Thursday, April 10, 2014

Some Thoughts on Bicycle Lanes

One summer day when I was about twelve I was riding my bicycle down the main street of West Hampton Beach, New York.  The cars on this street parked head in, and when one of them abruptly started to pull out, I braked hard.

When I regained consciousness, I was sitting on a chair in the local pharmacy, surrounded by attentive adults.  I had gone flying and managed to abrade my chin and forehead without damaging my glasses.  There were no helmets in those days.  The bike was fine.  And so, miraculously, was I.

11th Street
Recently I've been going to South Philly Community Acupuncture on Passyunk Avenue.  I generally walk home through the Italian Market, but a few weeks ago I found myself getting reacquainted with 11th Street.  The cars park backed into the curb on 11th Street.  Most of them, anyway.  Some park head in.

When I was ten or so, my brother and I used to ride our Uncle Ed's horses.  This was way upstate in New York, and we would ride trails in the woods and traverse farmers' pastures.  I noticed that my horse would shy away from the large rock outcroppings that are a feature of pastures in the area.  (My grandfather used to call his farm "Stony Acres.")  I asked my uncle about the horse shying, and he explained that the horse was from out West, where rocks like that tended to attract rattlesnakes looking for a warm place to sunbathe.  Rattlesnake beach.

I think my avoidance of 11th Street over the years may be my reaction to the way the cars were parked.  But I confess that the parking setup does make sense.  11th Street is very wide, and South Philly is very short of parking.

Sometimes I wonder why the street is so wide.  Perhaps one day I will engage in a bit of archival research.

Even with back-in parking on both sides, there is ample room for two car lanes, one northbound, the other other southbound, and for one bicycle lane, northbound.  The southbound car lane is painted with sharrows, which look something like a corporal's stripes sitting on a bicycle and are supposed to encourage motorists to share the road with bicyclists (share arrow).  I was standing there one day, wondering how well this worked, when as if on cue a bicyclist passed me going south in the northbound bike lane.

This wide configuration for 11th Street extends from Bainbridge down to Reed, where it runs into an Acme grocery and a very large parking lot, which are sitting, I'm told, on the site of the old Moyamensing prison.  Why the parking lot is a parking lot, and not a three-story parking garage, I do not know.

Inexplicably, the bike lane and the sharrows stop at Washington Avenue.  I have no idea why they don't extend down to Reed.  Perhaps the city ran out of paint.

It's kind of a no-brainer to suggest extending the current treatment to Reed, but I have what I think would be a better idea -- a two-lane cycle track.  There's room.  Paint it right next to the sidewalk, and move the car parking out where the one bike lane is currently.  All of a sudden you have protected bike lanes running north and south between Bainbridge and Reed.

This would be a big deal, because moving people from South Philly to Center City, and back again, is a big deal.  The Spruce-Pine pair of bike lanes provides access between Center City and West Philly.  There is nothing comparable for South Philly.

It would also help people get to the new east-west bike lanes proposed for Washington Avenue.

I think Philly will always be a share-the-road town.  But wouldn't it be nice if the road sharing took place on quiet little streets near your home, and then brought you to an arterial network of bike lanes and cycle tracks that took you everywhere?

Schuylkill Avenue
I seem to have cycle tracks on the brain these days.   Recently I was at a community meeting about the new buildings CHOP plans to build along the east bank of the Schuylkill River, just south of the South Street Bridge.  (CHOP stands for Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, already a major presence just the other side of the South Street Bridge.)

It was an odd meeting.  The audience was asked to vote on something, but the people running the meeting didn't seem to be able to agree about what we were voting on.

Still, it was a generally good-hearted, if feisty, discussion.  I think the meeting space helped -- The Philadelphia School's new Garage space at 25th and South, two blocks from the South Street Bridge.  Anyway I found myself standing in the speakers' line, thinking about what I could say as virtually every speaker in front of me bashed the two vehicular entrances to CHOP's new campus that are currently planned for the South Street Bridge.  One of them even gets a stoplight.

As I was looking at the plan of the site, projected on a large screen, I found myself focusing on little old Schuylkill Avenue.  This street runs north-south between the new CHOP campus and the Toll Brothers development in the old Naval Home.

For years the only point of public interest on Schuylkill Avenue was the Springfield Beer Distributor, which has decamped for Washington Avenue.  There's a large PECO power plant, not exactly a tourist destination, and not much else.  (Okay, the School District's police department has a garage, as does the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.  There's a no-name warehouse at 801 Schuylkill Avenue, where George Smith will be happy to tow your car should you choose to commit some unspecified infraction.)

There's a lot more vehicular traffic on Schuylkill Avenue than there used to be, because the Naval Home development has a gate there.  But it's still pretty desolate, and pedestrians are a rarity.

It's a pretty wide street, not as wide as 11th Street, but pretty wide.  And it runs from South Street to Christian.  Not Reed, but not bad.  And Christian hooks you into Grays Ferry Avenue (bike lanes) and Washington Avenue (bike lanes).

So, when it was my turn to speak at the meeting, I suggested that the designers look
into a cycle track.  They listened politely.

A few days later I decided to do the research I should have done before making the proposal.

It's a two-lane, two-way road, and I think there's just enough wiggle room for one but not two bike lanes.  I scrambled a bit to save my idea, and I came up with something I thought I would never propose:  Making the sidewalks narrower.  Less room for pedestrians.  How can you do this, Bill?  Well, both sidewalks are 15 feet wide.  The sidewalk in front of my house on Lombard Street is a bit under 12 feet wide.  Even if the new CHOP development puts a lot of pedestrians on the street, I think 12-foot sidewalks would probably be sufficient.

There are quite a few utility poles on the Naval Home side of the street, along with four fire hydrants and three of what look like steam vents.  The CHOP side of the street has two utility poles, up by the old beer distributor, and three fire hydrants.

If you were willing to move some curbs, there would be plenty of room for a cycle track.

But where would it go?  Schuylkill Avenue runs into Christian, a very narrow two-way street, which crosses Grays Ferry Avenue at a point where Grays Ferry is also a very narrow two-way street.  And that intersection actually has five spokes because another  random street runs into it.  Kinda gnarly.  (All right, it's 25th Street.)

Grays Ferry by the Naval Home
Grays Ferry Avenue and I have a history.  For a number of years I worked down in Delaware, commuting by I-95 and the Schuylkill Expressway (aka I-76).  On the way home, if the Schuylkill looked like it was getting ready to swallow its tongue, I would hop off at Vare Avenue and tool up Grays Ferry to home.

The lower part of Grays Ferry is very wide, with capacious bicycle lanes.  Then you go under the railroad viaduct, the road narrows, the bike lanes disappear (replaced by sharrows), and for quite a while you run straight as an arrow up next to the brick wall of the Naval Home on a street that feels quite a lot like a lane in a bowling alley.

On this stretch, there are six intersections on the east side and two curb cuts for the Naval Home on the west side.  There are no stop signs on this part of Grays Ferry, and only one light, at Fitzwater.  Throw in a tired motorist's strong desire to be home, and this is not a good place for bicyclists.

My post office is down on the wide part of Grays Ferry, and I've ridden my bike down the bowling lane.  I won't do it any more.  I'll take 21st south to Washington; 21st is narrow, but it has lots of stop signs to slow the cars down.  It could use some sharrows.  For the way back there's 22nd, which is a little wider and has a very comfortable bike lane (also the Ultimo coffee bar at Catharine).

The Foot of the Bridge
As we headed for home after the CHOP meeting, Lois and I were walking along with an acquaintance who was explaining why we really didn't need a bicycle lane on South Street.  I listened politely, but I was mainly thinking about the idea I should have proposed at the meeting.

It has to do with the intersection at the eastern foot of the South Street Bridge, which is technically South and 27th (another one of those now-you-see-it, now-you-don't streets).

This intersection is scary for bicyclists, pedestrians, and, frankly, motorists.  One of the reasons is that the bike lane, as it approaches the intersection, kicks out from the sidewalk and eventually winds up between two lanes of car traffic.  This is so the right lane of cars can turn right.  It is an invitation to mayhem, to which we are about to add two curb cuts further back on the bridge that will apparently accept cars turning from both the eastbound and the westbound lanes.  And cars exiting the curb cuts will also be able to go either way.  All this takes place in perhaps 100 yards -- two curb cuts and a crazy intersection.

We should remember that many of the drivers headed east on the South Street Bridge have just gotten off the Schuylkill Expressway and are still in Interstate mode.  I know.  I was one of them.

I can't fix the curb cuts, which are apparently as-of-right.  CHOP doesn't seem to need anybody's permission to install them.

But I can fix the intersection.  Sarah Clark Stuart, of the Bicycle Coalition, has been sending around materials about what I call the Dutch intersection, because it seems to have gotten its start in the Netherlands.  It neatly separates cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, and provides everybody convenient and pretty safe ways through the intersection.  That's what I should have talked about at the meeting.

If you'd like to know more about the Dutch intersection, here are some links:
(A nice video with lots of suggestions for further reading.) 
(A two minute video with a Dutch accent.)

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