Last April, a visibly excited Mayor Michael Nutter joined roughly 600 volunteers for the inaugural ride of the Indego bike share system. They began at Eakins Oval and soon filled the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with sky-blue bikes. Nutter, clad in a tan blazer and blue helmet, led the way.
For the Nutter administration, it was a moment seven years in the making. For Philly cyclists, try two decades.
In the early 1990s, gun violence and budget woes dominated local headlines, but amid the crises then-mayor Ed Rendell took one of the first steps toward making Philadelphia a more bike-friendly city. He formed the Mayor’s Office of Bicycle Safety, which brought together a mix of planners, engineers and advocates tasked with finding ways to make the streets safer and more rideable. It would ultimately lay the foundation for the network of bike lanes and trails we have today.
Two decades and three mayors later, Philadelphia is in a very different place. The project begun under Rendell has continued, but the exact shape of Nutter’s legacy on bicycling remains unclear. More so than previous mayors, his administration did a lot for Philadelphians who get around by bike. But how will his achievements stack up in the long run?
Figuring that out involves putting his work in the context of the last 20 years. As the now-former mayor told SPOKE, he owes much to his predecessors.
By the mid-1990s, as Rendell inched the city away from municipal bankruptcy, the Mayor’s Office of Bicycle Safety had successfully pushed for the installation of 800 bike racks in Center City and University City, 1,500 “share the road” signs across the city, and improved pavement markings at major intersections. It also completed the city’s first bike master plan, which served as the framework for future lane and trail development, in 2000.
The Office’s most enduring achievement, however, was the creation of a standard process for how the City builds bike lanes: When a road is ready for repaving, the Streets Department will look into the feasibility of adding a lane. If it makes sense from a traffic engineering point of view, Streets will present its own drawings for a bike lane and then push for implementation.
“It didn’t give us long routes, initially, because streets get resurfaced around 10 blocks at a time,” said Tom Branigan, then a lead Streets Department engineer and now the head of the Delaware River City Corporation. “But over the course of a number of years, it started to knit together.”
For eight years, the city’s bike policy was on cruise control.
By the early 2000s, Philadelphia had the beginnings of a physical bike network. It also had a set policy within its government for building out that network. The question was whether that policy would endure a shift in the political tides. As it turned out, former mayor John Street, who took office in 2000, did not provide the same top-down support as Rendell.
“Under the Street administration there wasn’t really anyone tasked with setting and executing a transportation policy,” said Alex Doty, former executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, who stepped down last month to take the top spot at the League of American Bicyclists. Despite this, he added, the Streets Department continued to “very efficiently” build on the city’s bike network. For eight years, bike policy in Philadelphia was on cruise control.
More lanes, better laws
That was the situation Nutter walked into when he took office in 2008. The political support had tapered off, but the City was still churning out bike lanes. Over the course of his two terms, the goal was to bolster efforts both on the street and in City Hall.
In terms of paint on asphalt, progress came gradually. The City added 68 miles of on-road bike infrastructure — that includes lanes and sharrows, but not off-road trails — between 2007 and 2015, according to the Streets Department and the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU), the de facto successor to the Mayor’s Office of Bicycle Safety. MOTU did not specify exactly how many of those 68 miles were bike lanes as opposed to sharrows.
The City added more than 200 miles of bike lanes between the late 1990s and 2007, but many of these were installed on wide, overbuilt boulevards that could afford to give up space. Lanes added during the Nutter years, by contrast, were placed on major bike routes, such as Pine and Spruce streets in Center City or Fairmount Avenue west of Broad Street. This often meant carving out space on busier and more contested streets. It also meant building where demand actually existed, not just where it was easy to plug in a lane.
“We couldn’t have done what [the Nutter administration] did back then,” Branigan said, referring to the John Street years. “I don’t think the political will was there. You look at it now and it seems like a no-brainer, but back then it was a little different.”
It helped that Nutter couched his vocal support of cycling in a larger vision of a greener, more sustainable city — another move that distinguished him from his predecessors. The conversation was now bigger than road safety. It focused instead on Philadelphia’s place on the global stage and whether the city was up to the challenge of climate change.
Working on terrain almost as contested as Center City, Nutter also made significant progress on the city’s waterfront trails. By teaming up with non-profits working on the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, the administration helped add bike trails to key sections on both waterfronts. Some of these, such as the Schuylkill River Boardwalk, which connects the Schuylkill River Trail between Locust and South streets, required considerable capital and sustained political support.
The City added 18 miles of trails between 2008 and 2015, bringing the citywide total to 80 miles, according to data from MOTU.
One criticism by cycling advocates, including Doty, was that the Nutter administration did not prioritize protected bike lanes — those with a physical barrier between car traffic and riders. Just one, the city’s first, is currently in the works in the Northeast. Nutter, for his part, told SPOKE that he hopes to install more before leaving office.
“You look at it now and it seems like a no-brainer, but back then it was a little different.”
Another challenge for the administration was maintaining the vast network of lanes that it inherited. Miles of lane markings around the city have withered into the asphalt, disappearing completely on some streets. Sidewalk curb cuts, mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, consumed more and more of the Streets Department’s budget from 2009 to 2014. By 2010, more than half of the agency’s reconstruction and resurfacing budget went to curb cuts, creating a backlog of repairs that still looms today.
An effort to remedy this situation is underway. In Center City, at least, most of the major bike lanes were repaved in the span of 2015, according to Jeannette Brugger, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for MOTU and the Streets Department.
On the policy front, Nutter made clear progress on legal and planning issues for cyclists.
In 2012, the Planning Commission completed an updated Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, reestablishing which gaps in the system needed filling and expanding the scope of the system into new areas of the city.
The Complete Streets Bill, also passed in 2012, mandated that the City account for the safety and convenience of all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians, further enforcing an executive order made by Nutter in 2009 with a similar mandate. In addition, the bill updated the City’s traffic code to comply with state law, made it illegal to park in bike lanes or open a car door into traffic, and called for the creation of design guidelines for streets built or modified in the future.
“The Complete Streets ordinance is a really good example of the Nutter administration’s philosophy,” Doty said, which is “getting buy-in from all the different entities so that this is something that will last beyond the administration.”
An evolving conversation
Indego, of course, arrived as the latest and perhaps biggest bike project completed on Nutter’s watch. The system, which consists of more than 600 bikes and 73 docking stations, is a wholly new kind of public transportation and still very much an ongoing experiment.
Even before Indego, the Nutter administration established its bike-friendly credentials. While it added fewer lanes than previous administrations, the lanes it did build took on tougher, more contested streets in areas with a greater demand from cyclists. As for policy achievements, the City now boasts an updated comprehensive bike and pedestrian plan, a guidebook for safer street design, and new laws that protect cyclists on the streets and mandate that the City recognize their needs.
As new Mayor Jim Kenney takes over at City Hall, the conversation is shifting back to road safety and a broader vision for better mobility in Philadelphia. The idea of a Vision Zero plan (a set of policies aimed at reducing traffic deaths to zero) is gaining currency, with cycling and pedestrian concerns at the center of the debate.
Whatever shape Philadelphia’s cycling policy takes, the important thing is that the next mayor sees it as an asset, according to Doty. “Whether you end up calling that Complete Streets or Vision Zero,” he said, “it needs to continue to be a priority.” ◆