Philadelphia gets started on a protected bike network—almost

Pick a Lane

by Matt Bevilacqua

Last year, a road rage incident on Pine Street showed the danger that can erupt when drivers fail to stay clear of bike lanes. Ron Deets, a cyclist from South Philly, told reporters that when a car veered into his lane and cut him off, he tapped the side of the car to alert the driver to his presence. The driver then tailed Deets, bumped his rear wheel and eventually got out to confront the cyclist. A video shared with local news stations at the time shows the driver dragging Deets across Pine Street before releasing him.

It was an extreme case, but local cyclists can tell you that cars travel, stop or park in bike lanes on a daily basis. Now, the city is taking steps that will, in theory, prevent this from happening. In March, it landed a $300,000 grant to install protected bike lanes on about a dozen streets in Center City, South Philly, West Philly and the Northeast.

A “protected” bike lane is one with a physical barrier between cyclists and car traffic. (Don’t confuse them with “buffered” bike lanes, which use only paint markings to denote a few feet of extra space between bikes and cars.) Barriers can range from simple posts along the length of the lane to heftier things like planters, curbs or even parking spaces.  

“They make a huge difference,” says Patrick Miner, a Camden resident who often bikes to his job in Center City at SEPTA. “Experiencing them on Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, they make a huge psychological difference for the bicyclists and the motorists.”

For now, the city has opted for flexible plastic posts, due totheir low cost and the size of the grant. Originally, it had requested about $589,000 from the federal Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) for the installation of 15 lanes spanning 27 miles—a move in line with the 30 miles of protected lanes that Mayor Jim Kenney pledged during his campaign. The initial $300,000 came from TAP’s regional program, although city officials expect another $200,000 from the state program later this year.

Most of the routes slated for TAP improvements, like Pine and Spruce streets, have existing bike lanes. A handful, such as a proposed lane on Race Street, will be new infrastructure altogether. But the exact placement and length of the future protected bike network remain unclear.

“We can’t commit to a mileage until we know how much money we have,” says Jeannette Brugger, pedestrian and bicycle program coordinator at the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, which will implement the lanes with the Streets Department. “That, along with the unique circumstances of each corridor, will determine the final length to be funded.”

By “unique circumstances,” she means things like loading zones, space for horse carriages and the city’s informal practice of allowing churchgoers to park in bike lanes on Sundays. Indeed, Acting Streets Department Commissioner Mike Carroll worried some cycling advocates when he told PlanPhilly in April, “We can accommodate some use of the curb for other purposes by virtue of the way we space the delineator posts.”

The issue for advocates is what the city really means by “protected.”

“If the protection is still going to accommodate loading, unloading or temporary parking, I would argue that’s not really a fully protected bike lane,” says Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “It’s something a little bit less, and it should probably be called something different.”

It bears mentioning that the first truly protected bike lane in the city, separate from those covered under TAP funding, is slated to open this summer on Ryan Avenue near Pennypack Park. A parking lane will divide it from car traffic.

Still, Stuart called the rest of the proposed lanes “a very good first start,” adding, “this is probably the best the city can do in the short term.” 

Brugger says the engineering details for each street in the protected network will come up during the design phase, after the city secures further funding. When asked about the possibility of more robust barriers like planters, she strikes a vaguely hopeful note.

“We have a lot of issues to figure out in the city before we get to that point,” she says. “The protection, and upgrading that protection, is our ultimate goal... We will likely choose a few spaces that make sense, but not in the near term.”