Volunteers count vehicles in the bike lanes as upgrade work on Pine and Spruce is delayed

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)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

The bike lanes on Pine and Spruce streets are Philly’s versions of the watched pot that never boils.

While volunteers from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia engage in a week-long count of motorists blocking those Center City bike lanes, city officials announced that cyclists will need to wait a little longer for long-awaited improvements to them.

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A proposal to swap the bike lanes on Pine and Spruce to the left-hand side of those streets, and to paint them green and separate them from car traffic with some delineator posts near intersections, has been postponed until the spring, said Christopher Puchalsky, policy director in the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS). The project had been originally scheduled for this fall.

“This is a really important project, and rather than doing it quickly, rushing, we’d rather do it right,” Puchalsky said.

The work will now happen about three years after the city won federal grant money to upgrade its bike-lane network by “protecting” existing lanes with plastic delineator posts, about two years after public meetings on upgrading the routes first took place, and a little more than a year after a cyclist was killed by a garbage truck while biking down Spruce Street.

This week, a team of about 30 Bicycle Coalition volunteers has been positioned along Pine and Spruce streets to count the number of cars and trucks that stop in the bike lanes during rush hour.  Armed with clipboards, each volunteer is stationed on a single block and takes note of when, why and how a driver blocks a bike lane.

“Here, we have a Lyft driver stopping in a bike lane,” Jean Fisher said while sitting on a bench in the middle of the 900 block of Spruce around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Fisher, a Fairmount resident, estimated that 10 cyclists had to merge into vehicular traffic to get around the stopped driver while he waited about four minutes to make his pick-up.

The Lyft car was just the second blocked lane Fisher had observed since her shift started at 5 p.m. — a UPS truck making a delivery clogged the cyclist’s lane for a half-minute at the top of the hour.

“I expected a lot more blockage,” Fisher said. “Honestly, I have to wonder: What the heck would the UPS do if it couldn’t stop? Because there really isn’t any place to stop — if I were a UPS driver, I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t care about the bike lane, I have to do my job.’

“But there has to be a better solution where we can all co-exist.”

Those two short stops might have annoyed cyclists, forcing unnerving mergers into traffic, but they weren’t illegal: The bike lanes on Pine and Spruce streets are “no parking” zones, not “no stopping” zones, meaning that cars and trucks may stop in them for up to 20 minutes.

Fisher, who is training for the Bike MS City to Shore ride in September, said she avoids riding in the city along bike lanes that allow stopping — having to ride into automotive traffic to avoid standing cars scares her.

“I tried riding in the city and, I’m sorry, I’m just too much of a chicken,” she said. “I see people doing it all day, every day, but it makes me too nervous. There have been a significant number of deaths with car accidents, running into bicycles.”

The Bicycle Coalition is conducting the count to see if the now-delayed upgrades will improve conditions for cyclists along the streets, as measured by the number of cars that block the lanes before and after. According to Bike Coalition spokesman Randy LoBasso, Pine and Spruce streets are among the most popular cycling routes in the city.

“They’re always among the most used, but what’s actually pretty interesting is that, according to Philadelphia Parking Authority data, they are the most abused by motorists as well,” he said. During the first few months of 2018, the majority of PPA tickets for blocking bike lanes were written on Pine and Spruce streets.

Upgraded bike lanes, which will feature delineator posts only near some intersections rather than running the entire length of the streets, may not be enough to deter motorists from blocking the lanes, LoBasso said. Hence, the count: to determine with some modicum of quantitative certainty whether the postponed intervention will improve things for cyclists.

Puchalsky thinks it will, and make things better for motorists, too.

“I think you’re going to see an overall higher level of comfort and safety,” he said. “For [both] cyclists and motorists, the street design will give everyone a little bit more direction about where they’re supposed to be.”

Puchalsky said analysis of the streets took longer than expected, delaying the start date on the work. The parking and bike lanes along Pine and Spruce will swap sides, and new loading zones for short-term parking and deliveries will be created. New turning lanes will be added to certain intersections too, he said, and the bike lanes will be painted green through each to more visibly demarcate where drivers should watch out for cyclists. There will also be some delineator posts installed near the intersections. But the city does not intend to make the bike lanes no-standing zones or prevent automobiles from entering them with physical barriers.

The work will coincide with the repaving of both streets. Crews need relatively warm weather to repave a street, and with design work still wrapping up with fall around the corner, Puchalsky said, the upgrades will have to wait until spring.

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