Keep Your Veto Power Off My Bike Lanes

City Council's got bigger problems to solve.

Last week, Coucilman William Greenlee reintroduced legislation that would give City Council veto power over any new bike lanes in the city. Here’s hoping that, like last year, at the very least, the bill is met with vehement opposition and held up again—and at best, it’s permanently kicked to the proverbial curb.

Like last year’s iteration, introduced not long after some communities objected to the city’s decision to install a southbound bike lane on 10th Street through Center City (a companion to the less controversial northbound lane on 13th), this year’s model, co-sponsored by Councilman Mark Squilla and Council President Darrell Clarke, seems timed in hopes of keeping the lane from becoming permanent.

As Greenlee explained in a Newsworks interview—in which 10th Street is handily trotted out as an example of a bike lane that might get the veto treatment due to objections by members of the Chinatown community and Jefferson Hospital—the alleged impetus is to bring consistency to the process of designating street use. Council, you see, decides when streets are changed, say, from two-way to one-way, from running east to running west, etc. Greenlee makes it sound almost reasonable, going so far as to dangle the idea that the bill will allow Council to make permanent those lanes it does find acceptable. Except that the bill isn’t reasonable. Not at all. Here why:

First off, let’s get the pro forma “why bikes and bicyclists are good for the city” stuff out of the way: Consider that a burgeoning cycling population signals a move toward progressive sustainable transportation and cityscapes, and that bicycle infrastructure has myriad well-documented economic benefits for a downtown area.

The problem with this bill is, bicyclists, beneficial as they are, are a minority. And the places that cities that hope to encourage cycling must grant those cyclists access to are inherently congested, high-traffic areas. And pick any street in a crowded downtown and you’re going to find some neighborhood or a business or an institution that will fight a bike lane tooth and nail on the grounds that it’s bad for business/parking/etc. (We’ll call it the NIMPS syndrome: Not In My Parking Space.)

Bike lanes are not an issue of function, they’re an issue of access. Imagine if the issue was not one of bike lanes but, say, wheelchair ramps. Sure, you can drive your Rascal in the street, but it sure as hell isn’t safe. Though the analogy is maybe a little extreme, cyclists certainly can bike with auto traffic, but it’s not as safe, and without bike lanes you’ll find greatly diminished bike traffic to and from Center City.

Bike lanes, despite their agreed-upon benefits in urban-planning circles, already have enough impediments to implementation (granted, not the least of which is the bad image some cyclists give the good ones). Do we need to add politics to the list? Have we forgotten the Spruce/Pine saga? Transportation should be a matter of good civic policy, with the understanding that good civic policy does not necessarily please everyone even as it strives to ultimately benefit everyone.

Of all the things the city needs—an equitable property tax system, or a functioning school system, for starters—what it doesn’t need is more impediments to bike lanes, and another avenue of bureaucracy.