A modest crowd of cyclists and West Philadelphia residents gathered at the Enterprise Center Wednesday evening to listen to planners from the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS) and the Streets Department sell them on the idea of a parking-protected bike lane on Chestnut Street stretching from 45th to 34th streets.
The planners presented a set of scary statistics: Chestnut sees three times as many crashes as the average Philly street. Between 2009 and 2013, 75 percent of those Chestnut Street crashes occurred between 34th and 45th streets. Despite a posted 25 miles per hour speed limit, cars average 32 MPH, per a University City District study that also clocked some automobiles going as fast as 47 MPH on Chestnut. Between 2012 and 2015, there were 88 crashes involving 228 people, 34 percent of which were pedestrians and bicyclists.
The facts and figures worked on their intended audience: Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
Saying she would introduce legislation to authorize the bike lane next week, Blackwell cited the crash data. “This will make a great difference in safety, this can affect lives. It’s a big deal. I didn't realize it was this important.”
Since 2012, City Council must sign off on almost all proposed changes to the streetscape, including when lane configurations change. On local projects, the whole of Council defers to the district councilmember representing the area. Councilwoman Blackwell has represented West Philadelphia since 1992.
That hyperlocal focus has frustrated proponents of safer infrastructure for pedestrians and bicycles in the past, who have seen proposals to remove parking or automobile travel lanes to make room for wider sidewalks and bike lanes get shot down by local residents who complained about the impact on parking or traffic. District councilmembers tend to defer to the wishes of local homeowners and businesses on these matters, often over the recommendations of city planners and safety experts.
Blackwell said she hears complaints over bike lanes and bad bicyclist behavior all the time, but this time the safety concerns were too great to ignore. “I get people asking about bike lanes all the time, but this [data] shows how important it is,” she said.
A 2015 Streets Department study of Chestnut Street estimates that the proposed parking-protected bike lanes and pedestrian crosswalk bump outs would have minimal impact on motor vehicle traffic times, adding a minute to the average travel time of three-and-a-half minutes to traverse this mile-long stretch of Chestnut.
If Council authorizes the new bike lane quickly, work will take place over the summer to fit the University of Pennsylvania’s academic calendar, said Deputy Managing Director of OTIS, Mike Carroll. “If everything goes according to plan, before the students return in the fall, there will be a new pattern.”
The proposal would place a bike lane on the far left side of Chestnut Street, next to the curb. Just to the right of the bike lane, there will be a parking lane, which creates a physical barrier separating cyclists from moving motor vehicle traffic. As with any curbside, on-street parking, passengers would be encouraged to exit their vehicles through the driver side door, checking for passing cyclists before they open their doors. (A small painted buffer with flexible delineator posts would separate the bike lane from the parking lane.) In all, the move would reduce Chestnut Street’s automotive travel lanes from three to two between 45th and 34th streets. The plan would also add pedestrian crossing bumpouts at Chestnut Street’s intersections, narrowing the crossing distance from 42 feet to 27 feet.
Carroll said he hopes to extend the new traffic pattern further down Chestnut, to 23rd Street when PennDOT makes substantial repairs to the Chestnut Street Bridge.