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What We Can (and Can't) Learn from Philly Biking

I am a Philly native, and I was very happy to see my home city getting attention from Streetfilms. Among cities of 1,000,000 or more, Philadelphia is number one in the U.S. for biking. I often feel that if I had grown up in a different metro area, I'd be a totally different person in terms of my thoughts about transportation. For one, I would have definitely learned to drive by now. I wouldn't have all these childhood experiences of visiting Center City and seeing streets that I could touch both sides of with my outstretched, child-sized arms. Philadelphia--and even its suburbs, to a lesser extent--has given me lessons about how things should be built. 

Some of these lessons were obvious even at a time when I had lived only in the Philly area--everyone is aware that a four-foot street is extraordinarily narrow, no matter where they're from. But some of the lessons are things that only became apparent to me in opposition to places like Providence where they aren't implemented. 

Check out Streetfilms' jawn here (I can't embed because it's not on Youtube yet).

Here's what to take from the Streetfilms visit to Philadelphia:

In Philadelphia, the four-way stop sign is the default setup for any intersection, and that goes for the suburbs too. In Rhode Island, we have a lot of stop signs that only operate in one direction, and to me this doesn't even make sense in its own terms. A four-way stop means "come to a full stop, look both ways, and then go". A stop sign only in one direction means "yield while the other cars speed past you". Providence should implement four-way stops at intersections like Olney & Camp, because crossing the street can be a real challenge. This also goes for intersections where I've suggested that the city should default lights to flashing red. Some have suggested that Providence use flashing yellow for priority streets, with intersecting streets as flashing red, based on past experience where the city did this at night. To me, a flashing red/yellow setup is much like a two-way stop--it's a softer, but still clear, way of telling traffic on one street that it doesn't have to yield to people crossing.

Philadelphia actually has narrow streets. Providence does not have narrow streets. Yes, our streets are not Los Angeles or Chicago size. But people should look at Philadelphia's streets and see that we have no right to claim that ours are narrow. Even streets that we regularly call narrow and colonial, like Benefit St., are much wider than Philadelphia's streets. This should make sense to us, because Benefit St. is so named because it was widened "for the benefit of all" in the 19th C. There are no 18th C. streets in Providence, and only a handful in Newport.

One-ways are not always bad. The vast majority of Philadelphia's streets are one-way, but they are also one-lane one-way streets. Often, streets that we treat as two-way, like the lower part of Thayer, could continue to operate as one-way streets by adding parking to the opposite side of the street. While many of my proposals for arterial streets call for the removal of some street parking to add protected bike lanes, I would add parking to other streets and increase the number of one-ways in neighborhoods that are gridded (basically, the East Side). There's a lot of chic talk about removing one-ways, and while it always makes sense to remove a double- or triple-one-way street's extra lanes, there are other ways to use those lanes besides two-way traffic, like bus lanes or protected bike lanes.

Philadelphia is a slacker city, bike-wise. Philadelphia does not have the infrastructure it should have. It's slacking. The city is lucky to have features like narrow streets and dense, rowhouse-style housing, because it does not give it the same opportunity to be car-oriented as other cities have had. But we should definitely not take that to mean that infrastructure is not needed, Philadelphia's biking rate is high for the U.S., but very low in international terms. It's also augmented by poverty, and by the fact that Pennsylvania gives the middle finger to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, resulting in worse transit than otherwise would be the case, in a way that even Rhode Island does not do to its cities (Rhode Island does have very poor transit funding, but it also has a different context than Philadelphia--it's shameful that Philadelphia's transit is not better than it is, for its density and size, and this is a result of the "Pennsyltucky" politics of the middle of the state being put against the cities at either end). 

Traffic speeds matter, but so do traffic volumes. Philadelphia's default speed is 20 mph, and citizens don't really notice this as being out of the ordinary. But the traffic volumes on streets are often quite high. @Philambulator on Twitter has been promoting the idea of bike boulevards in Philadelphia, using a synonymous term "filtered permeability" to describe the occasional blockades to through-traffic that bike boulevards use (in the Netherlands, this concept also goes under the term "Autoluwe" or "car-lite"). Philadelphia should implement Philambulator's ideas, and Providence should look to use those ideas where it's possible for us. One thing to be aware of is that Providence is not a gridded city, except in certain limited sections, and so our struggle for biking excellence will require a lot more protected bike lanes on major arterials that connect neighborhoods than Philadelphia's will. So, we should be careful not to follow a false model for our city's context: we can't push all the bikes to side streets here. 

My dream is to see Philadelphia achieve its destiny as a world biking city, but my goal as a Providence resident is to see us surpass Philadelphia. We are not as dense as Philly, but we're a much smaller-footprint city, and we should be able to kick Philly's butt if we put our minds to it.


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