Building a bike lane in Pennsylvania takes more than money and political will. Due to a policy known as the Bicycle Occupancy Permit (BOP), it also means navigating an ambiguous state law.
The BOP forces local governments to maintain and assume liability for any bike lanes built on state roads. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have worked out deals with the state that exempt them from the rule, but no such deals exist for the countless townships, small cities and county governments spread across the state.
This has effectively placed the brunt of the BOP on municipalities with little experience in transportation planning or street maintenance. Even for larger districts with more resources, the political payoff of overseeing a bike network often isn’t worth the hassle.
In March 2015, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia sent a letter to state Transportation Secretary Leslie Richards arguing that the BOP discourages suburban and rural governments from building bike lanes. For local advocates, the rule is a barrier to completing a regional bike network that could carry cyclists safely from city to suburb or from town to town. Planning officials from Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties signed the letter.
They did not go unheard in Harrisburg. In her response, Richards admitted that the BOP presented a problem. She also noted that PennDOT was working on a statewide bicycle and pedestrian policy that would address the issue.
More than a year later, PennDOT has announced a plan to essentially bypass the BOP for a limited number of bike lanes.
Roy Gothie, PennDOT’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator (a position created by Richards), says the agency plans to identify “priority bike routes” around the state and install bike lanes where it can. The goal is for PennDOT to maintain at least some of these lanes, taking the burden off local governments.
The toughest part is securing long-term funding. “Part of what we need do is come up with an estimate for the statewide costs over, say, five years to fund the construction and maintenance for a reasonable number of facilities,” Gothie says.
Even on so-called “non-priority routes” — as in those not funded by PennDOT — the agency plans to work directly with municipalities to help them understand who, exactly, is responsible for what when it comes to building bike lanes. PennDOT is also working on a new maintenance agreement to replace the BOP.
“Our goal here is to clarify for everyone’s purposes what the obligations are and what the perceived barriers are so that everyone goes in with a better understanding of what we are asking of each other,” Gothie says. “The BOP wasn’t entirely clear about that.”