The State of Cycling in Philadelphia
June 1, 2012 2 Comments
A group of students organized a panel discussion of bicycling authorities last evening at the Storefront for Urban Innovation on West Girard Street to discuss the state of cycling in Philadelphia.
After a brief introduction from Diana Lind, editor in chief of Next American City, who hosted the event, a student moderator introduced the panelists. The first topic of discussion was bike safety.
“Something we’re trying to do as a bicycling movement in America is to Design facilities that are comfortable for eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds,” said Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. He said that the danger in cycling is one part actual danger and one part perception, and that people need a safe route, a place to park their bike, and to know what kind of gear they need before they are comfortable riding.
This leads into the need for education. As cycling becomes more popular, there are more cyclists out there who don’t know exactly what the rules are for them. “In the state of Pennsylvania, bicycles are classified as a vehicle … and have to follow the same rules as every vehicle out there,” said Lieutenant Mike Brady, a Philadelphia bicycle police officer. He mentioned how he often will pull over another cyclist after they have gone through a red light or rode on the sidewalk and they would be surprised that a cop would even be concerned with them.
Fortunately, despite the growth in cycling, last year had a record low for cyclist fatalities, at only two. “Two too many,” said Andrew Stober, chief of staff of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. He pointed out that most of the growth going on in Philadelphia is adjacent to major employment centers in Center City, University City and the Navy Yard, and that this makes cycling a convenient choice for new residents. “We’re putting in infrastructure that helps people get to those destinations safely,” he said.
Safety, real or perceived, is what will get more people biking. Doty mentioned that about 10% of the population will bike in current conditions and 50% will never bike no matter what, which leaves 40% who are interested but concerned with safety. He argues that off-road trails allow a safer gateway to cycling, and mentioned The Circuit, the new effort to create 750 miles of connected regional trails. Philadelphia already has twice as many bicycle commuters as its peer cities in the United States. The narrow streets of Philadelphia do present challenges, and Doty said that this keeps Philadelphia from doing the sort of large-scale infrastructure overhaul that is happening in New York. “We’re never going to be able to carve great bicycle infrastructure out of Center City,” he said, but emphasized that we need to make it a viable option.
Cyclists today are disproportionately young males, who are the most willing to take risks, but also the most willing to disregard biking laws. Stober pointed out that as more people bike and we get away form the male, 18-24 demographic, we will get safer cyclists. “And more people that vote,” chimed Doty.
Biking in Philadelphia
Doty mentioned that the 10th Street bike lane started as a pilot program, and despite being very successful, political pressures from the Chinatown community were such that the bike lane will be removed from Filbert to Vine and marked as a sharrow. John Chen, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, defended the decision, saying that Chinatown is essentially a business district, and needs visitors who drive there, as well as parking both for visitors and for loading.
The Chinatown example shows how important community involvement is. Stober mentioned that it is easy in some communities, such as at the approaches to the South Street Bridge, where residents actually asked for a buffered bike lane to calm car traffic. He said the communities around 10th, 13th, Spruce and Pine Streets needed a little more convincing, but they mostly agreed to the project, and have found good results.
there may be such a thing as too much community involvement, however. Councilman Bill Greenlee had introduced a bill that would make it such that any new bike lane had to be approved by the City Council, and that there would be no more pilot programs. Stober and others were able to work it down to only needing Council approval if a parking or travel lane were removed for the bike lane and to reinstate pilot projects, but even with these gains, no other large city has this level of interference with bike lanes. However, the city still has a great program where, if a business owner wants to replace one parking spot with a 12-spot bike rack, the city will pay for it.
Doty discussed other problems related to the Greenlee proposal. He said that trying to work by council districts (terribly gerrymandered in Philadelphia as they are) can lead to connectivity problems in the bike network. He emphasized the importance of pilot projects. “If you can put bike lanes in on a pilot basis, it shows that the world won’t come to an end,” he said. In fact, bike lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets have reduced serious accidents—including between cars—by 44%, making those streets more livable for everyone.
Julian Root, a Bicycle Ambassador for the Bicycle Coalition and courier for TimeCycle, said that bike lanes are important for making new cyclists feel safe, but being legally classified as vehicles, they have the right to travel on any street, bike lane or not. He mentioned that, while bike lanes do help with safety, he feels that there are other ways to deal with it, such as the timed lights on Pine Street that discourage people from driving over the speed limit. “I have a much bigger problem with pedestrians than with motorists,” Root said; they need to be educated about properly crossing the street. He said this was a big issue near the universities, where kids from the suburbs are having their first experience with the big city. He proposed that the universities have “Urban Basics 101” classes for incoming freshmen.
On the topic of education, Doty mentioned that local schools do have bike safety classes, but they are done off-road in gym class. By comparison, students in Germany and the Netherlands receive a “bicycle license” after six weeks of instruction. Doty said that Bicycle Ambassadors host “lunch and learns” where they teach adults about how to safely ride a bike in the city.
Bike sharing is getting another big boost in Philadelphia, after seeing successes across the country and the world. Lt. Brady said that the police were excited about the prospect of reduced congestion, but worried about bike theft.
“I think the environment is becoming right for bike share in Philadelphia,” Stober said. He answered Lt. Brady’s concern by saying that the bikes were made to be ugly, or at least conspicuous; that they were made so that parts were not easily removable; that many have GPS tracking; and that the fact that you have to be a member to check a bike out makes it so that they are sure who has a bike at any given time. He said we should see major changes in 12-24 months.
Q & A
During the closing Q & A session, many questions related to delivery trucks parking in bike lanes. Many of the panelists pointed out that delivery companies leave space in their budgets for parking tickets, so no matter how good the parking authority is about their job, the companies don’t have an incentive to follow the law. Lt. Brady said that the city was working to procure heavy tow trucks that could two delivery vehicles, and that if they could do this more regularly, it would be a much stronger deterrent. Root also mentioned that cyclists have the right to enter the main stream of traffic to go around the truck.
Doty said that there was an issue with parking authority jurisdiction. He had been told by parking authority officers that, since it was in a travel lane and not a parking spot, it wasn’t their prerogative, and that someone should call the police. He said that this related to the issue of complete streets, which would have designated loading zones for delivery trucks.
Stober pointed out that some streets in Center City do have designated loading zones, while others only allow loading in the morning so that trucks aren’t interfering with midday traffic. Although this can work in some areas, it comes back to the narrow streets of Philadelphia. There are many cases where there just isn’t enough room for everyone.
Questions also turned to taking bikes on SEPTA. Transit ridership has gone up as the economy has gone down, and has actually stayed level as it slowly continues to rise, leaving less and less room for bikes on trains and buses. Stober said that bike share and well-located bike parking near transit facilities can make up the difference for multi-modal commuters. Root reminded the audience that folding bikes are allowed on all SEPTA vehicles at all times.
Stober finished the meeting by saying that Philadelphians are famously resistant to change, and that some people will oppose these new efforts. This makes it that much more important that cyclists contact their elected officials and make sure their voices are heard.