UPDATE: Working Together for Complete Streets in Philadelphia

City agencies such as the Planning Commission (PCPC), the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU), and other organizations like the Bicycle Coalition have been working hard to ensure that users of all modes of transportation can get along and travel safely in Philadelphia.  They have teamed up to create guidelines and regulations for what are known as “complete streets.”  Complete streets are intended to go above and beyond traditional street design to provide a safe means of travel for pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and other road users.  The guidelines are outlined in the Complete Streets Handbook, a joint effort of MOTU and a steering committee consisting of various stakeholders, including PCPC, SEPTA, and DVRPC.  UPDATE: The final version of the Complete Streets Handbook has been released!  Download the pdf here.

Other ways complete streets are being promoted are through programs such as “Give Respect, Get Respect,” a component of the city’s Get Healthy Philly initiative that aims to encourage road safety by getting people to obey traffic laws.  Also, the Bicycle Coalition is undertaking a “Safe Streets, Healthy Neighborhoods” project, which seeks to apply complete streets principles in parts of South Philadelphia.

The Complete Streets Bill passed last December codifies the recommendations outlined in the Complete Streets Handbook and aligns the city code with state measures on most traffic violations.  How does this help pedestrians?  Well, one measure that changed is the fine for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk in Philadelphia, which increased from $50 to $75.  (Riding a bicycle on the sidewalk was already explicitly prohibited by the city code prior to the bill’s passage.)  For more information on the provisions of the bill, see the Q&A posted below, courtesy of Nicholas Mirra of the Bicycle Coalition.  [As the Q&A was released prior to the passing of the bill, some edits have been made to the following passage to reflect current legislation.] 

Q: Will the bill stop cars from parking in bike lanes?
A: Yes, in the sense that it makes such parking illegal (no law will keep all street users from following all laws all the time). Formerly, there was no law prohibiting vehicles from stopping, standing, or parking in bike lanes.

This bill makes it clear that bicycle lanes are vehicular travel lanes. That distinction opens the door for equal application of existing laws. So if the street signs say “No Stopping” or “No Standing,” you can’t stop or stand there, whether it’s a vehicular or bicycle lane. The bill then goes farther, explicitly prohibiting cars from parking in any bike lane no matter whether there’s a “No Parking” sign or not.

The fines for violating these provisions are $50, and $75 in both Center City and University City. However… (see below)

Q: Hooray! I will never see a car in a bike lane again!
A: Slow down, big guy. There remains a different part of the traffic code which allows vehicles to load/unload passengers in places where parking is otherwise prohibited. It also allows commercial vehicles a 20-minute load/unload window. So bike lanes can still be used for these purposes. Also, this bill does not affect the City’s policy of allowing Sunday parking in Pine and Spruce Streets for religions institutions.

Q: Seriously? Pine and Spruce weekend lane parking is, like, literally the worst thing in the world.
A: Chill, Winston. This bill, while a huge win for bicyclists and pedestrians, is not solving every problem. The City allowed religious institution parking on Pine and Spruce before those bike lanes existed, and continuing that allowance was a big part of getting the lanes in the first place. We don’t like it, no, but that issue is not really an enforcement issue.

Q: So what meaningful effect will this have on the prevalence of stopped cars in the bike lanes?
A: This bill cleans up and consolidates the rules. Ultimately, its effect will be a question of enforcement. But this bill takes confusion about the laws off the list of excuses for lack of enforcement. Now the laws are in one place, explicitly stating what is and isn’t allowed, and showing the fines for infringement. That didn’t exist before. When talking to the Police and the PPA about enforcement, it will be much easier to point to this legislation and say, “Okay, how will this be enforced?”

Q: What about fines? I hear if I blow through a red light the fine is going up.
A: Actually, it did not go up. Currently non-parking violations for bicycles in Philly are $3. But state law trumps city law for the same violation. So any bicyclist receiving a ticket would receive the state fine. This bill merely aligns Philly code with state code. Incidentally, the state fine for running a red light in a car or on a bike is $119.50.

One exception: the bill increased the fine for sidewalk riding from $50 to $75. Which nobody over age 12 should be doing anyway.

Q: So maybe we could have passed the bill and not done that alignment?
A: The alignment is also a modernization which takes some bad laws off Philly’s books. Among them: the mandatory sidepath law, and the single-file law. Formerly, you could not ride a bicycle on a street if there were a nearby sidepath (example: MLK Drive in Fairmount Park). It was also illegal in Philly to ride bicycles two abreast. Bringing Philly’s traffic code up to state standards removes these two rules, which is unquestionably a good thing.

Q: Why is this “Complete Streets” thing a thing? Don’t we already have sidewalks and stuff?
A: Look at the two photos of Allegheny Ave in this blog post.  Requiring all private and public transit and development projects to consider all street users will result in much safer and more enjoyable streets. Things like bike lanes, sufficiently wide sidewalks, bike corrals, curb bump outs, covered bus stops, and other design treatments (aka “stuff on or near the street”) will help people get around Philly by whatever means they choose.

The bill also holds developers, both public and private, accountable for considering everybody’s needs when building something. There will be a checklist they’ll have to use, and that checklist and their compliance with it, will be made public online (no walking into the Municipal Service Building to ask to see a file). The Complete Streets Handbook on which this is all based will combine the recommendations of many different reports and initiatives that have friendly, green streets in mind: the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, Philadelphia 2035, the Zoning Code Commission Report, Greenworks Philadelphia, and the Green City, Clean Waters Plan. It’ll all be in one place, making it easier for developers to adhere to the standards, and will give these good intentions for Philly’s future the weight of law.

For more information about the Complete Streets movement, visit its website.

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