Northern Liberties: The Philadelphia Bike Lane Debate

Bicycling is a popular mode of transportation in Northern Liberties.

The first quarter-mile stretch of the long-awaited Delaware Avenue bike trail, between Spring Garden and Ellen Streets, was opened in June. While cyclists from all over flocked to the area for the opening of the first piece of trail, the event also reminded some Philadelphians of a citywide infrastructure debate in which bicycling is a focal point.

A map of bike lanes (purple) in lower North Philadelphia courtesy of This map does not display the new bike lane on Fairmount.
A map of bike lanes (purple) in lower North Philadelphia courtesy of This map does not display the new bike lane on Fairmount.

Despite the Northern Liberties being a bustling hub for young professionals, families and commuters, the community only has bike lanes on Spring Garden, Poplar and 6th Streets. This lack of bike lanes makes commuting to and from the neighborhood via bicycle a hassle, many contend.

While the newly opened bike trail runs along the Delaware River from the southern boundary of Northern Liberties to the northern boundary, it is not yet a full-fledged commuter path.

“When Sugarhouse connects the Penn Street Trail with its existing trail and when Delaware River Waterfront Corporation connects the Sugarhouse trail to Penn Treaty Park, that will be a wonderful full connection between Kensington and Center City,” Policy Director of the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition Sarah Stuart said.

Part of the reason bike lanes have been difficult to install in many areas of the city is because of both safety and community concerns. In Northern Liberties, arterial roads like Girard Avenue and smaller, traffic-heavy roads like Second Street, do not have bike lanes. They do, however, have many bicyclists.

City Councilman William Greenlee, who introduced a bill last year that aimed to give City Council approval and veto power over the creation of new bike lanes, believes Philadelphia needs to be discerning in creating new bike lanes.

“There are places like Spring Garden where they work. It’s a reasonable place to put one. I just don’t think they should be everywhere. It sounds good in theory but I’m not sure heavy traffic and bike lanes work. If a car swerves into a bike lane, that’s dangerous.”

The Get Healthy Philly initiative, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Streets Department, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, is working to alleviate such concerns by making biking in the city safer for cyclists.

The month of June also saw the opening of a bike lane on Fairmount Avenue west of Broad Street that serves to aid cyclists traveling more safely to West Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition’s Stuart said.

“Those who want to travel from the River Wards over to West Philly will have a safer connection on a street with slower speeds – Fairmount versus Spring Garden. And, it will help people who want to go from Fairmount and West Center City up to Temple.”

The City of Philadelphia has installed “sharrows,” or lane-sharing markings, on streets with bike lanes throughout the city to encourage motorists and cyclists to share the road. The bike lanes running north and south through Center City on both 10th and 13th Streets were meant to enhance safety for commuters, as there were no extensive north-south bike lanes prior.

Councilman Greenlee, however, questions the efficacy of these lanes.

“Tenth Street was already very crowded and to add a bike lane and to narrow a driving lane was foolish and dangerous,” Greenless said.

In Philadelphia, bicycles are considered legal vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as cars. Riders above the age of 12 are required by law to ride in the street and follow traffic laws. The Philadelphia Police Department and Get Healthy Philly created the Give Respect/Get Respect Campaign wherein police-bike officers issue tickets and educational materials to bikers and motorists engaged in unsafe or illegal road behavior, like bikers riding on the sidewalk.

“If people bike safely and know the laws, that’s great,” Councilman Greenlee said.

A cyclist road on the sidewalk which, though common, is illegal for riders over the age of 12.
A cyclist road on the sidewalk along 2nd Street which, though common, is illegal for riders over the age of 12.think cars have to follow the laws and share the road with them, but not the other way around. I’m a huge public transit advocate. I think increased funding for it is hugely beneficial and it does a lot more for alleviating traffic.”

Stuart of the Bicycle Coalition noted that organization’s emphasis on educating the public. In addition to Safe Routes Philly, a program geared towards children that promotes safe walking and biking practices, the coalition has organized numerous programs to improve adult cyclists’ knowledge.

“We teach riding classes and lead rides, have initiated a Women Bike PHL program, and operate a Bicycle Ambassador’s program, all of which are geared to adults and are underpinned by reinforcing the rules of the road.”

According to the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, Philadelphia has well over 200 miles of bike lanes. That office’s challenge has been connecting the seemingly dead-end legs of some of these bike lanes to improve the network by bringing bikers into the heart of Philadelphia – Center City.

In June 2012, the City Planning Commission adopted the Philadelphia Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan, which identified strategic and specific recommendations to increase the number of Philadelphians walking and bicycling in the City through improvements to the safety, convenience, connectivity and attractiveness of pedestrian and bicycle networks.

According to a report published by the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, increasing the number of bicyclists in Philadelphia would have a number of benefits. Individuals who swap out their motor vehicles to commute 10 miles a day by bike can save 3,500 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year and when bicycle usage doubles, the crash risk for individuals declines by a third.

But there are also more personal benefits to city cycling. Bicycling is, on average, faster than walking, driving or taking a bus across Center City. Riders can also expect to save, on average, $8,000 a year by trading in their four wheels for two.

The Philadelphia Pedestrian Bicycle Plan is the first citywide plan pertaining to pedestrians and a long-overdue update to the city’s 2000 citywide Bicycle Network Plan. It seeks to assist city departments in prioritizing bicycle and pedestrian improvements, serving as a guideline for the implementation of the Complete Streets Policy. The plan is part of a larger initiative, Philadelphia2035 and includes an analysis of the existing networks, recommendations for new policies and programs affecting bicyclists and pedestrians, a citywide sidewalk inventory and new street types and sidewalk design standards.

While the infrastructure improvement debate endures and while cyclists in communities like Northern Liberties remain riding on disjointed bike lanes and paths, Pennsylvania’s state government in Harrisburg is in the midst of a legislative process that could cut funding for both public transit and walking or biking lanes and paths, decreasing the efficacy of advocates for either mode of transportation and threatening the integrity of Philadelphia’s infrastructure altogether.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.