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Philly cyclists left in the cold as winter moves in

Every winter, bicycle commuters continue braving the snow and ice, but bike lanes themselves are rarely plowed — even when the adjacent street is.
(photo courtesy of Jon Williams)

Society Hill resident and cyclist Jon Williams was fed up with the city’s response to the snow storms earlier this month, especially as it pertained to the bike lanes outside his house. So he grabbed a shovel, put on some warm clothes and shoveled out the bike lanes on Fourth and Fifth streets along Spruce, near his home.

“The goal was just to try to maintain this block of the Spruce bike lane for fun when I have time,” he said. “I cleared leaves in the lane in December as well, since I think those get slippery.”

Every winter, bicycle commuters continue braving the snow and ice, but bike lanes themselves are rarely plowed — even when the adjacent street is. This is a problem for which, so far, the city hasn’t seemed to figure out a solution. But as more people commute via bicycle all year in Philadelphia, we need to find a way to keep bike lanes clear of ice and snow to better ensure the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and drivers.

I reached out to people all over the city, and the common refrain was this: Bike lanes from North Philly to West Philly, Northeast to Northwest, were all covered in ice and snow right up until the weird heatwave and rain at the end of last week. So were crosswalks and ADA-compliant curb ramps. In some cases, snow had been piled up in bike lanes and next to ramps.

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What was plowed? The protected bike lane that runs behind the old Yards Brewery to Sugarhouse Casino and the trail behind the casino itself. East Snyder Avenue was reported “cleared,” as well, and so was the Ben Franklin Parkway.

I reached out to the city, too, about their policy toward bike lanes in the winter. “Bike lanes are part of the overall street operation and cleared as part of the general snow emergency,” they said in an email. “If users of the bike lanes encounter specific issues, they are encouraged to call 311.”

That lack of specifics is why people like Jon Williams have taken out their shovels.

So what’s there to do? Philadelphians are, of course, free (and encouraged) to call 311 and make requests for plowing. The more people who complain about a given issue, the more likely the city will have to solve the problem, if only out of sheer pressure. At least you’d hope that would be the case.

Long-term, though, the city will need more resources to get the job done. In Washington, D.C., the District Department of Transportation has small plows, specifically for bike lane plowing. Many other cities have these, too. Philadelphia does not. A small, dedicated team that only works on Complete Streets issues, like plowing bike lanes and wheelchair ramps, fixing broken bike lane bollards and restriping faded crosswalks and bike lanes, would go a long way toward keeping the city’s streets up to date.