The Four-Foot Berth Law Should Be The Cornerstone of Vision Zero in Philadelphia


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A few months ago when my pregnant wife and I were biking home on S. 10th Street, south of Lombard where the buffered bike lane terminates for no good reason, an impatient driver began screaming obscenities at us for taking the full lane. 

He was in a mad rush to get to the next Stop sign apparently, and scarily for us, he tailed us at an uncomfortably close range, honking and hollering. We pulled over at the next possible street, because we were afraid he was going to ram his car into us in a fit of road rage, and we were treated to some more obscenities as he passed on his way to the next Stop sign. 

This was an unusually angry person, but nearly every day on 10th Street I encounter an impatient driver honking or revving the engine who wants me to ride in the door zone. 

I used to let it happen, enduring a couple seconds of clenching where both the motorist and I would wonder if there’s really enough space for the car to make it through. 

But now that I’ve got a baby girl on the way, those days are over. Taking the full lane and not letting anybody pass me on 10th Street is the only safe thing to do, and the city and the police should back me up on that by enforcing the state’s four-foot-berth law to the letter. 

Not too many people seem to know about this, but back in 2012, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a four-foot passing law that would revolutionize street safety in Philadelphia if anybody actually enforced it.

The concept is simple: a motorist must leave four feet of space between her vehicle and a cyclist in order to legally pass.

For reference, that’s about two feet past a cyclist’s outstretched arm (though of course lengths of arms vary.)

In most areas of Pennsylvania, where streets and roads are a lot wider than in Philadelphia, this leaves plenty of room for motorists to pass cyclists. But in the more urban areas of Philadelphia, where the street plan was laid out in the 1600’s, the four feet of space required for legal passing generally aren’t available. 

The city and the Police Department seem to have taken the view that since the four-foot berth law would effectively ban motorists from passing cyclists on most streets in the urban parts of the city, the law can’t be enforced. 

But why? 

Allowing motorists to pass cyclists on our narrow streets is incredibly dangerous. It creates an expectation that cyclists should ride in the door zone, where they put themselves at risk of injury, or on the sidewalk, which is illegal and dangerous for pedestrians.

The new signs on some streets alerting motorists that Cyclists May Use Full Lane are a step forward from the Share the Road signs, but PA passed the four-foot berth law and the signs should say what the law really is: Unlawful to Pass Cyclists. 

The commonly-held idea that enforcement of the four-foot berth law would be unworkable is ridiculous. Perhaps outside of urban areas of Philly this ultrasonic device is needed to figure out whether motorists are passing within four feet, but in the urban core, enforcing the law would be easy: Is a motorist passing a cyclist? Then give him a ticket. 

Enforcing the four-foot berth law to the letter should be the cornerstone of Philly’s Vision Zero policy in the Kenney administration. It would drastically improve street safety by letting bikes set the pace of traffic, thereby throwing a big slow blanket over the urban core. 

And it would have the added benefit of growing the coalition for dedicated bike infrastructure. The only way to get me to stop riding in the middle of S. 10th Street is to extend the buffered bike lane further South from Lombard. That’s currently a tough political lift, given the unchecked power of the parking lobby, but getting the bike lane would be a lot easier if Councilman Johnson was also hearing from motorists tired of crawling along at bike speeds, and tired of getting tickets for trying to pass cyclists. 

In New York, Vision Zero advocates had to engage in a big state-level fight to get the authority to lower neighborhood speed limits to 20 mph. Here in Pennsylvania, we don’t need to go to the state legislature again to lower driving speeds on Philadelphia’s streets. We just need the next administration to enforce the four-foot berth law we already have. 

Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 June 2015 @ 00.18
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.