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Last week, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and other groups around the city and state, mobilized our supporters and members to oppose an amendment to legislation we’ve been working to get passed for the past two years. Senate Bill 565 would allow for PennDOT to build parking protected bike lanes on state roads throughout the Commonwealth. 

This is of particular importance because the state’s Department of Transportation owns a significant portion of roads throughout cities and municipalities. In Philadelphia, PennDOT owns about 30 percent of all roads, and they often happen to be the widest, fastest, and most dangerous for pedestrians.

So, the legislation introduced by State Sen. Larry Farnese seems like a no-brainer. Protected bike lanes have been proven to make streets safer for pedestrians, people on bicycles, and motorists.

But an unnecessary amendment to the legislation would make building all bike lanes in Philadelphia more difficult if not impossible — in the U.S. city where building protected bike lanes already involves jumping through legislative hoops. 

The amendment, introduced by State Sen. John Sabatina of Philadelphia, would require a meeting with the registered community organization where the bike lane is being proposed, and a letter of support from the RCO and a city councilmember. 

This amendment is really bad — and could put the entire RCO process into flux! Here are three reasons why:

The City Already Does What the Amendment Requires

The amendment is unnecessary because the city already meets with RCOs during the bike lane installation process, as is best practice, and any bike lane in Philadelphia that removes a lane of traffic or parking already requires an ordinance from a councilmember. As Sen. Sabatina knows, Councilmembers in Philadelphia defer to community organizations when making decisions regarding land use.

Before District Councilmembers introduce ordinances, the City engages with community and civic organizations to describe the project and solicit feedback. Councilmembers don’t introduce ordinances until those meetings happen and they are assured by the RCOs that there is support. 

The result? 18 bike lanes have ordinances.  Some introduced without fanfare, some took considerable deliberation.  It took 10 years before Council President Clarke introduced the JFK/Market ordinance. And sometimes, when a community clearly rejects a proposed bike lane, the  City doesn’t force it. When the Torresdale Civic declared its non-support for a section of the East Coast Greenway along State Road, against good judgment, the City dropped the project.

As noted by a member of the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, the process is as follows:

  • Work with City Council members and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission to confirm understanding of the local civic organization landscape and devise an engagement procedure.  
  • Meet with RCOs and major property owners to introduce the project and gain initial feedback. 
  • Conduct flyering and public meetings. Gauge feedback and make adjustments to projected as needed. 
  • Conduct additional RCO and property owner follow-up meetings
  • Continue outreach during and after construction 

“OTIS opposes the amendment to SB 565 by Senator Sabatina,” the office noted in a recent newsletter. “This amendment places an unreasonable burden out of scale with the impact of this infrastructure. No other traffic safety or traffic control device faces similar burdens and requirements. The robust engagement on the recent State road project in the 5th Senate District, including multiple meetings with local community organizations, show that this amendment is not required. The City has asked that all Senate Transportation members support a clean version of SB 565.”

Codifying RCOs into State Law Goes May Require Rewriting Their Definition

Codifying the RCO process into state law is extreme. Not only would requiring a letter, by law, from an RCO slow down the process — and put peoples’ lives at risk as a result — but the amendment could create a situation in which letters are required for all sorts of infrastructure projects, which could then be used as a negotiating tool for separate projects.

As a logical matter, there would need to be multiple RCOs involved since many affected lanes are likely to pass through the jurisdictions of multiple RCOs. 

There could be situations where one RCO says yes and another says no.  That makes the concept of creating corridors of safe streets impossible.

It is one thing to voluntarily solicit the views of civics (which is what RCOs are actually for) and another thing to have such solicitation mandated by state legislation. The solicitation can morph into required approvals and be broadened to include all bike lanes, or, really, anything in the public right of way.

RCOs were created for notification, not legislative veto power. As noted on Phila.gov, RCOs:

  • Get advance notice of projects that will be reviewed by the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the Civic Design Review Committee.
  • Organize and conduct public meetings where community members can comment on planned developments in their neighborhood.
  • Get notified by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) whenever a:
    • Zoning variance or special exception is requested.
    • Development requiring Civic Design Review (CDR) is proposed.

The Amendment Could Eviscerate RCOs Completely and Require More Expensive Insurance

Sabatina’s amendment actually writes RCOs into the state vehicle code which, it would seem, would actually open up RCOs to more litigation than they currently have to deal with already. The amendment could, therefore, destroy many registered community organizations around the city.

Let’s a bicyclist gets into a crash on a road that was slated for a bike lane, but was blocked by the RCO, it follows that the RCO could easily be sued by the bicyclist. This could also go for drivers and pedestrians, since Complete Streets projects involve their safety, as well.

Currently, since City of Philadelphia’s traffic code puts the onus on the councilmember and not the RCO (even though the councilmember often does the RCO’s bidding), lawsuits are not filed against the RCO when a bicyclist gets into a crash in that neighborhood, and councilmembers are definitively immune from such lawsuits.

However, requiring RCO approval by law would make it easy to file a lawsuit against the organization if they are on record as having denied the bike lane’s existence, despite evidence showing it would have made the street safer. 

It’s already hard enough for RCOs to get insurance, and particularly easy for anyone to file lawsuits against RCOs. The Old City Civic Association was put out of commission, forever, over lawsuits — and that’s without the liability this legislation would create!

Bella Vista Neighbors additionally spent three years trying to get insurance and were denied left and right simply because of the nature of RCOs working within the realm of public space and zoning. 

Having state-sanctioned, legal authority over public space would make it even more difficult, if not impossible, for some RCOs to get insurance. The amendment would, therefore, throw the entire RCO process into flux, creating a system where perhaps only the richest neighborhoods in the city could afford the kind of insurance that covers the liability for putting peoples’ lives at risk.

Randy LoBasso

Author

Randy LoBasso is the policy director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

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