Philadelphians bike more than you probably think they do. In fact, of the ten biggest cities in the U.S., Philly has the highest percentage of bicycle commuters.
According to a 2013 a U.S. Census Bureau survey, 2.3 percent of all Philadelphians bike to work. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s actually more than 14,000 people. The next closest city is Chicago at 1.4%, followed by Los Angeles at 1.2% — about half the rate of Philadelphia’s.
And that 2 percent doesn’t include many of the more casual riders who use bikes to get around town. There’s no solid data available on how many of those cyclists there are, but just look around. There are more bikes on city streets every day.
So it’s weird that Philadelphia — bike capital of urban America — doesn’t have any protected bike lanes.
And what are protected bike lanes, exactly? Think of them as sidewalks for bikes: dedicated lanes, just for bikes, protected from vehicle traffic and separated from pedestrians by curbs, planters, parked cars or even simple traffic posts.
And what’s so great about that? Protected bike lanes feel much safer, and they’re far more welcoming to less-experienced bikers who may not exactly relish hip-checking Hondas on Market Street.
Despite those advantages, and Philadelphia’s rep as a biking mecca, the city lags well behind Chicago and New York, which already have 17.7 and 31 miles of protected bike lanes respectively. A bunch of smaller cities have also built protected bike lanes, including Boston, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, Austin and Washington D.C.
So what gives in Philadelphia? A few factors. The city’s paving budget has been starved in recent years; many of Philly’s old streets aren’t wide enough to accommodate bike lanes, parking and traffic; and Philadelphia has fewer big arterial boulevards than does New York and Chicago does, which are the avenues that typically make the best candidates for protected bike lanes, due to their width. On top of that, there is, in some quarters, political hostility toward bike lanes (though there are also signs that hostility is ebbing).
But let’s set all that aside for now. If there were the resources, and the political will, where should Philadelphia be constructing protected bike lanes? We checked in with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia for their top 10 protected bike lane candidates.
1. Ryan Avenue – End to end.
2. Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia.
3. Market and JFK Streets from 29th Street to City Hall.
4. Erie Avenue – End to end
5. Spring Garden Street from Columbus Boulevard to Pennsylvania Avenue.
6. Roosevelt Boulevard from Hunting Park to Bensalem.
7. 5th Street from Market Street to Erie Avenue.
8. Lindbergh Boulevard – End to end.
9. 20th Street from Penrose Avenue to Pattison Avenue (with a protected intersection at 20th and Penrose).
10. Passyunk Avenue From 22nd Street to Essington.
It’s important to note that what we have here isn’t simply a wish list. BCGP settled on these roads as good candidates for protected bike lane candidates for two main reasons: First, they are wide enough to fit a protected bike lane, which needs roughly eight extra feet (five for the actual bike lane, and three for a buffer between the bike lane and the road). Second, certain roads were prioritized for safety reasons. For instance, Roosevelt Boulevard is notorious for being one of the most treacherous roads in
Philadelphia the nation, and could greatly benefit from a protected bike lane.
Another important note is some of these roads are closer to acquiring protected bike lanes than others. See #1: Ryan Avenue. As we reported late last month, the city has committed to giving Ryan Avenue a protected bike lane in the 2015 paving plan — so it look’s like that’s going to happen. Chestnut Street isn’t as definite, but the city has conducted a traffic study on the road, which concluded that if the city were to remove a lane of motor vehicle travel, “it would not appreciably increase the amount of time that it would take for cars to move through the corridor,” says Sarah Clark Stuart, BCGP’s Deputy Director. “So they concluded that a protected bike lane could be put in, but that’s as far as they’ve gotten,” she added, meaning that the city still has to jump through numerous hoops to get a protected bike lane put in, including finding the money and seeing if the residents located near the road even want protected bike lanes in the first place.
This brings us to Market and JFK, both of which Stuart claims are great protected bike lane candidates because “they’re way too big.” This is evidenced by a 2011 traffic study conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Transportation & Utilities, which concluded that if the left-most lane on both streets was removed in favor of a bike lane, traffic flow would not be significantly compromised.
The remaining seven roads on the list are a bit more aspirational than the first three. No studies have been conducted on these streets, though, according to the BCGP’s research they should be wide enough to squeeze in a protected bike lane, making them plausible choices.
In addition, #9 on the list, 20th Street from Pennrose to Pattison, is notable in that BCGP considers it a good candidates for a protected intersection at 20th and Penrose. A protected intersection is basically an intersection with islands near the corners of the intersection, which prohibits cars from cutting corners too tight, guarding bicyclists from turning cars. They look like this:
Intersections like these are fairly common in Europe, especially in the northern parts of the continent in cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. However, “it’s a little more complicated that just sort of plopping stuff in the intersection,” says BCGP research director John Boyle. He notes that in order for the concept to work, the intersection requires a set of traffic lights for the bike lane. “The whole idea is that you’re trying to reduce the conflict between turning vehicles and bicycles as much as possible. And the way those protected intersections do it … is that the bicyclist is often in the view of the driver at the light, and so they get a little head start. So that’s where the signalization and positioning comes in.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Philly has a long way to go before it starts to resemble the bicycle-choked streets of Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Although a protected bike lane, or 10, would be a good step.