It is Possible to Make Lehigh Avenue Safer—But Not Now

by | March 11, 2022 | News, Biking in Philly, Vision Zero | 0 comments

Sometime this year, PennDOT is scheduled to resurface a portion of Lehigh Avenue. The limits of the resurfacing project are between Kensington Ave and Aramingo Ave. The resurfacing presents an opportunity to make the roadway much safer than it is today. It likely won’t be as much of an opportunity as we want it to be, although it is possible.

Lehigh Avenue is on the High Injury Network and is in desperate need of traffic calming. Although its bike lanes are also part of the Bicycle Network, the lanes are not protected. It is an 85-foot-wide road that has four driving lanes, a two-way left-turn lane, parallel parking, and conventional 5-foot bicycle lanes.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission evaluated Lehigh Avenue as part of a 2019 Complete Streets study and proposed three concepts for reducing the number of lanes from 5 lanes to 3 lanes along Lehigh Avenue from Aramingo Ave and the Market Frankford El Stop.

As the resurfacing project presented an opportunity to execute the concepts proposed by the Complete Streets study, the project moved from concept to design. As part of that process, a “Level of Service” traffic analysis was conducted on the roadway. That analysis ended up predicting that the intersections would fail during the rush hour, which means that if the roadway was reduced from 5 lanes to 3, drivers would be waiting for more than 1 red light phase.

We believe that traffic flow—which this model is hypothetically predicting,—should not take precedence over the safety of people walking, rolling, riding bikes or accessing transit. Roads that have a “Good” level of service (Grades A or B) have an open road feel, making them favorable for speeding. Traffic calming by definition implies slower traffic and streets. Our analysis of the Lehigh Avenue project is that even with this harsh grading system, a three-lane configuration is possible with adjustments to signal timing on most of the blocks in question. In particular, the signal times can be shortened if pedestrians have fewer lanes to cross.

We shared our interpretation of the traffic analysis in a letter to oTIS last week and made the argument for a three-lane configuration. We also support upgrading the bike lanes with protection.

However, while the lanes could be reduced at two blocks and still maintain a good level of service by changing the signal timing, this lane reduction would also require a new concrete curbed pedestrian refuge and ADA ramps to enable a legally safe shorter crossing for pedestrians. According to oTIS, this is why our suggestion isn’t possible in the resurfacing project, but it would be if capital funding were made available for the project sometime in the future.

Small comfort given the need to reduce traffic deaths now, not later.

It’s frustrating that from a broader Vision Zero lens, the resurfacing project isn’t capable of accommodating a lane configuration in 2022 that will make it safer for the people on foot who are also accessing transit or even walking to their vehicles. There always seems to be a reason why roads can’t be resized to be made safer, and prioritizing motor vehicles is always the reason.

 

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