Submitted by Geoff Kees Thompson on
It’s been 6 years since the city installed buffered bike lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets. Public meetings were held and neighbors raised their voices in support and opposition. Concerns about the lanes varied from safety to traffic. The lanes would cause backups and severe congestion said some. The lanes would make Spruce and Pine less safe since cyclists are scofflaws said others.
Well 6 years have passed and though a few marginal improvements have occurred like the re-timing of lights and re-paving, the Spruce and Pine lanes themselves have largely stayed the same. In the meantime we’ve seen Philadelphia’s cycling rates go up and vehicular rates of speed on Spruce and Pine go down, benefiting pedestrians, cyclists and yes motorists (few accidents) alike. Car traffic hasn’t been significantly affected despite the closure of a car lane. More people are realizing the convenience and affordability of cycling as a commuter in Philadelphia.
Even before Philadelphia launches Bike Share next spring, which is expected to drive cycling rates up further, the city can make cycling even safer. Public meetings on the Spruce and Pine lanes several years ago mentioned possible further intervention, like painting the lanes green or using tinted asphalt to further demarcate them. Neither of these have occurred.
Though paint or colored asphalt more clearly demarcate the space to cyclists, there are few key problems with these approaches. Most notably, cars can still intrude into cyclists’ space. Paint does nothing to prevent this. Painting green lanes is expensive and wears off. Colored asphalt, like that used in the Netherlands for bike lanes, is not commonly used here as a road standard and is also expensive. Just like paint, unless a curb is put in, cars can still intrude.
So what would better Spruce and Pine bike lanes look like? As we’ve written about previously, DC and New York have installed true protected bike lanes, with curb lines, planters or a row of parked cars to give cyclists protection from cars. Dedicated bike-only infrastructure drives up cycling rates by giving folks more concerned about safety, a true dedicated and protected space to cycle. The closest thing we have to this in Philly runs about a quarter mile in an area not yet heavily used by cyclists. A true improvement to the Spruce and Pine bike lanes would mean converting them from a striped off buffered bike lane to truly protected lanes using materials that wouldn’t need significant roadwork or labor to install. Large planters would do this by simultaneously beautifying and greening the street and wouldn’t require disruptive and expensive road work to install. Planters also make cyclists feel the safest according to a recent study.
Protected lanes with physical impediments for cars drive up cycling rates more effectively than merely painting off lanes. The more cyclists we count in Philly, the less standard vehicular traffic. Offering a safer cycle route means greater transit choice for those who don’t wish to pay for the expense of a cab, the lack of frequency and routes of SEPTA buses, or the hassle of moving and parking their car. Cycling is also nearly free. In this way cycling is the most egalitarian of transit options for all Philadelphians, low income or high.
The forces preventing Spruce and Pine from hosting these safer protected lanes is two fold: political and lack of perspective. First the political. Installation of these planters would mean that the temporary loading areas (i.e. bike lanes) that delivery trucks and private cars use now would no longer be available. This problem is not insurmountable however.
Right now the left sides of Spruce and Pine are dedicated nearly exclusively to residential permit parking. Someone with a corresponding parking permit can leave their car indefinitely in the public space, though others may need that space. Just like Walnut and Locust to the north have areas dedicated for temporary loading, so too could Spruce and Pine. These loading zones could take out roughly two parking spaces per block from river to river leading to a net loss of 88 spaces (22 blocks x 2 cars x 2 streets) between Front and 22nd, where the lanes end. Loading zones installed mid-block would allow delivery trucks to idle while they run deliveries to buildings on Pine and Spruce as they do today. Drop-offs could occur in these areas for private cars too.
Installation of planters as protection to cyclists would also mean that the Saturday and Sunday use of bike lanes as overflow parking for religious institutions would come to an end on Spruce and Pine. However, the city has never adequately policed the policy of church and synagogue parking overflow. The lanes are only to be parked in by members of the congregations who display proof of their membership. This is not enforced, as many who park don’t display congregational placards. Regardless, there’s even a website to create fake ones. The hours of enforcement are not clear either. “No Stopping” signs have been left up along the street despite this not really being true near houses of worship. How late does one attend church or synagogue? Why are their special rules for congregants who can pay to put their car in a lot if coming from a far flung suburb? Making special rules for congregations is something rooted in tradition and politics. It has nothing to do with good policy and puts our cyclists at risk.
Lack of perspective is driving some poor choices by planners as well. As we've mentioned before, avid cyclists already using streets to commute are not the target audience cylcling advocates should be building infrastructure for. The interested but concerned category of cyclists is where we'll see our largest growth in cycling in Philadelphia and throughout the country. Many more people would cycle if they felt it were safer and less stressful to do so. Paint on a roadway just doesn't cut it. A true buffer from cars does. Cycling organizations and planners themselves would do well to constantly remind themselves of this and advocate for more transformative change towards bicycle infrastructure. The Philadelphia bike plan for Spruce and Pine treats these streets the same way it does today. This is a putting the bar far too low for future generations increasingly interested in urban living and bike lanes.
It’s been 6 years since the Spruce and Pine lanes have gone in. They create a vital east-west connection for cyclists, calm traffic and make Spruce and Pine safer for all. If we’re serious about driving cycling rates up further and reaping the benefits of less car traffic, healthier citizens, greater transit choice and a more economical mode of transport for all of Philadelphia’s economic classes it’s time to take them to the next level. The time for protected bike lanes has come.
You can read more about protected lanes in this recent post at Next City, where you'll also find graphs and insights across other cities.