Six ways Philly can woo Amazon with better bike lanes

Protesters demanding protected bike lanes form a human barrier on Nov. 28, stretching for two blocks along Spruce Street near 11th Street, where a cyclist was killed by a garbage truck the previous morning. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Protesters demanding protected bike lanes form a human barrier on Nov. 28, stretching for two blocks along Spruce Street near 11th Street, where a cyclist was killed by a garbage truck the previous morning. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

When Amazon put out its request for bids for its second headquarters, it announced that it wanted a city that was bike friendly. Philadelphia’s bid specifically responded to this, touting the “livability” of the city with its centrally located bike lanes as one of the main attractions.

In light of the recent news about our bike lanes, though, Philadelphia may need to think about doing more to impress Amazon. On Nov. 29, Emily Fredricks was hit by a trash truck and killed while biking to work in the bike lane at 11th and Spruce streets. On Dec. 15, Becca Refford was biking to a medical appointment when she was hit by a truck in the bike lane on the 1200 block of Pine Street. Thankfully, Becca is recovering, though it looks like it will take almost half a year for her to be fully healthy

I don’t know either of these women, but they easily could have been me. Ever since the Spruce and Pine street bike lanes opened almost a decade ago, I’ve spent nearly every working morning biking west on Spruce Street from Fifth to 22nd and then every working afternoon biking east on Pine Street from 23rd to Sixth. That two people doing what I do almost every day were seriously injured, or worse, while legally cycling in a marked bike lane frightens me and other commuting cyclists I know to the core.

What I can tell you from my experience on these two bike paths is that, while I and other commuters appreciate that Philadelphia has committed to bike paths in the heart of the city and beyond, the city needs to do better to make sure not only that we use them but that we survive them as well.

Here are six straightforward things Philadelphia can do to improve biking in the city. They each present their own challenges, but if we care about biking, we need to care about safe biking as well.

1. Protected bike lanes
This solution has been the most talked about since the accidents. Putting a barrier between cyclists and cars — whether flexible poles, concrete dividers, parked cars, or something else — would protect cyclists from cars turning or wandering into the bike lane. Protected bike lanes are all over New York City. Can’t Philadelphia do the same?

2. Repaint the lines
Throughout the city, the painted bike lane lines have almost disappeared in places. Drivers familiar with the bike lane know what’s going on, but drivers who are new to the street would have no reason to know that a portion of the street is reserved for cyclists. Bright lanes visible to all —that are repainted whenever they fade — will save lives.

3. Unobstructed bike lanes
It’s a rare commuting day for me when I don’t come across at least a dozen cars, trucks, or vans parked in the bike lane. And that’s just for a single leg of my commute. These vehicles are using the bike lane as their own short-term parking zone. That is not what the bike lane is for, and Philadelphia needs to crack down on this. Every vehicle parked in the bike lane requires cyclists to swerve into the lane of traffic in order to pass. Doing so not only risks the cyclist’s own safety, but it also surprises the motorists who now have to deal with a cyclist in their lane. This is not safe for anyone.

4. Smooth street surfaces
Bike on the Center City bike lanes, and you’ll notice something very quickly — the countless utility covers that are not flush with the surface of the street. Drivers don’t worry about these uneven surfaces because car tires are big enough to ride over them almost without noticing. But bicyclists, with their skinny tires and only two wheels, risk crashing if they go over these uneven surfaces. To avoid these hazards, most cyclists swerve around them, creating safety problems for themselves and others. These need to be fixed immediately.

5. Crack down on drivers using cell phones
Almost every close call I’ve had with a car has involved a driver using a cell phone. It is already illegal to do so here while driving. But Philadelphia also needs to actually stop drivers from this dangerous behavior. This would benefit not only bikers, but also other drivers and pedestrians.

6. Get rid of left-side bike lanes
The city has several left-hand bike lanes. These are confusing to drivers and cyclists alike. No one is taught while learning how to bike to cycle on the left-hand side. And no driver is taught to look for cyclists on the driver’s side as opposed to the passenger side. These left-side lanes are well-meaning but ultimately dangerous and need to be changed.

I am under no illusion that all of these fixes are easy. However, they are all necessary so that Philadelphia is not merely creating space for cyclists, but creating safe space for cyclists. Implementing these reforms would go a long way to showing Philadelphia citizens — and Amazon — that the city cares about livability and isn’t just leading its cyclists to the slaughter.

David S. Cohen is a professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.