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Bike lanes 101: How Philly went from bike lane-averse to No. 4 in the U.S.

Right now, the prospective future mayors of Philadelphia aren’t just talking about bike lanes, they’re talking about protected bike lanes. At a recent forum on transit spearheaded by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, they discussed these lanes, their cycling history, the possibility of following a Swedish-based safety plan known as Vision Zero and more.  This forum led Philly Mag’s Patrick Kerkstra to proclaim the riders had won: The city, from now on, will have to pay much more attention to their concerns.

And it’s true. Philadelphia has come a long way concerning bicycles and bike lanes in particular. In the entire decade of the 1980s, the phrase “bike lane” wasn’t even published in the Inquirer or the Daily News, let alone considered a priority for local politicians. In the 90s, it took a tragedy and a threat from the EPA to advance the conversation. Now, Philadelphia continually ranks among the top cities for bikeability.

How did Philadelphia get here? What do bike lanes do for the city? What’s next for bike lanes? Billy Penn tackles these questions and more in Bike Lanes 101.

How many miles of bike lanes does Philadelphia have and where are they?

About 430 miles if you count the actual length of total bike lanes. If you count in “street miles” (so a street that has bike lanes on both sides would only be counted for one of those directions) it’s about 230 miles.

Check out this map to see where all the lanes are.

How does this compare to other big cities?

Really well. Philadelphia ranks fifth among big American cities for total bike lane miles and fourth in bike lane miles per square mile, at 4.3, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking. San Francisco, the leader in bike lane miles per square mile, comes in at 7.8, and Austin and Long Beach are the only two other cities ahead of Philadelphia.

When did bike lanes become a thing here?  

Pretty much starting in 1995. Back then, Philadelphia’s lone painted bike lane was on Columbus Boulevard, along the Delaware River. Five years later, Philadelphia had around 150 miles of bike lanes.

In the early 90s, local and state leaders could not have cared less about adding bike lanes here. PennDOT favored bike paths over bike lanes, and in 1991 refused to install a bike lane on the newly-redesigned Walnut Street bridge that connects Center City and University City, even though the cycling community strongly lobbied for one. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the bridge, many cyclists lay down in protest. It wasn’t until several years later that the bridge finally got a bike lane.

How did the city and state become interested in bike lanes?

Support for bike lanes greatly increased after a tragic event and a threat from the federal government.

In the spring of 1992, nationally-renowned endocrinologist Maurice Attie was killed by a drunk driver while riding along the Schuylkill on West River Drive. His death prompted Fairmount Park to limit vehicle traffic in that area and ban it during portions of weekends — an idea that had been recommended two years earlier. Though the exact issue wasn’t bike lanes, it helped jumpstart the conversation for bike safety in general.

In 1995, leaders started paying more attention to the upside of having more cyclists when the EPA threatened to cut transportation funds if the region didn’t decrease its share of solo drivers by 25 percent. Federal funding for bike-related projects also became available starting in 1992 and and has increased rapidly since the late 90s.

In 2000, with about 150 to 200 miles of bike lanes, Philadelphia set a goal to have 300 miles of either bike lanes or bike-friendly streets within a decade.

What has Mayor Michael Nutter done for bike lanes?

According to Newsworks, the total miles of Philadelphia bike lanes have increased by 13 percent during Nutter’s tenure. Though that amount isn’t too large, the lanes that have been installed have helped connect the overall system and made Center City a lot more bikeable. Even when Philadelphia was starting to install bike lanes in the late 90s and early 2000s, many riders complained that the lanes weren’t well-connected and seemed to end without any rhyme or reason. If you look at this map made by Newsworks, that appears to be less of a problem. Bike lanes added by Nutter on Spruce Street and Pine Street help connect bikers who want to travel in bike lanes to the South Street Bridge and Walnut Street Bridge. Other lanes have made it easier to bike from Center City to Southwest Philly and along the Delaware.

Why do bike lanes matter?

To help the environment and reduce congestion, Philadelphia wants to cut down on its number of drivers, supplanting them with people who walk, ride public transit or bike. For years, studies have shown that the number of people who commute to work via bicycle would jump substantially if people considered it safe to bike. And bike lanes attract more riders. The city found in 2014 that Philadelphia riders would go out of their way to use streets that have bike lanes and that streets with the best bike lanes saw more cyclists and more cyclists using helmets.

One recent study also showed that safer streets with bike lanes can lead to increased property values and fewer car accidents.

What do bike lane proponents want next?

More protected lanes. Protected bike lanes are lanes set off by parked cars, posts, fencing or other barriers. Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, said at the mayoral forum on transportation earlier this month that Philadelphia needed more of these lanes to keep its lead as the city among the country’s 10 biggest with the most commuters who bike to work.

In 2012, the city came out with a comprehensive plan for improving bicycling in Philadelphia, and as you can see from their list of priorities, upgrading and installing lanes in and around Center City is important.

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And all the mayoral candidates are cool with bike lanes?

Pretty much. Lynne Abraham said at the transit forum she didn’t want a protected bike lane on JFK Boulevard because it could negatively affect the elderly population around there, but otherwise she and everyone else said they are in favor of more bike lanes.

Has the city done anything recently that could negatively impact the addition of more bike lanes?

Sort of. In 2012, Council passed a bill that would require Council approval to get a bike lane installed. Philadelphia is the only city in America to have that requirement, according to Next City. When the bill was originally proposed in 2011, cycling advocates panned it. The bill that actually passed was considered an improvement but didn’t exactly enthuse, with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia taking the stance that the bill could bog down the process of installing new lanes.

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