Philly Pedals

Advocacy / Urban / Urban Planning

Building Bike Infrastructure in Philly

Philadelphia Bike Ride

Pine Street Bike Lane

After I wrote Communication Breakdown,I received a question about who puts up signs and where the money comes from. Sometimes I get questions about how long it takes to make changes in the road design and bike infrastructure.

I am an artist and a bicycle evangelist who will talk your ear off about all things bike. I work for a civil transportation engineering firm and get to see the roadway design process from start to finish. I am not an engineer. The following is my perspective and opinion on the process specifically in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia as it relates to bike infrastructure.

Who puts up signs and where does the money come from?

Some signs are mandatory and some are at the discretion of the engineer. There are three codes we follow in Philadelphia: the federal code, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD); the state code, which is a supplement to the MUTCD called, Official Traffic Control Devices (Publication 212); and the city code, which has some signs not in the MUTCD that are specific to Philadelphia design needs. Sometimes there are signs approved in the federal manual that have not been approved by a local agency, or vice versa.

A sign like May Use Full Lane is at the discretion of the engineer, but depending on budget may not be included in the design due to cost. That sign costs around $50, and then you have got to hang it on something. If you hang it on a utility pole, you must get permission from the utility company. Getting that permission can take time, however, the City can use the poles as a condition of right-of-way, so this isn’t usually a lengthy process. If you are going to put in a post, then you have to add in the cost of the post itself and installation. Installing a sign could end up costing $500 or more. City jobs have limited budgets and a myriad of needs that the meager budgets must address.

A sign is not enough. For a bike lane, signing and striping are needed. This is where it starts to get really expensive. Line striping and legends require maintenance. Wear and tear, weather (the snow and salting are taking a huge toll on striping), and utility/plumber excavations become too much for the ever-shrinking city budget to absorb. It is important to remember that despite the budget limitations, there are close to 300 miles of bike lanes and shared lanes in the City, so quite a bit has been implemented.

Snow and salting are taking a huge toll on the roadway and municipal budgets.

Why does it take so long to install bike infrastructure?

This is a really simplified explanation for a huge bureaucratic beast of a problem.

There is a process to redesign or upgrade our transportation infrastructure and there are loads of variables that must be worked through. The ultimate goal of any redesign is to make improvements for all road users (motor vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians); make it safer and more efficient; and make improvements that are cost effective, easy to maintaina and ones that the public want. If the project is to put in a bike lane, then the installation will need to improve safety for other road users as well. Because bike road use is a very small percentage of the larger transportation picture, it is difficult to get support for projects that would remove a travel lane or parking. The NIMBY people are very vocal. That is how you end up with a bike lane with no buffer squished between parked cars and moving cars or no bike lane at all.

There can be a negative attitude or perception of cyclists — both among the public and government officials. One of my coworkers who has worked in the public sector and is now in the private sector said:

Many folks see bikers as an affluent, young, and white group, and those not in these categories resent the investment in bike accommodations when potholes need to be filled, roadways need resurfacing, street lights are out, etc. As a result, City Council representatives often do not favor bike lanes. This gets particularly touchy when the placement of bike lanes requires the removal of traffic lanes [or parking]. While part of the argument is safety and traffic calming, the perception is that trips will take longer because of the loss of the traffic lanes. Very often, traffic flows better (and more slowly), but this takes time to be realized by those affected by it — the immediate reaction is in reference to what is lost.

Roadway maintenance may fall to other owners than the City. Here, SEPTA is fixing potholes around the tracks.

In general, this is the process for redesigning a street in Philadelphia: The city or state (PennDOT) have lists of funded projects. There is a project proposal process where a design firm is picked to redesign some part the street, sidewalk, signals/signs, or pavement. It could be one, some, or all of those things. Multiple firms could be working on different aspects of the same project. The designers have directions from the city as to what they want done, with a budget and schedule.

No, really, why does it take so long to get a good bike infrastructure?

Sometimes we look at good bike infrastructure (pavement markings, lane design, signals and signs) from European countries and we want to use them here, right now! Unfortunately, they have to go through a vetting process that is heavily biased towards motorized vehicles. In Mia Birk’s book Joy Ride, she talks about the difficult process to get approval for colored paint in bike lanes in Portland and how that eventually lead to forming NACTO to give cities more control over designs for bike infrastructure.

One of the excuses we use in an older city like Philly is the roadway is too narrow to accommodate the needs of cars (moving and parked) and also make room for bikes. I don’t really buy that excuse because European countries are putting in bike infrastructure in much older cities with narrower streets than Philly. These European cities have a vision for their cities where the car is not king and a bikeable/walkable city is the desired goal, and they have the will to push for those goals.

How can we make good bike infra happen now?

Three ways you can make bike infrastructure projects happen.

  1. You must have a powerful pro-bike champion who is willing to spend money and fight for bikes. Like Bloomberg and Janette Sadik-Khan
  2. Engineers, planners and government officials need to ride bikes on city streets
  3. Make your voice heard. You need to vote for powerful bike lovin’ leaders and you need to stand up for bikes at public meetings. Your voice must be louder than the NIMBY.

I don’t mean to bash Philly for not doing enough for bikes, the City has come a long way in the last 10–15 years, from virtually no bike infrastructure to what we have today, but it is a slow process. Let’s speed it up.

All photos by Kate Mundie.

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