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Philly needs to change its street safety approval process

It’s troubling that city law allows publicly elected officials to block the installation of bike lanes.
Philadelphia politicians have opposed the creation of bike lanes. (Getty Images)

Essentially, after a chaotic public meeting in July, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson rejected plans for a West Center City safety improvement pilot project. The reason? "Near neighbor" concerns. Essentially, it was decided most people in the vicinity of Lombard Street were worried enough that physically protecting the bike lane (one of several aspects of the project) in front of their houses would deny them their privilege to pull over into the bike lane to unloaded groceries.

“The overwhelming majority of feedback from residents in the immediate vicinity of the proposal is strongly opposed,” noted Johnson in a letter to Philadelphia’s director of complete streets. “In light of that feedback, I cannot support the current proposal.”

Though about 100 people in the near vicinity sent letters opposed to the project, at least three times that have sent letters to Johnson in support, using the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s email system.

Though so many people who use Lombard and South streets to get to and from the South Street Bridge – the most-biked commuter bridge in the state of Pennsylvania – the fact that not all these people were "near neighbors" made their opinions (and their need for a safe commute) less valid.

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Councilman Johnson, who represents the area, gets final say on what is safe and what isn’t because Philadelphia City Council gave themselves that right in 2012.

The effort is not over. But it’s troubling the city law allows publicly elected officials to block the installation of bike lanes, which require ordinances for any reason whatsoever – even if, as was this case, the project is a temporary pilot.

In this case, Johnson was responding to near neighbors. But it doesn't have to work that way. Hypothetically, if a single, politically connected big-money donor wants or doesn't want something, the councilperson could side with that single donor. There is no official vote or protocol when it comes to these things, and the opinion of engineers and experts often matters little, if at all.

This is all pretty unique to Philadelphia. Not only that ordinances have to be introduced to install many safety projects, but that Council members get to decide whether or not they’ll introduce that ordinance.

Such a system has created unsafe streets where people are regularly injured or killed while politicians wait for consensus. When bike lanes are included in street safety projects, it’s common for Council members to sit back and do nothing until they’re sure everyone who matters is cool with it.

And that could take years. Case in point: The West Chestnut Street bike lane currently being constructed between 45th and 34th streets. Getting to this point actually took six years of work and advocacy to form a consensus.

I’m not saying the public should have no input on bike and pedestrian safety projects. But Philadelphia should have an open forum with consistent rules across the board when it comes to approving or rejecting bike lane and pedestrian safety projects. We should not have to wait on a politician to decide if a particular dangerous intersection is worth his or her political capital. This is not a good system.

Philly's politicians may be good at lots of things, but last time I checked, none of them are civil engineers. It's time Council gives up this unneeded privilege it gave itself five years ago and leave street safety to the experts.

 
 
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