Bike Talk: Politicians, Stay in Your Lane


Photo: Plan Philly

Photo: Plan Philly

As is too often the case in Philadelphia, when a project takes one step forward, someone, somewhere, decides to bring it two steps back. 

That one step forward happened for bicycling infrastructure last summer, when Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced an ordinance that would allow for a protected bike lane along 11 blocks of Chestnut Street, between 45th and 34th streets.

Her support of the new streetscape came after six years of advocacy in the area—meetings with business and community associations, hours of door-knocking, crash analyses and so on. It was a major victory, but nothing like what advocates originally pushed for: a bike lane between 22nd and 63rd streets. Blackwell said her constituents west of 45th didn’t want the infrastructure, despite several letters of support from community groups, and blocked the extension.

Because legislators in Philadelphia are allowed to do that.

For cyclists who commute through West Philly, the small section of protection has been life-changing. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia found a 63 percent increase in bicycle traffic along Chestnut at 34th streets since the lane was installed, with only a three-minute delay in vehicular traffic. A University City District study found a decrease in crashes in the corridor.

As for those two steps back? 

Councilwoman Blackwell turned against the bike lane in record time. At the lane’s unveiling, she publicly demanded the Streets Department make the lane temporary, even though she wrote and introduced the law that made the lane permanent. 

In a Philadelphia magazine interview in February, Blackwell called the project the biggest mistake of her several-decade career in City Council. And later that month, she introduced legislation to require a Council ordinance for “any modification to an existing bicycle lane that would affect the flow of traffic.”

Her legislation would have meant that district Council members—not planners or engineers—would have final say over whether the city adds, for example, more paint or physical protection to any existing bike lane, while making it harder, costlier and more time consuming for Philadelphia to create safer streets. 

Blackwell walked her legislation back at March’s Vision Zero Conference, citing both Councilman Mark Squilla and the Bicycle Coalition as having changed her mind. This was very welcome news, but it put the spotlight on another issue: City Council can bring up legislation like this, and often does, as a first resort. Such legislation makes streets more dangerous and slows Philadelphia’s commitment to zero traffic deaths by 2030.

This law has already slowed down Philadelphia’s progress, especially when compared to other cities.

While Philadelphia has installed 2.5 miles of protected bike lanes since 2007, New York City, for example, has installed 98 miles.

NYC’s vehicular deaths are also plunging while Philly’s roughly 100 yearly traffic deaths remain stagnant. 

Bike lanes are proven traffic-calming measures that make travel safer for everyone. That includes people in cars and on the sidewalk. Philadelphia is lagging behind other cities specifically because of the 2012 ordinance. What Blackwell did not mention in her speech at Vision Zero 2018: the sheer pressure on City Council to ditch her bill. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, 5th Square and people all over Philadelphia signed petitions, emailed and called politicians, demanding they not hinder the city’s Vision Zero program.

Such organizing will continue next time City Council inevitably decides to take two steps back.

Randy Lobasso is the communications manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

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