Monday, September 26, 2016

Vision Zero in Philadelphia

Boardwalk, Asbury Park
Well, Labor Day has come and gone, and I think it's fair to say that Jim Kenney is not Michael Bloomberg.

I think many of us were willing to wait until the soda tax fight was over. But then the summer came and went, and there has been remarkably little progress on Vision Zero and Complete Streets.

Yes, we have the bike lane on Ryan Avenue, and progress appears to have been made on the South Street bridge. Philly Free Streets proved to be a lovely and very crowded event. Its chief innovation was to close South Street on a Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (actually well past 1 p.m.).

But we are a long way from where I had expected to be at this point. Where is the city's Vision Zero task force? Where is the Complete Streets commissioner or director (I gather the effort is no longer worth a commissioner).

Where is the bike lane on 22nd in Fairmount? Where is the two-way cycle track across the MLK bridge at the beginning of MLK Drive? Where are the cycle tracks on Market and JFK west of City Hall? All of these projects have been languishing for years.  All of them could easily have been completed in the construction season that is now drawing to a close. And still no word.

I had hoped that Mayor Kenney, like Mayor Bloomberg, would be an ally and an advocate for Vision Zero and Complete Streets. By now, though, it seems clear that he has opted for a different, perhaps more traditional, role as mayor - that of an arbiter who weighs the competing demands of various constituencies.

Advice from Saul Alinsky
A few months ago I finally got around to reading Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. I found the book very informative and at times hilarious. (Alinsky does tell good stories.)

One thing Alinsky emphasizes is the importance of identifying who your enemy is and then mounting a sustained attack on that enemy.

I think some of my friends may be tempted at this point to see Jim Kenney as the enemy, but he's not. City Council is not the enemy either. Even traffic engineers who are still focused on moving the maximum number of cars through the system at the maximum possible speed are not the enemy.

The enemy is bad drivers. We need to hammer that message home. Yes, lowering the speed of vehicles is very important, but it is not an organizing principle. We need to reorganize our streets to prevent bad drivers from acting on their evil impulses.

False Equivalence
I hear again and again, "Well, bicyclists and pedestrians do bad things too." Or, as a middle-aged woman put it to me at a community meeting, "Bicyclists are evil."

Yes, pedestrians have been known to cross in the midblock - this is called jaywalking. And bicyclists have been known to treat a stop sign as a yield sign - this is known as the Idaho stop, because it's legal in that state.

But I simply reject the false equivalence. Bicyclists and pedestrians do not kill motorists. Meanwhile, motorists kill pedestrians with great regularity. (And they usually get away with it, but that's an issue for another day.)

Where the Rubber Hits the Road
We will also be needing a specific, tangible issue to fight over, and I have one - Pennsylvania's four-foot passing law.

The four-foot passing law has been on the books since 2012, and it requires a motorist passing a bicyclist to leave at least four feet of clear space between the two vehicles. (Billy Penn has a very funny article and video about the four-foot rule.)

As I pointed out in an earlier story on this site, the four-foot law means that it is illegal for a motorist to pass a bicyclist on many of Philly's narrow streets.

Here's the arithmetic. Take 21st at Pemberton, in South Philly. There is one traffic lane, headed south. It is twelve feet wide.

The typical American car is between six and seven feet wide; the handlebars on the typical bike are around two feet wide. That gets you to nine feet. Add four feet of clearance, and you're at thirteen feet.

But wait. The motorist will want clearance on the other side of the car as well. Call it a foot, which gets you to fourteen feet, which is two feet more than the width of the travel lane.

It's illegal for a motorist to pass a bicyclist at 21st and Pemberton.  It's illegal everywhere in Philadelphia where similar conditions exist. And, of course, motorists commit this particular moving violation all the time.

Making the Law Effective
Wouldn't it be nice if the City did a few things to make the four-foot passing law effective? It could put up more of those signs which say that a bicycle "may use full lane." This sign doesn't tell the whole story, but it's been in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2009, which means it has received the traffic engineering equivalent of a papal blessing.

The City could also educate the public on the four-foot passing law. I'm reasonably certain that the vast majority of Philly residents are blissfully unaware of this law.

And the City could enforce the law. A police officer doesn't need any fancy equipment to do this. No radar gun required. If there's one lane, and it's twelve feet wide, and the motorist is passing, he's breaking the law. If the officer wants to whip out her iPhone and take a picture, she will have an open-and-shut case.

If All Else Fails, Sue
Will the City be eager to do this? I rather doubt it. But, if friendly persuasion doesn't work, perhaps a lawsuit will. The City does have a duty to enforce the laws, after all.

A key tool for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement was its Legal Defense Fund. Perhaps we need a Vision Zero Legal Defense Fund.

I hope it doesn't come to that. But if we want to sway the current administration to our side, we are going to need to fight. We are going to need to fight harder and smarter than our opponents.

1 comment:

  1. respectfully dsiagree. Not much of anything to do with bad drivers. Its completely to do with bad, outdated design. Calls for enforcement are a canard that only leads to continued unsafe streets. No empirical evidence that enforcement leads to safer streets long run.