Thursday, May 5, 2016

Flex Posts on Pine and Spruce

1600 block of Spruce street. Bike lane at left.
There is a proposal to turn the bike lanes on Pine and Spruce streets into protected bike lanes. This means that, in addition to the current (more or less) painted buffer zone between the bicycles and the cars, there will be a series of flex posts. These are plastic posts, usually orange, that you can now see in a number of areas around Philadelphia, perhaps most visibly on the Walnut Street bridge. The barrier they create is almost entirely visual and psychological. If a car hits them, they bend over. I used to call them wibble-wobble sticks, but my daughter tells me that is no longer accepted terminology.

(The posts on the Walnut Street bridge are white. They'd probably get hit less if they were orange, or yellow, or lime green. But I digress.)

I've now heard a number of well-meaning concerns about putting the flex posts in on Pine and Spruce. Most of these concerns, I believe, are related to an understandable reluctance to change the way things are. Cars currently use the bike lanes as loading zones. Moving vans use the bike lanes as loading zones. And houses of worship use the lanes on the weekends as parking spaces for persons attending services.

No stopping zone. Pine street bike lane.
My basic thought is that people need to take a step back and think about the street as a whole. There are currently three lanes - a parking lane, a traffic lane, and a bike lane.

The Parking Lane Is the Problem
I don't think the bike lane is the problem. I think the parking lane is the problem.

This thought crystalized when I read Jon Broh's comments in a recent Stu Bykofsky column. Jon is the current head of the Wash West civic, and his concern was for the merchants on Pine Street, who are apparently quite vocal about demanding that their customers have easy access to their stores by car.

Fine. The problem with access is not the bike lane. It is the fact that virtually all the spaces in the parking lane are given over to long-term storage of cars, and virtually no loading zones are available in the parking lane to provide the access that the merchants desire.

We need to think hard about balancing storage versus access at the curb. Currently in Wash West and CCRAville, there is no balance.

We also need to go back to Jeremy Bentham's thinking about the greatest good for the greatest number. In late 2014 and early 2015, Mike Axler and I conducted a survey of parking in CCRAville - the area west of Broad Street - and we came up with some surprising findings. The people parking on the street in CCRAville are a small minority. At least 87 percent of households in CCRAville do not park a car on the street. And yet we all suffer from the lack of access.

I haven't studied Wash West or Society Hill, but I'm inclined to think the numbers there would be similar.

Access on Pine and Spruce is part of a larger issue of access in many parts of the city. Recently the Crosstown Coalition, a group of 20+ civic organizations, conducted a parking survey. Of local businesses responding to the survey, 82 percent reported that delivery people and contractors had to park illegally. I do have a problem with a parking system that forces people to break the law just to do their jobs.

A piece of the solution to this larger problem is providing more loading zones. On Pine and Spruce I think two loading zones per block would do great good. I would put these spots at the front and the end of each block, because those are the easiest spaces to get in and out of.

I haven't made a study of this, but I have spent quite a lot of time on Pine and Spruce, in a car, on a bike, and on foot. My observation is that there are rarely more than one or two cars parked in the bike lane on each block. My proposal for two loading spots per block would clear the bike lane and not harm the motorists.

Large moving vans always pose a challenge. The city does allow residents to placard existing parking spots to make space for moving vans. And if the people parked in those spots don't move their cars, the cars can be towed.

As for the church and synagogue parking, I really think there is plenty of available curb space without blocking bike lanes. The houses of worship simply need to shift some cars to new locations. And perhaps some of those locations, dare I say it, could be off-street. Many of the garages in the affected neighborhoods have a significant number of vacancies on weekend mornings.

Why Should Anybody Care?
You may ask, Why should we ask non-bicyclists to go to all this trouble to accommodate bicyclists? The answer is this: With car-free, protected bike lanes on Pine and Spruce, the bike counts there could easily quintuple.

Right now, what we have out there are the "strong and fearless" and the "confident and enthusiastic." These groups total maybe 10-15 percent of the population. 60 percent of the population are called "interested but concerned." They're not going to come out if they're constantly having to merge into moving traffic to avoid cars parked in the bike lane.

On a personal note, I find that I'm slipping from the confident and enthusiastic category to the interested but concerned. I like to ride an Indego bike over to the Reading Terminal Market, but the constant lane-shifting is getting to me. I've had enough unpleasant experiences with oblivious or entitled drivers that I now often simply dismount and walk on the sidewalk around the parked car.

I think people who ride bikes will easily understand what I'm saying, but I've struggled a bit to find a way to explain it to non-bicyclists. Here's an attempt - it's not an exact analogy, but perhaps it's good food for thought. Think about the last time you were on the access lane to an Interstate highway, trying to get into the right traffic lane. The cars already in the right traffic lane are going 65 miles per hour or more. You need to accelerate to that speed and slip into a gap between two cars.

Not only are you relying on the courtesy of the motorists already in the traffic lane, you're having trouble seeing them, because your view to the rear is partially obstructed by the structure of your car.

Now imagine performing a slower version of that merge every two minutes for your entire trip, craning your neck to try to see what's behind you while also making sure you don't run into the parked car that's directly in front of you.

Change is difficult. However, I ask motorists and residents - and particularly those attending our local houses of worship - to engage in an act of empathy. Some small adjustments on their part could make a huge difference for bicycling in this city. And it's not just about the bicyclists. If the city is going to reach its goals for Vision Zero and clean air, among other things, it needs a lot more bikes on the road, riding safely.

And my boat is so small.
See also Parking: Storage v. Access, The Supreme Court and Parking, Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?

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