Philly’s first raised bike lane with a concrete buffer is nearly complete

The bikeway runs along the middle of North American Street, connecting Northern Liberties to Fairhill.

A cyclist uses the raised bike lane on North American Street

A cyclist uses the raised bike lane on North American Street

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
michaelawinberg-2020-2

Philly’s first-ever bike lane protected by a concrete buffer is almost complete.

Raised from vehicular traffic and separated from cars by a wide gray curb, the 6½-foot-wide lane stretches along the median of North American Street, running from Northern Liberties to Fairhill.

Philly began revamping the historically industrial street a little over two years ago, using a healthy grant from the federal government. City officials put forth a plan to outfit the roadway into a pedestrian-accessible plaza, with grassy medians and extensive bike lanes.

Originally slated for completion this past December, the American Street Improvement Project has been delayed by the pandemic and spouts of bad weather. But it’s still happening.

Key evidence: The 1.3-mile buffered bike lane, which is nearly ready.

Twelve blocks of the bikeway are finished so far, from Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Norris Street. The rest of it, between Master and Lehigh, is just awaiting final touches — the jagged curb cuts need to be smoothed over, and the lane is missing pavement markings.

Those finishes are coming soon. “​It is anticipated that we will complete the final wearing course and pavement markings in early spring of 2021,” said Streets Department spokesperson Joy Huertas.

Protected bike lanes were part of Mayor Jim Kenney’s platform when he first ran for the office in 2015, with a promise of 30 miles throughout the city. Since then, a few have been completed, like 11th Street in South Philly, 6th Street in Northern Liberties, and JFK and West Market in Center City.

But the city didn’t hit that 30-mile mark — so Kenney created a new plan: 40 miles of protected bike lanes by 2026. American Street will contribute to that goal.

As recently as 2013, American Street still showed some of its industrial roots, with factories like Chaes Food reportedly doing bustling business near Susquehanna Avenue. But many of the factories that were once staples had gone quiet, including American Knitting Mills, F.M. Paist Co. Candy and an Aramark distributor. One block over on Second Street, Ontario Mills had been demolished.

The corridor, which runs through and alongside some fast-developing residential neighborhoods, garnered interest from small business owners.

Spiritsmaker Rob Cassell opened New Liberty Distillery there. Artisan manufacturing space NextFab launched 60,000-square-foot hub. Other developers started to notice.

“There’s a lot of investment there, a lot of interest,” OCF Realty’s Ori Feibush told Billy Penn in 2018. “It’s an area that continues to appreciate and have greater interest from commercial developers, home buyers and tenants.”

Surrounded by a changing neighborhood, the new route for cyclists is a pretty big deal.

Infrastructure experts agree the safest bike lane is one with a protective barrier. And though a handful of Philly lanes are protected by flex posts or parked cars, none have gotten a permanent concrete buffer like the one on North American — which is further set off by being elevated a few inches above the rest of the pavement.

Even a raised lane isn’t foolproof, especially when it’s wide enough to accommodate cars. With construction ongoing on the roadway, plenty of cars were parked Tuesday morning in the bike lane next to the unfinished paving.

Construction forces cars onto the raised bike lane South of Lehigh

Construction forces cars onto the raised bike lane South of Lehigh

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Huertas, of the Streets Department, said it’s “too early to tell” whether the parking problem will persist when the project is finished.

Now it just needs the final layer of pavement (called a “wearing course”) plus markings on the pavement. Both of those updates are dependent on good weather — so cyclists, cross your fingers.

If things go as planned, by early spring the lane from Master to Lehigh will be raised and protected. It then extends unprotected all the way up to Indiana Avenue.

Meantime, on Tuesday morning, several cyclists were already using it.

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