Bicycle advocates lined up in the middle of a Center City Philadelphia street twice in the last month, forming a human-protected bike lane in the wake of high-profile collisions.
At the end of November, a 24-year-old pastry chef named Emily Fredricks was riding in a painted bike lane when she was struck by a turning garbage truck and killed. Three weeks later, a web designer named Becca Refford, also 24, was hit by another truck just a few blocks from where Fredricks was killed. Refford, who is recovering, has shattered hips and a fractured pelvis, according to news reports.
Both collisions occurred in long-established bike lanes in the heart of the city. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Fredricks was the third bicyclist to die in a traffic incident in the city in 2017. But the city is resisting calls to reorient its bike lane plans in reaction to those specific incidents.
Shortly after Fredricks’ death, the Coalition sent Mayor Jim Kenney a list of seven steps to speed up the pace of progress on Vision Zero, the city’s commitment to achieving zero traffic-related deaths by 2030. Among the demands was that the city present a plan to protect or buffer bike lanes on two streets in the next two months (Spruce and Pine, two east-west arterials that traverse all of Center City), redesign some intersections, and repaint 23 miles of faded bike lanes.
Kenney said in response that his administration is committed to Vision Zero, and to establishing more protected bike lanes throughout the city, but that it was going to keep its focus on the high-injury network, which the two streets are not a part of, despite the recent crashes.
“While Pine and Spruce streets will continue to receive our focus, arbitrary timeframes applied to these locations hold the risk of taking important attention away from other places in the city where the data indicates the safety concerns may be more acute,” Kenney wrote.
Protected bike lanes have been shown to increase ridership and safety in cities, but Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists, says that while many cities have shown interest in developing better bike infrastructure, only a few are leading the way. Approaches vary, but some are relying on data — and the numbers and voices heard during community engagement may require considerate reckoning.
“If a city has an appropriate long-term data-driven plan, it’s really hard to say no to that,” McLeod says. “But it’s also hard to ignore the emotional appeal of reacting to incidents. I know some cities have had issues where their safety responses have been based on community feedback, and sometimes that’s meant that they’ve steered more resources to louder communities, which means that they’re ignoring lower-income communities or communities that don’t have political capital.”
McLeod says that some cities, like Austin and San Francisco, have been able to build support for specific bike infrastructure projects by including them in larger transportation funding campaigns. He also noted that unsanctioned pop-up infrastructure can sometimes convince leaders that permanent improvements are needed, as Next City has reported.
Bicycle advocacy has gained steam as data has become more readily available, McLeod says. According to an inventory of protected bike lanes collected by People for Bikes, the number of protected lanes in the U.S. has roughly doubled every two years since 2006. But some cities are still way out ahead.
“It’s still a type of facility that’s in a minority of communities,” McLeod says. “There’s a lot of work to do in the rest of the country.”
In Philadelphia, the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) last week announced plans to build flexible delineator posts to buffer a bike lane on several blocks of South Street. There was resistance in the neighborhood early on, but city officials say support from community organizations and business groups in the area helped.
Advocates have criticized the city for leaning too heavily on approval from City Council members and near neighbors when making decisions about street upgrades. But OTIS officials say that getting community buy-in is essential to making street upgrades permanent. In his response to the Bicycle Coalition, Kenney said the group should redouble its efforts at civic engagement and building the case for better bike lanes.
“We want to really build the momentum and the sustained acceptance and approval for bike infrastructure, rather than rolling out a lot and having a lot of backlash,” says Kelley Yemen, the city’s director of complete streets.
Yemen says that there are monthly meetings between OTIS, the Streets Department, and the police in which they discuss recent collisions and potential quick fixes at the intersections where they have occurred. But given the funding they have for permanent infrastructure upgrades, the city wants to keep its efforts focused on the high-injury network, which is why it’s resisting calls to immediately build protected lanes on Spruce and Pine in Center City. (The Bicycle Coalition also asked Kenney to add $1 million to Vision Zero efforts, to which the mayor responded noncommittally, citing the city’s “vulnerable” finances.)
During his mayoral campaign, Kenney promised to establish 30 miles of protected bike lanes in the city. But in his response to the Bicycle Coalition’s request to release a map showing where those projects will be built, Kenney said the city would announce them individually, after consulting with surrounding communities.
“That process takes longer,” says Jeannette Brugger, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at OTIS. “But it’s worth it with the buy-in and acceptance of the community.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, Grid magazine, and other publications.