If you’re wondering why so many Philadelphia streets and bike lanes seem so sad and raggedy lately, remember the old adage about good deeds never going unpunished.
“The budget has been really hammered by this federal mandate: Every time they touch the streets, they have to replace every single curb cut,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, deputy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “That’s a logical and important requirement, but it’s a huge cost.”
For the modern Philly curb cut — those wide, smooth, gently graded ramps with the knobby red treads — thank the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark federal law that has reshaped the nation’s infrastructure to make it more accessible for the physically handicapped. To keep in compliance with the law, the Philadelphia Streets Department has spent the last five years replacing thousands of curb cuts citywide, largely at its own expense.
The upgrades, a few puddle-prone intersections aside, have been a boon to everyone who walks or rolls through the city. But they have come at a cost. Over the last five years, the repaving of streets, including bike lanes, has slowed dramatically.
“The thing is,” Stuart said, “the Streets Department doesn’t have enough money. They know that. It’s not their fault.”
Bike lanes get no particular special treatment from the Streets Department. They’re just another part of the roadway, repaved along with the entire street according to a rotating schedule. Ideally, along with routine pothole-filling, every road should get a fresh face every 7-10 years. With 2,500 miles of roadway, that means the city should resurface more than 100 miles’ worth annually.
Since 2009, it has managed only a fraction of that.
According to Streets Department figures, more than half the department’s budget has gone to curb cuts over the last half-decade. Rina Cutler, former head of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, called the improvements “a very serious unfunded mandate for everyone,” according to a 2009 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The department’s resurfacing backlog has grown to some 900 miles, more than a third of the city’s total.
Other fiscal forces have hurt the department, including tight post-recession budgets and high snow removal costs. The upshot is hard times for hard surfaces: Last year (2013-14), the city managed to repave only 25 miles of road.
Why is bike infrastructure tethered to repaving in the first place? Well, it isn’t in every case. The Streets Department sometimes does touch up worn-down bike lanes separately from resurfacing projects. The 22nd Street bike lane, for example, got this treatment a few years back. You can tell today by spotting the slightly overlapping old and new bike symbols that mark the center of the lane.
There is good cause, however, to repairing or installing new lanes at the same time as a resurfacing project.
“When a road gets resurfaced, it’s an opportunity,” said Charles Carmalt, the city’s first official pedestrian and bicycle coordinator, who retired earlier this year. “Basically it’s a very small cost in a repaving project to change the roadway markings, but to change the roadway markings when you don’t have a resurfacing project can be very difficult.”
Adding new roadway markings has a sort of ripple effect. Once you plug in a bike lane, car lanes need to shift over as well. This requires grinding out the old markings, which weakens the pavement, Carmalt said.
Touching up the paint on an existing lane is easier than adding a new lane, but there’s still the issue of funding. The fact that Philadelphia built out its bike network to such a large extent over the last few decades is certainly a welcome step forward — but repainting all of those lanes now requires an outsized commitment.
“The backlog of markings has increased,” Carmalt said. “As lines get older, they begin to wear much more rapidly. We installed a lot of bike lanes in the 1990s to early 2000s and they’re all wearing down.”
Stuart expects better days ahead, estimating that the city will repave as many as 60 miles of roadway this year. Fewer curb cuts are now needed, and the budget has more dollars for resurfacing.
How many of the city’s 200 miles of bike lanes will get that treatment is uncertain. Stuart urged cyclists to contact the city and their City Council representatives to report problems and lobby for upgrades.
“We’ve been working pretty hard to try to ascertain which bike lanes will get replaced or where new ones will go in,” Stuart said. “But it’s still a work in progress.”
A Note on Potholes
If the city can’t necessarily repave streets on a moment’s notice, it will respond to reports of potholes. This usually happens within three days, Streets officials say. To make that happen, Tweet, dial 311, or log onto the City’s pothole website. Be sure to send pictures.
“That’s what the Streets Department wants,” Stuart said. “They don’t go out and survey streets for potholes. They respond to potholes. The more that bicyclists report them, the faster they’ll respond.”