What is a protected bike lane? A protected bicycle lane is one that has some physical obstacle between automobile lanes and bicycle lanes. In Philadelphia that has meant typically flexible posts as can be seen on the South Street Bridge over the Schuylkill River, but the obstacle can be anything from planters to parked cars. Philadelphia introduced its first parking protected lane on Ryan Avenue last year.
Protected bike lanes, and even bike lines divided by vehicle travel lines simply by paint, have an effect on road safety for everyone. As architecture critic Inga Saffron recently wrote, "What opponents overlook is that bike lanes clarify where everyone should be and improve traffic flow. They're like a demilitarized zone in the way they separate the factions: cars, bikes, and pedestrians."
How many protected bike lanes does Philadelphia have? Not many. About 200 miles of Philadelphia streets have bike lanes, and of those about 2.5 miles are protected.
This year, the city received a $250,000 grant to create protected bicycle lanes, giving the city a total of $550,000 for the cause. That should be enough for about 25 miles of protected lanes. Not much has happened this year, though a protected bike lane did open on Chestnut Street between 45th and 34th Streets in August. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia said Wednesday that the pressure would be on the city in 2018 to follow through on Mayor Kenney's goal of 30 miles of new protected bike lanes by 2022.
"Yes, the pace is too slow," said Sarah Clark Stuart, the Bicycle Coalition's executive director. "I understand the constraints the city has. They've exercised the muscle, and they have to accelerate the pace."
Installing protected bike lanes was listed as an action item in the city's Vision Zero safe streets initiative report in September, but no specific locations were included.
What's the hold up? Money, of course, is an issue, but Philadelphia's City Council has a lot of influence on where, and if, protected bike lanes come to the city. A protected bicycle lane needs to be nine feet wide – six feet for the lane of travel and another three to make space for the divider. Any street redesign that takes a travel lane away from cars requires Council approval, something that can be tough to achieve if constituents don't want to lose the driving lane.
Even if Council approval isn't technically needed, as on streets where bike lanes already have a painted buffer that can be made more robust, Council members can use political clout to keep the protections from being installed, Clark Stuart said.
What should urban bikers do in the mean time? Be observant. Be visible. If possible bikes with groups or in areas where other bikers will be. Obey the rules of the road.
For instance, if you and a car show up side by side at an intersection, the car's about to turn right and you're about to go straight, know that you have the right of way – but be sure to keep an eye on that car.
"Philadelphia is a safe place to bike," Clark Stuart said, "but it should be a safer place to bike and it should be a safer place for anyone to move, whether it's walking or using a wheelchair or driving."