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Changing Skyline: Pedaling in a lane that's their own

The Philadelphia Inquirer: Changing Skyline: Pedaling in a lane that’s their own

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic

I was idling at a red light on 17th Street the other afternoon, at ease on my nameless, burgundy-colored three-speed as I enjoyed the gentle fall sun, when a taxi driver pulled up in the left lane and barked: "Do you always stop at lights?"
I figured I’d answer honestly. "I try to," I told him.

"Then I’ll give you respect," he allowed, before flooring the gas and charging off into Center City traffic.

Though his tone was grudging, I considered the exchange a hopeful break in the long-running cycle of animosity that seems to divide drivers and bicyclists in Philadelphia. I’ll never forget a previous conversation with a motorist waiting behind me at a red light near Rittenhouse Square. That guy threatened to run me over unless I got out of "his" lane.

Yet, for all the palpable anger on the streets these days, times have never been better for the urban cyclist. In June, Mayor Nutter issued an executive order compelling the city to give equal treatment to bikers, drivers, and pedestrians, redressing an imbalance that has existed virtually since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.

In short order, his transportation czar, Rina Cutler, launched a bold experiment to put policy into practice. With a few cans of white paint, her staff reconfigured the traffic stripes on Pine and Spruce Streets to transfer a car lane’s worth of asphalt to the bicycle. If the new bike lanes pass a city review in December, the city will create more permanent versions, perhaps with colored asphalt, when the two streets undergo their scheduled resurfacing next summer.

To anyone who travels on two wheels, it’s already clear that the new bike zone has solved a major headache: getting crosstown in Center City during business hours. The generous lanes, separated from cars by a hatched buffer, provide the missing link in Philadelphia’s growing downtown bike circuit, connecting the successful Schuylkill Banks trail to the brand-new, 1.3-mile Delaware River bike path that opened this month between Lombard Street and Pier 70.

Already, bike traffic on the two city streets has more than doubled, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Just as important, the reallocation of space has brought a welcome order to every form of ambulation. Now that drivers, bikers, and walkers have clearly defined boundaries, they appear to be interacting better on those streets. That can’t help but make bikers safer.

For all that, resistance to the new bike lanes remains intense. Some motorists are convinced that any gain for the bicycle is a loss for the car. Exactly one day after the bike lanes debuted, Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky gave voice to their resentment when he denounced the city’s decision to sacrifice "precious space" to two-wheeled vehicles.

"I like bicycles," he explained. "It’s bicyclists I hate."

In making his case, Bykofsky offered up the usual litany of accusations against cyclists: They ride on sidewalks. They ignore stop signs and red lights. They weave through traffic.

He’s right that some bicyclists ignore the rules. In Pennsylvania, bikes are considered slow-moving vehicles, much like horse-drawn carriages and tractors, and need to follow traffic laws. Sadly, a bicyclist may have been responsible for last week’s death of pedestrian Andre Steed near 16th and Locust Streets, a hit-and-run as unconscionable as any involving a car.

But let’s remember that drivers don’t always behave perfectly either. And those disorderly Goliaths are far more likely to kill you when they break the rules. Yet no one would ever suggest that cars don’t deserve space on the city streets because a small percentage of motorists flout the traffic laws.

One of the most common complaints Cutler has heard about the new bike lanes is that they’ve slowed traffic to a "snail’s pace" on Pine and Spruce Streets. Her retort: "Traffic has always moved at a snail’s pace."

Actually, calming traffic is a good thing, improving the quality of life for residential neighborhoods and pedestrians alike. Philadelphia has allowed too many downtown streets to evolve into raceways. Besides, the extra driving time on the two streets is minimal: If the traveling speed across Center City is reduced from 30 to 20 miles per hour, that adds just two minutes to the two-mile trip.

Still, it’s no surprise that some motorists would perceive themselves as the injured party in the city’s decision to reallocate its street space. The same psychology causes people to clamor for more highways and parking garages, even though they know deep down that cities with easy driving and parking are cities that no one cares to visit.

There remain some bugs to work out before Cutler’s transportation staff makes the bike lanes permanent. Many drivers see the new zone as a convenient place for short-term, and sometimes, long-term, parking. During a recent trip, it seemed there was at least one vehicle blocking the lane on every block. Contractors’ trucks seemed to dominate. The city also allows churchgoers to park in the bike lanes on Sundays, rendering them useless.

Cutler suggests educational advertising could help, followed by stricter police enforcement. That includes getting tough with wayward bicyclists, especially those who ride on the sidewalks.

No less an authority than David Byrne, the former Talking Heads front man, makes a good point in his new book on urban cycling, Bicycle Diaries. "If bikers want to be treated better by motorists and pedestrians then they have to obey the traffic laws."

So next time a motorist stops you at a red light, tell him that’s exactly what you’re doing.