You know that clichéd conversation about how snow days were awesome when you were a kid, but now, as an adult, it’s mostly just a hassle? You’ve got to shovel your sidewalk, potentially your driveway and street, and trains are delayed, right? Yeah, well that hassle is a lot worse if you’re someone who regularly commutes by bicycle.
As I discussed in a past column on winter biking, riding on the ice is a bit tricky, but it gets a lot worse in Philadelphia when it snows, as snow gets piled in the bike lane, and you’re forced into traffic. It gets worse on multi-lane roads like Spring Garden and Fifth Street in Center City, where motor vehicle drivers routinely break the speed limit and run red lights.
Fifth Street is the odd case I want to talk about here. The organization in charge of maintaining the Fifth Street tunnel that goes underground in Old City and comes up at Callowhill Street recently had a spat over plowing that should be used as an example of what to do when you get called out for not doing the job you’re paid to do.
The tunnel reopened last summer after a complete remake — new lights, new paving, and flex posts installed between the motor vehicle and bike lane, creating a safer atmosphere for everyone traveling underground there.
But things changed earlier this winter. The flex-posts were yanked out of the tunnel for apparent better access to plowing during snowstorms. The Delaware River Port Authority, which maintains the tunnel, did so in order to plow both the motor vehicle land and bike lane. Some cities maintain bike lanes through the winter by utilizing smaller vehicles with plows attached to the front, but we do not yet have such a luxury in Philadelphia.
So, they took out the flex posts. At least the lane would be plowed.
Or would it? Imagine everyone’s surprise when the 5th Street Tunnel’s bike lane was covered in snow Monday morning.
After a series of angry tweets directed at the DRPA and several phone calls, a plow was sent back to the tunnel and took care of the snow in the bike lane.
As it happened, the DRPA Citizens Advisory Council had a pre-planned meeting the following Wednesday. The Council agreed to bring up these issues and figure out a better way to deal with the situation.
For their part, members of the DRPA were extremely forthcoming and apologetic at the meeting, which I was invited to attend. DRPA CEO John Hanson explained that the tunnel’s lack of plowing was a total oversight and that they’d prepared for the problem next time there’s a storm.
Members of the DRPA noted they are currently looking into finding ways to keep the flex-posts in the tunnel throughout the winter, but don’t currently have the capacity to do so — and will not put them back in the ground until the spring.
Another cycling advocate in attendance, Joseph Russell, brought up the idea of using small Bobcat snow plows that can fit in between small curbs and bike lanes — something that will become more important as Philadelphia adds more protected bike lanes to its network over the next three years. Hanson said he was open to this idea and that the DRPA was currently in talks to either use their current equipment to do so, or invest in new equipment. That conversation is ongoing.
It’s important city entities understand that, while most cyclists know bike lanes are not the top priority (Hanson noted the priorities for DRPA are: the travel lanes on the Ben Franklin Bridge, then the train tracks, then the bike lanes), we all deserve a safe path to and from where we need to go.
Randy LoBasso is the communications manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.