When a Bike Lane is More than a Bike Lane

This post originally appeared as a Helen Ubinas column in the Philadelphia Daily News.  Supplemental italicized text and graphics in this post are intended to lend some color commentary and further clarity to the issues presented in Helen's original text. 

Philly PD, in the bike lane and ON the sidewalk.
I have dozens of such photos.
Parking in a bike lane endangers people, plain and simple, even if you're doing it for "just a minute." Each time a cyclist is obstructed by a parked car, they swerve unexpectedly into traffic, posing a risk to themselves and the drivers behind and beside them.  Not everybody realizes this, and to a degree, that's understandable.  But I've found the City of Philadelphia's own police department to be a frequent blocker bike lines - and no, not when responding to emergencies, but mostly stopping at a convenience store for a coke, lottery tickets, and a hangout with fellow officers... all on time paid by the taxpayers dime. 

MY MISSION? To stake out the blocked bike lane outside the 7-Eleven near the corner of 22nd and Lombard streets.
I eyed the stoop at a closed flower shop across the street, perfect for unobstructed surveillance.
I downloaded a counting app to keep track of all the bikers riding by.
I was about to grab a Big Gulp and settle in, when the first culprit pulled into the bike lane and parked.
A woman, outwardly healthy looking, stepped out of a shiny Mercedes with a handicapped-parking placard dangling from the mirror and sashayed into the store. Moments later, two officers in a police cruiser pulled up behind her and headed inside.
The Big Gulp would have to wait.
A few weeks earlier I'd met Jonas Maciunas, one of Philadelphia's increasing number of cyclists. (A new report by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia found that between 2005 and 2013, bicycle commuting across the Schuylkill rose 260 percent.) Maciunas was irked at how often the bike lane at 22nd and Lombard near his home was blocked by inconsiderate, lawbreaking drivers. He'd taken to posting his frustrations on Twitter. But no amount of public shaming stopped civilians, cabbies and cops from parking in the lane who then forced bicyclists to go around the vehicles and into traffic. 
Check it out for myself, Maciunas said. I'd see.
He was right. On the night I visited, it was a free-for-all.
No matter that it was clearly a bike lane, with a white bicycle symbol. No matter that it was marked with a "No Stopping" sign. (Oddly, if a bike lane is marked with a "No Parking" sign, cars are allowed to park for 20 minutes.) No matter that cops who were supposed to be enforcing the law were flouting it right along with other traffic scofflaws.
Any delusion I had that the cops who parked behind the Mercedes were going to give the driver a ticket or a good talking to was smashed when the officers emerged from the 7-Eleven with a large coffee, a Big Gulp and even bigger chips on their shoulders.  Big surprise there.  
When I asked them why they were parked in a bike lane, they had lots of excuses. There's nowhere else to park, one cop said.  Their sergeant said it was OK. Another officer, who said he was making a security check, said if I wanted them to be sticklers about the law (isn't that kind of the point of being a cop?) then cyclists would also have to be cited for blowing through traffic lights. I'm OK with that. So is the Bicycle Coalition, as long as vigorous enforcement goes both ways.  Here's the thing: the officer's logic, paraphrased, "because some cyclists break rules, we should respect the safety of none of them," is nearly identical "because I saw a black guy rob somebody once, we should stop and frisk all of them." The latter is insane (though that doesn't stop somebody from trying), but somehow the former is considered a reasonable position by an officer of law enforcement.  
I can already hear many of you: With all the problems in Philly, why focus on one bike lane? Two things - 1) enforcement of behavior by private citizens is one challenge; 2) getting one city department (police) to respect the actions of another (streets) really shouldn't be.  I don't think you'll ever have the general public respect rules if their own police force doesn't.
You can disagree whether we should have bike lanes or not, and where they should be.  That's a reasonable position (and I happen to come down on one side of it) that reasonable people can have a debate about (which we'll get to in a moment), but once you have them, I think its imperative to respect and enforce them, not actively try to subvert them. After all, we don't think of speed limits as mere guidelines and the building code isn't just a recommendation.  
[Also], because sometimes a bike lane is more than just a bike lane. 
Just ask Maciunas, 30, who says disregarding the safety of bicyclists in lanes throughout the city speaks volumes about Philadelphia's culture, priorities and future economic development.
"I think if Philadelphia wants to underestimate the mobility preferences of a generation that's going to be 75 percent of the workforce in 10 years, then we can do that," he said. "But don't be surprised when people choose to go elsewhere. Our narrow streets won't carry many more cars, so at the end of the day, growth will require prioritizing other modes." Typical Philadelphia streets are 26 feet wide and the workforce of the future is less and less interested in driving.  As a matter of geometry and market preference, growth requires a re-prioritization of how we allocate those 26 feet.  
Protected bike lanes are safer for all users.
(photo: US Dept. of Transportation)
Maciunas is an urban strategist with the RBA Group. He thinks big picture like this, which is how Philly has to keep thinking if it wants to keep competing with other cities that are attracting and keeping residents. Make no mistake, people are choosing between cities and companies are following them. Philadelphia has great bones and has done great things, but we've got to keep our edge.
While we should care about even one blocked bike lane that's putting bicyclists in danger, there's actually even more at stake here: We either want to make the city more accessible and attractive to residents who want a walkable and bikeable place to live, or we don't. 
We're either serious about enforcing all our laws or we aren't.
We either respect each other's space - even if it's a bike lane that may mean we have to look elsewhere for parking - or we don't.
But we can't say we prioritize law and order and economic development and smart growth of our city and then shrug it off if it's inconvenient or we're just jonesing for a Big Gulp.
Sgt. Eric Gripp said the Police Department is aware of the issue and has made it clear to officers that parking in bike lanes is unacceptable and won't be tolerated. Philadelphia Parking Authority deputy executive director Richard Dickson, who said curb space is an ongoing balancing act, said the PPA will continue to monitor #unblockbikelanes, the hashtag cyclists use to report blocked bike lanes. You've been warned.
But don't do it just because you want to avoid a ticket.
"We have been blessed with a really wonderful grid of narrow streets, walkable neighborhoods and a robust transit system," Maciunas said. "It's why people choose Philadelphia. But other cities, whether it's Denver, Austin, or D.C., are learning from the model that we set. They're trying to eat our lunch by restoring transit lines and building protected bike lanes. This isn't just a 'feel-good' thing; this is about keeping our competitive edge."
So stay out of the bike lanes, people.
Keep the tickets coming!
To the great credit of the police department, I've noticed a dramatic decrease in the amount of 7-11 parking since Helen's article ran in August.  Not only that, but I recently noticed tickets issued to vans parked in the 13th Street bike lane.  A nearby Parking Authority enforcement officer, who commented on how contractors often feel entitled to park there, said it wasn't him, but probably the Police that issued them.  Hats off for taking a step in the right direction.  Let's hope they keep it up.