Op-ed: Urban bicyclists need room to ride

All over the country, various city planning departments, bike organizations, New Urbanists, “green” advocates, and others have been pushing for, and getting, bike lanes in their respective cities – including here. So why do Philadelphia drivers insist on making them unsafe?

Along main thoroughfares throughout the city, roads have been changed to allow space for cyclists. This is a good thing. You’ve heard it a million times before, but cyclists should be welcomed in a city with traffic congestion like we have. They don’t pollute, they don’t take up much space, and with bike lanes, they don’t add another car to rush-hour traffic.

But there’s a problem with bike lanes: People park in them. Sure, with rising crime rates, “Killadelphia” headlines, and celebrity scandals leading news reports in recent years, illegal parking might seem like a trivial issue. But it’s not; lazy commuters who double-park put cyclists’ lives in danger every day.

Consider Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia: Imagine you’re riding in the bike lane and you’ve just passed 45th Street on your way toward Center City. On your right in the distance is Clark Park, along with a parking lane next to you. You’re moving along freely, but 30 yards ahead, there’s someone parked in the bike lane. It’s completely blocking your way, and sticking about a foot into the main drag. As you approach, you realize the driver is not even in the car; he’s marked his territory by turning on his four-way flashers.

This is already a tricky situation. But you’ll also remember that Baltimore Avenue is the route for the No. 34 trolley. So, as a cyclist, you are not only forced to contend with merging into oncoming traffic behind you (which could easily include a 10-ton trolley), you’re also forced to maneuver your skinny bike tires in such a way to avoid getting them stuck in the tracks (which would, in all likelihood, put you on the ground in front of a moving vehicle). Not an easy task.

This isn’t paranoia. People have been killed while riding in bike lanes negotiating similar situations. (You may recall a 26-year old cyclist, George Gonzalez, who was fatally injured last summer in Northern Liberties when a Greyhound bus driver seemingly forgot about the bike lane next to him.)

Various Web sites such as IParkedInABikeLane.org and mybikelane.com have started documenting when people park in bike lanes, even creating fake traffic tickets and suggesting that cyclists carry special “I Parked in a Bike Lane” stickers to brand inconsiderate drivers – or, in the words of one site, “self-absorbed bike-lane-parking morons.”

Hopefully, such guerrilla tactics aren’t necessary here.

Philadelphia is encouraging cyclists with bike lanes. But unless they are treated as such, and unless police enforce laws to keep parked cars out of bike lanes, they may be more dangerous than convenient.

We shouldn’t need to spend tax dollars, impose further legislation, or make more physical changes to our streets to prevent lazy drivers from endangering cyclists on the road. I just hope it doesn’t take more needless tragedies for people to realize that something as simple as parking in bike lanes can negatively affect our city. In contrast, something as simple as consideration for others can make Philadelphia a better place.