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Philadelphia’s first raised-protected bike lane will probably open this spring and, on Thursday, several staff members from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia went to check it out.

The lane, which will go 1.3 miles, will eventually become a key corridor between the Fairhill Neighborhood and Northern Liberties, creating connectivity between communities, and, eventually downtown Philadelphia.

Unlike most of Philadelphia’s protected bike lanes, the federally-funded American Street project is a median-protected lane — rare for bike lanes in cities around the world — and is a joint project between the Streets and Water Departments, as the median includes significant drainage.

The first thing we noticed when we got there was how much work was still left to be done.

American Street, especially between Oxford and Girard, is basically one gigantic construction zone. Even the blocks that are done, we don’t recommend using as a commuting route, as there are construction vehicles everywhere; in addition to the new infrastructure, several new buildings are going up in the area.

While the project goes as north as Indiana, nothing above Huntingdon has been worked on, other than some paving and drainage. Old trolley tracks still peek out of the street at Lehigh.

Completion was originally planned for December, but has been pushed back to the early spring — we’ll see if that actually happens, though. Based on our trip Thursday, there’s still a lot of work to be done. But here are a few takeaways:

The median lane is going to take some getting used to for folks who ride bicycles in Philadelphia. These will be the only median lanes in Philadelphia once completed, and it’s unlikely we’re going to see any more any time soon. Infrastructure engineers and planners generally agree that bike lanes are safest when on the outside of the street, next to the sidewalk, but due to political compromises, these lanes were put on the inside.

That said, because of the design, once we’re used to them, they’re likely to be used. The raised bike lane model, with a short concrete barrier, is a high standard of bike lanes that you’re likely to see in European cities like Copenhagen, Denmark.

Additionally, many drivers look at painted lines on streets, the most common bike lanes seen in Philadelphia, as places to park their cars. A raised bike lane, or a bike lane with physical protection between moving vehicles and bicyclists creates not just a physical, but cultural, barrier between street uses. There’s a reason why you can’t go more than two blocks on Spruce and Pine Streets in Center City without dodging a parked car, while you can ride for miles on the Kelly Drive path, day in and out, without a car blocking your path.

Of course, that’s the exception and not the rule. All over Philadelphia, sidewalks and parks are blocked by unticketed motor vehicles; often, nothing happens without calling the Parking Authority, and that’s not really a good option.

During this construction period, like construction periods for all protected bike lanes, without the bike lane open, there are going to be motor vehicles parked in the area that will eventually be reserved for cyclists. Once the lane is complete, the city and Parking Authority often conduct an “enforcement blitz” to let drivers know this isn’t a safe space for them, especially if they don’t like paying parking tickets.

That said, we anticipate this will be a positive addition for the neighborhoods around American Street. The space for cyclists is large enough to accommodate several people, side by side, without worry of having to ride in traffic. Given how difficult it is to ride streets of private vehicle parking, American Street, and streets like it, will serve as important arteries between neighborhoods, and, eventually into downtown Philadelphia, where the majority of jobs are located.

The longer-term plan for this street is to lead cyclists to Master Street, then Germantown Avenue, where another raised protected bike lane will be built, then to Second Street, which is currently calmed with speed humps between Girard and Poplar. Another protected bike lane is going to be built between Spring Garden Street and Race Street (but maybe Market?) which will then connect people on bicycles to the planned protected bike lanes on Market Street in Old City. You can see many of those plans here.

The pandemic has been devastating to people all over the world, including in Philadelphia, for the last ten months. But one of the few positive aspects has been, it’s gotten people outside, utilizing park space and it’s gotten more people on bicycles than ever before. We expect welcoming bike infrastructure like that on American Street to give Philly’s new cyclists an easier, more comfortable ride once complete.

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