Bike in Philly

It was almost exactly one year ago when I received word that the Complete Streets project along Spruce and Pine Streets in Center City (moving the bike lane from the right to the left, intersection protections between Front and 22nd Streets) would not be completed east of 8th Street, in the City’s Society Hill neighborhood. 

Weird! Because according to plans for the project presented online and at community meetings, the intersection corner protections were supposed to be installed the entire length of the corridor. It seemed that the community organization, or their representatives, had been able to privately stop the city from doing its job.

But why? That’s something no one could figure out. A member of the Society Hill Civic Association and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, told me he hadn’t been aware of his RCO’s decision to reject safety improvements, when I emailed him about it. So, I reached out to more folks I knew in the area — had any of them heard about their RCO blocking the project? 

Nope. No one had heard about this. Someone then posted my email to the Society Hill NextDoor page that weekend, and, before Monday, more than 30 members of the community had emailed me asking how they could help make sure their community received the same improvements that were being installed between 9th and 22nd Streets — as was part of the original plan they’d agreed to.

Many who contacted me said they’d seen the posts installed along Spruce and Pine Streets, and were wondering when their street would get the protection. 

After all, they were told at community meetings that changes were being made to the entire corridor. Such changes were explicitly stated on public meeting boards, then posted online by the City. As shown below:

Bike in Philly

Not so, according to the October 22nd Society Hill Civic Association newsletter, which claimed statements in my initial email (which had been posted to NextDoor), had “absolutely no basis in fact” and that it was actually the City’s idea to leave the lanes unprotected.

The complexity of a seemingly simple situation was at hand! It would involve a lot of organizing, community meetings, amplification of our message through the media, and, eventually, victory for those neighbors and the thousands of people who use the streets and sidewalks in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia.

In late October 2019, neighbors within the Civic Association catchment met in the early morning at a neighbor’s home to discuss ways they could organize their fellow citizens to convince their RCO’s leadership to allow the installation of flex posts at the intersections in Society Hill.

The first thing they did was release a public statement calling on their RCO to allow the city to install the flex posts. They signed the statement, then called upon more of their neighbors to stand up for the safety of Philadelphia residents, and add their names to the statement. 

“When our civic association opposes minimal safety treatments, we are not just putting the lives of our own neighborhood residents in danger, but the lives of thousands of people who use our streets every day,” wrote those neighbors in their statement. “We are also sending a message that people on bicycles are not welcome in our neighborhood.”

More than 60 people would eventually take on this issue.

At that point, the group was born, and would meet regularly to discuss this issue. The head of Society Hill’s Civic Association was interviewed about the subject in PlanPhilly, and noted flex posts were not even possible in Society Hill, because of buses and horse and carriage rides.

“We have SEPTA buses the other neighborhoods don’t, when it comes to travel on Spruce and Pine Streets,” said Larry Spector, president of the civic association. “We have tourist buses, we have carriages. All of these types of vehicles take up the traffic lane …There’s really no demonstrable advantage from having the delineators.”

This was a new argument we hadn’t heard before. Nevertheless, the City had planned around these issues during the proposal phase of the project, and during hours of meetings with the civic associations along the entire corridor.  

We’d additionally been told that a private study of the streets paid for by SHCA did not recommend “delineator protection” at the intersections. Which is technically true — but it did recommend protection in general. 

In early December, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, with the backing of the Society Hill neighbors for safer streets, wrote a letter to Councilmember Squilla and the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, calling for the corner protections to be installed. This followed an op/ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Laura Fredricks, whose daughter Emily had been killed by a trash truck while riding her bicycle on Spruce Street in 2017.

As the city installed traffic controls, there were several crashes along those corridors, including a flipped motor vehicle at 4th and Spruce on December 2nd, 2019 — which, we believe, could have been prevented if traffic calming measures (like, say, intersection protections) were in place. A bicyclist and pedestrian had both been hit along the corridor within that time, too.

After two more months of meetings, SHCA held their February meeting, and leaders of SHCA announced in late February that the intersection protections would be installed. This was, in part, in response to Susan Burt Collins asking the issue be brought up and discussed at the February 19th meeting.

The issue — at least the neighborhood back and forth of it — was over, and the increased safety of all road users had prevailed.

This could not have happened without the 60-plus neighbors who demanded more of their neighborhood, and kept that effort going for months. Those neighbors — and especially Al Meinster, Susan Burt Collins, Marissa Perrone, Joe Piscitello, Jon Williams, Robin Komita, Kasia Stein, Camille Orman, Nicky Rhodes, and Rory Boyle — opened their homes to each other, took time out of their daily schedules to organize, and made their case to their fellow neighbors, their representatives, and the media. Additionally, it wouldn’t have happened without SHCA president Larry Spector listening to his neighbors throughout the process. 

It shouldn’t take an additional year for improvements that were already settled upon during public meetings to be installed, anywhere. But was it worth it? Absolutely. The neighbors who spoke up for the safety of all road users in their community understood the importance of the project, and countless people will be positively impacted by their advocacy for years to come.

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