realm of strong-arm politics to the absurd. Philadelphia’s streets aren’t bound by Council districts. Because streets crisscross the city, they belong to all of us  – drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. That means the parochial interests of district Council members should not trump citywide concerns.

Blackwell says she wrote her bill to eliminate the Chestnut Street bike lane running from 34th to 45th Streets because it increases traffic. But the bill won’t eliminate the bike lane, and it won’t ease congestion because bicycles are only part of the problem. Improving traffic flow requires a citywide solution that takes into account all the users of city streets.

The city has been working to make the streets safer for everyone and reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2030. Its Vision Zero plan would slow traffic through a variety of tactics, including more protected bike lanes.

There’s good reason to take these steps. The city had more traffic deaths per capita in 2015 than New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. Between 2012 and 2016, the city saw 436 people die in traffic accidents. Most victims, 246, died in vehicle crashes; 173 were pedestrians; and 17 were killed while bicycling.

Deaths are inevitable in a city with traffic problems like Philadelphia’s. How do we change that? For starters, we all have to slow down and share the roadways, like it or not. And, a lot of people don’t like it.

Blackwell says public opinion is running 50-50 on the Chestnut Street bike lane. If people don’t like her solution, she wants them to come up with their own. Email your suggestions by going to her website (http://phlcouncil.com/JannieBlackwell). While you’re at it, ask her to withdraw her bike lane bill. That power grab will only make a very serious public safety problem worse.