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The new Chestnut Street protected bike lane: A beginner’s manual

New 11-block bike lane on Chestnut Street in West Philly will improve safety for drivers and pedestrians, Metro bike columnist writes.
Riders celebrate the opening of the protected Chestnut Street bike lane. (Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia)

Last week, the city of Philadelphia opened a new parking-protected bike lane along the north side of Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. It’s 11 blocks long and is part of a much larger goal the city has for safer streets and zero traffic deaths –including 30 miles of protected bike lanes. Already, thousands of people have been using the new bike lane, which separates bicycle and motor vehicle traffic via parked cars.

For those a bit confused by the new infrastructure, I’ve put together this explainer that should – hopefully – answer your questions.

What’s the point of a protected bike lane?

Protected bike lanes have been proven to make streets safer for everyone – especially motor vehicle users and pedestrians. Traffic is calmed on the street, leading to fewer crashes and fewer deadly crashes. Top to bottom, Chestnut is one of the most dangerous streets in all of Center City, Philadelphia, according to a 2015 Streets Department study. Seventy-five percent of the crashes on Chestnut have historically occurred between 34th and 45th streets.

I heard the project took six years. That can’t be right.

It’s true! Philadelphia lawmakers cynically gave themselves executive powers over bike lanes back in 2012, meaning any councilmember can veto any bike lane that eliminates a lane of traffic or parking, for any reason, at any time.

Therefore, members of the city, the community, neighborhood organizations, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and others spent six years attending community meetings, discussing the pros and cons of a protected bike lane on Chestnut Street and eventually getting Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell on board. Though skeptical at first, Councilwoman Blackwell told City Council she approved of the new lane. “They beat me down,” Blackwell said as she introduced an ordinance creating the bike lane. “My community, Bike Coalition, everybody – so we’re happy to support it.”

Hold on. Didn’t the councilwoman deem the lane temporary?

Sort of. In May, she introduced the necessary ordinance to construct a permanent protected bike lane on Chestnut Street. But at the news conference last week to introduce the bike lane, she said she’s gotten a lot of complaints and would rather the lane be temporary – which came as a surprise to everyone, considering, again, she wrote the ordinance that made the lane permanent.

So, is it temporary or permanent?

Permanent. There’s always a transition period when new infrastructure is installed on a city street – whether it be a bike lane, a parking space or a stop sign – and the worry over this bike lane was expected.

So, what’s up with the transition at 34th Street?

Unfortunately, the protected north-side lane ends at 34th Street, and an existing unprotected bike lane on Chestnut Street begins – on the south side of the street. The lane between 34th and 22nd will eventually be moved to the north side but is contingent on the completion of a multiyear PennDOT project on the Chestnut Street Bridge. That’s a problem. Cyclists are asked, via a sign, to dismount and cross the street on foot. And while that’s probably your safest bet, no one actually does that.

In the meantime, the city should stripe a temporary standard bike lane on the north side of Chestnut Street, from 34th to 22nd streets.

Nevertheless, the new bike lane is a step in the right direction for Philadelphia. Though we have the most bicyclists of any big city, per capita, we have the fewest miles of protected bike lanes for those cyclists. It’s time Philadelphia drags itself into the 20th century and creates more safe lanes like that on Chestnut Street.