Drivers don’t want to get anywhere near your bike when there’s a four-foot-long pool noodle poking out from the side. That’s the lesson Billy Penn learned this week when we put the bike passing law to the test.
Then-Gov. Tom Corbett (yes, really!) signed the Safe Passing Bill in 2012, which states, among other things: “The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a pedalcycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the pedalcycle within not less than four feet at a careful and prudent reduced speed.”
House Bill 170 was introduced in January 2011 by Rep. Ron Miller, R – York, and 15 other members of the House — none of whom represent Philadelphia.
Which is what brought us to the Indego bike share station at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday with a couple of pool noodles and some zip ties. It seems reasonable that a driver in rural Pennsylvania should be able to clear four feet of passing space when coming up on a bike. But what happens in a city of 1.5 million when bikes, cars and buses are regularly using the same narrow space? Throw in some potholes, pedestrians forced into the street by construction fences and the occasional Segway tour and it’s a miracle we’re all not sitting in perpetual stand-still traffic.
So we used some Bungees and Zip Ties to attach four-foot-long noodles to an Indego bike (reporter Mark Dent’s bike was being repaired) and even more Zip Ties to secure intern Jenna Eason’s expensive camera to the front basket of a second Indego bike (the camera would have interfered with the brake lines on my bike). I wore the helmet camera I ride around with daily, and Mark also attached a GoPro to his front basket.
We left Thomas Paine Plaza shortly before 3 p.m. with Mark in front as I recorded the noodle action from about five feet behind him and headed south and east around City Hall, which was an absolute disaster.
Mark and I are regular, experienced Philly cyclists, so we weren’t unprepared for the Penn Square cluster. But riding around with the noodles was downright terrifying. There’s a shiny new lefthand bike lane on the west side of Dilworth Park. We couldn’t really fit in it because 1) some cars were parked in it and 2) the noodle pushed Mark to the edge of the lane. What’s most problematic though is that we needed to be on the righthand side of the street to continue along Penn Square and go south on Broad Street. The lefthand bike lane ends abruptly, so there we were, two noodle- and camera-clad bike share riders attempting to cross multiple lanes of car traffic. There was honking.
We rode south on Broad to Pine, which wasn’t too bad. We took the entire right lane — which bikes are legally allowed to do. The right side noodle bonked a few parked cars on the way down, but cars mostly gave us enough space on the left because we were using a whole lane of traffic that kept us within the painted white lines. Tourists took photos from atop their double decker bus. We stopped at every red light — perhaps the sorest subject in the bikes vs. cars debate — because the noodles didn’t leave enough room for us to ride between cars.
It’s worth mentioning here that the way the law is written requires drivers to allow four feet of space for bikes, but not the other way around.
Traffic was relatively calm and we were able to signal left and use the turning lane to head east on Pine Street, where we ran into trouble. Pine Street has one lane for car traffic and one lane dedicated for bikes. But maybe the second sorest subject in the bikes vs. cars debate is drivers parking in the bike lanes, as was the case on this sunny afternoon. So we found ourselves trying to squeeze between the illegally parked cars on our right and the moving cars to our left with less than four feet of space. And here’s what makes the Safe Passing law so tough to abide by and enforce — without the noodle as a visual, there was really no way for us or for drivers to judge the distance. We barely fit between a parked truck and the few moving cars that didn’t yield. At one point I even told Mark not to bother trying to pass, fearing the left noodle would get snagged on a car tire and drag him down with it.
Maybe the noodle helped drivers realize how much space they need to safely pass. Maybe we just looked like two weirdos who shouldn’t be messed with. Whatever the case, drivers mostly yielded to us, allowing us to stay on pace and pass without any noodle-bonking or honks. We were feeling pretty good. Maybe a little too good. So we made a left on 11th Street to tackle northbound traffic and some trolley tracks. The fucking trolley tracks.
We rode smack down the middle of the tracks, left noodle dragging sadly along the ground and right noodle bopping along on the handlebar. Everything was fine until two lanes became one because there were more cars stopped in what should be a lane of traffic. So there we were, still sporting our noodles and cameras and now with a decent sheen of sweat, trying to merge with cars at exactly the right angle so as not to get a tire snagged in the tracks. We’ll never know if it was generosity or bewilderment that prompted a driver to stop and give us several feet of clearance to safely merge, but she let us go and not one person honked. Out of the woods, we made a left on Market to head back toward our Indego dock.
The right lane of Market Street between 11th and City Hall was wall to wall buses, so we took the left lane. Traffic was super slow, and were again stuck behind the cars because noodles. This did not sit well with the cab driver behind us, who honked and tried to pass me so he could speed up toward the red light at Penn Square. I looked right into his window, camera on my helmet, and said, “I’m allowed to take the lane.” He backed off.
This grand experiment was our answer to the
civil discussion argument that started last week when a cyclist stood in front of a bus for an hour, claiming the driver didn’t leave enough room to safely pass when Locust Street narrowed. SEPTA released bus camera footage to Billy Penn, but it wasn’t enough to settle the debate. Without a way to measure the gap, it’s not clear how much space the bus driver made for the bike.
Seems the only way to guarantee a safe passing distance is a coupla pool noodles and heavy surveillance.