During his inaugural address last Tuesday, recently re-elected Mayor Jim Kenney vowed to install forty miles of protected bike lanes by the time he leaves office, four years from now.
“We’ve made tremendous progress with a $200 million capital investment for repaving, and we’ve more than doubled the miles of streets paved since 2015. But we still have a long way to go,” he said. “This term, we will return our roads to a state of good repair and ensure that all users of our roadways are safer by adding 40 miles of protected bike lanes.”
Depending on the extent of your Philly cynicism, you probably read the above quote and thought, “Yeah, right,” or “Nice try!” or … something like that.
But here’s the thing: We are cautiously optimistic this will happen. Here’s why.
Change is happening
The mayor’s first term has been one of profound change for Philadelphia’s streets. It is the case that the City didn’t come anywhere close to the 30 miles of protected bike lanes mentioned in one of then-Mayor-elect Kenney’s transition documents, or the grant application submitted by the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability that was revealed by PlanPhilly in 2015.
But the City did get its first 2-way protected bike lanes (Ryan Avenue, then 11th Street); first protected bike lanes through Center City (JFK, West Market), the beginning stages of new commuter-friendly parking-protected bike lanes along 6th Street in Northern Liberties/Old City; and a 1.1 mile stretch on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia.
All of these projects were met with opposition. Change is hard. Such opposition led to a few changes being made after everyone’s tempers calmed. That opposition has slowed down some of these projects, for sure, (11th Street is still being worked on!), but the necessary changes to these projects is moving forward, still.
Opposition — “Bikelash” if you will — is a natural part of the process. When a street has looked a certain way for a long time, and then you change the way the street looks and functions to make way for changing transportation modes, there will always be loud voices opposing that change. It’s OK.
More has been invested
That $200 million capital investment? That’s something the Bicycle Coalition and the Vision Zero Alliance, pushed hard for before Jim Kenney was the nominee. Kenney agreed to it, and we’re just now beginning to see the results — including the addition of one out of two new paving crews and a road crew specifically for Vision Zero projects.
Due to the Great Recession, public funds for streets largely dried up, and the city was kept on its feet with a large infusion of federal funds. When that federal money was spent, the City’s budget did not replace the cash needed to keep our streets in a state of good repair, paving about 130 miles of streets, per year.
Now that the money is back in place, it’ll be much easier for the City to pave the streets that need to be paved, and for infrastructure improvements to be made during paving projects, such as we’ve seen on 11th Street in South Philly.
As part of that investment, we’ve seen the City hire two new crews: One for paving and one for street maintenance (a “Vision Zero maintenance crew,” something we advocated for most of Kenney’s first term). With both of these crews finally up and running, work should be done in a more timely fashion.
City Council changes
In addition to Streets Department funding, many issues with regard to bicycle infrastructure has been due to Philadelphia City Council. Because of a law passed by Council in 2012, a district councilperson must introduce an ordinance for a bike lane that removes a lane of traffic or parking before said bike lane can be installed.
This law has moved power away from engineers and planners and into the hands of City Councilpeople. That’s not good. But, after years of stalling, 2019 saw the most bike lane bills move through City Council in Philadelphia history.
Legislation for 11 new protected bike lane projects sailed through City Council, setting the stage for new lanes in the coming years. Those projects that either received Council approval legislation (or projects which do not need new legislation) include sections of 2nd Street, 5th Street, 6th Street, 10th Street, 11th Street, 13th Street, 22nd Street, and a small portion of Germantown Avenue in Northern Liberties. Additionally, protected bike lanes are planned and either funded, or being funded, on State Road, Lindberg Ave., Market Street, Race Street, Delaware Avenue, and other streets.
All the planning and legislative work for those streets is done. They just need to be implemented. When a Kenney Administration transition document pointed to 30 miles of protected bike lanes in 2014, none of that work had been done yet.
The Mayor actually said “40 miles”
This may sound like a stretch, but here goes: Having looked into this, I haven’t seen the mayor ever publicly point to an actual number of miles of bike lanes in a speech, much less his first inauguration speech, or of his State of the City addresses.
Mayor Kenney has often pointed to the need for better bike infrastructure, but has, perhaps intentionally, kept the number vague while speaking in public. In our experience, you tend to see politicians speak in vagueries if they’re not sure they can get the subject at hand done.
…this is still Philadelphia, and many of the issues we’ve dealt with in recent years haven’t gone away. As we’ve seen with the Society Hill anti-safety initiative to block very small infrastructure changes, rules requiring (or not requiring) a City Council ordinance doesn’t always matter if a few neighborhood leaders are adamant enough about stopping progress. The Mayor seems to use full consensus as a neighborhood tool, and there will never, ever, be full consensus about transportation issues.
And just because funds have been increased doesn’t mean our city departments are fully funded. The City has still got a long way to go before that happens, and in the meantime, especially relative to some of our peer cities, Philadelphia is still well behind.
There’s reason to be nervously optimistic about 40 miles of protected bike lanes over the next four years. But Mayor Kenney won’t succeed by just wishing for it. It’s going to take hard work and tough decisions by elected officials, the Kenney Administration, and advocates. We’re here for the long haul and are not going to stop working until anyone who wants to can ride a bicycle safely to get anywhere they want to go.