Why Delaware County’s patchy bike network won’t cut it

Alex Vuocolo Features, Issue 3 0 Comments

Delaware County, as it extends from the western border of Philadelphia, holds to a pattern typical of large metro areas: A dense band of inner-ring suburbs, lined with rowhomes and multi-unit apartments, gives way to winding backroads and culs-de-sac. Traveling southwest on Baltimore Pike, you can read the gradient clearly from the car window as sidewalks taper off and backyard pools and trampolines replace public parks.

Then, nine miles outside the city, the pattern breaks. Just past I-476 and Springfield’s knot of arterials and strip malls, the borough of Media defies categorization. Surrounded by sprawling subdivisions and high-speed roads, it nonetheless has within its 0.8-square-mile area a dense, walkable community centered on a vital commercial corridor.

After declining through the 1970s due to the commercial pull of two nearby indoor shopping malls, the borough has come back with a vengeance in the last decade as more young people and Baby Boomers gravitate toward urban living and the charms of local shopping and dining. State Street, Media’s main drag, regularly hosts flea markets, craft shows and outdoor dining events. At night, it can feel like half the drinking-age adults in Delaware County are piled into the borough’s bars.

With the exception of a Republican-controlled county building that looms just off State Street, Media has a clear progressive bent. Concepts such as fair trade, renewable energy and local food systems have gained currency. The Borough Council works regularly with the Environmental Advisory Council, a group of volunteer residents and officials committed to sustainability. An advocacy group for sustainable town planning, called Transition Town Media, has also grown in political stature.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that cycling is also on the agenda. Last year the Borough began working on a comprehensive 10-year plan that includes an outline for a local bike network, to eventually feature some combination of lane markings and signage. Though still in its early phases, the plan is the most ambitious now underway in otherwise car-dominated Delaware County.

Yet no infrastructure network can exist in a vacuum, and it remains to be seen if the Media plan will bring about real change for the less than 0.2 percent of people, per the American Community Survey, who commute by bike in the county.

Delaware County’s collective effort to build a bike network has so far been limited to piecemeal trail development and a few isolated segments of streets with designated space for bikes. A handful of comprehensive, localized bike plans do exist, usually in small, wealthy enclaves such as nearby Swarthmore. And the county has an existing designated bike route, known as the Bicyclists Baltimore Pike, that runs from the border of Philadelphia to Swarthmore, although it has no lane markings and uses side streets that are already pretty safe for riding.

“I think it’s fair to say that for most of the suburban counties, trail development and trail connectivity have been a priority,” says Greg Krykewycz, a recent Media transplant and professional transportation planner for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

“Something we’ve always emphasized at DVRPC is that trails provide regional mobility,” says Krykewycz, who is volunteering his time to lead the development of the Media network. “But you want a network of bike-friendly streets to provide local mobility.” Improving local mobility is important on its own merits, he adds, but also in terms of providing connections to the regional network.

“If I want to just leave Media, going in any direction, I’m taking my life in my hands.”

Media officials had considered including a bike network in the borough’s 10-year plan, but it was an outpouring of support at community meetings that sealed the deal.

“The public meetings all had various themes, but at every meeting someone brought up biking, because it was such a hot issue,” says Walter Cressler, a member of the Environmental Advisory Council, which is actively involved in developing the plan. “I think it was mostly people who were bike commuters or just liked the idea of cutting down greenhouse gas emissions.”

Keith C. Johns is exactly the type of person this plan is meant to serve. Decked out in safety glasses, fingerless gloves, and a helmet attached with a rear-view mirror, the Media resident and bike commuter is a regular, if peculiar, sight in the borough. He hangs around the Plumstead Mall, a public courtyard on State Street, where other Media stalwarts smoke and gossip. He is known for never removing his white hard hat, which he wears instead of a regular bike helmet, and for straddling his bike while holding conversations.

Johns says that he supports the plan but is more concerned about what happens outside the boundaries of Media.

“Media has always been a very bike-friendly town,” he says, adding that traffic is light and drivers take it slow in most parts of the borough.“Where we get the problems is if you want to go any distance beyond that.”

Johns’ daily travels take him all over the county, and the paths between municipalities can be harrowing. He is regularly forced to ride on narrow breakdown lanes or on backroads riddled with blind turns.

“If I want to go from here to the post office, it’s easy enough to find a route over there,” he says. “But if I want to go to Granite Run Mall, I’m taking my life in my hands. If I want to go to Springfield, I’m taking my life in my hands. If I want to just leave Media, going in any direction, I’m taking my life in my hands because I’m forced to take those busy roads.”

Indeed, roads with speed limits upward of 40 miles per hour partition the borough’s tidy, tree-lined grid on almost every side, a fact that the network’s planners haven’t ignored.

“The stumbling block that I see is how to extend the bike infrastructure beyond the borough’s borders, because we’re in a very confined space,” Cressler says. “It’s one thing to have bikes go around town, which is nice because you can go from one end of the borough to the other, but it would be great to cut down greenhouse gasses by having people decide that they can commute to Media by bike.

“But a lot of the streets beyond our borders are a little sketchy,” he adds.

Streets aren’t the only thing a little sketchy outside the progressive silo of Media. A lack of political will and the sprawling layout of the county, particularly its western half, make building bike lanes, trails, or even simple markings politically and logistically difficult.

Chuck Crut, head of Bike Delaware County, a local chapter of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, maintains that there are a slew of reasons why bike infrastructure is hard to come by in Delaware County. Still, he puts some of the blame on the County government itself.

“Part of the problem in the County is that the County government is not as — what’s the word? — I don’t want to use a pejorative word here, but the County hasn’t been as forward-thinking as some of the other counties in terms of advancements for cycling,” Crut says. He adds that the message he has gotten from the County is that “township-level leadership is a prerequisite for getting things done.” Essentially, the County won’t take any kind of leadership role.

“The view in the County is that the townships need to take the initiative and lead, and then the County can help,” Crut says. “But the County is not going to get out in front and be the catalyst for trail development.”

Bike Delaware County is a part of a larger initiative by the Bicycle Coalition to build an advocacy movement around cycling in Philadelphia’s suburbs. It has additional chapters in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties.

Advocates from these groups cite a pesky legal barrier, called the Bicycle Occupancy Permit (BOP), as the main hurdle to building on-street bike infrastructure in the suburbs.

Local governments must receive approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), in form of the BOP, to build anything bike-related on state roads. The BOP then makes local authorities responsible for installing, maintaining and operating all bicycle pavement markings.

It’s an odd mix of controlling municipalities while also expecting autonomy. The rule essentially forces local governments to assume liability for roads, or at least a portion of them, that are otherwise the responsibility of PennDOT. So for local officials, building bike lanes means expanding their municipal obligations — not something that Delaware County’s largely conservative base has an interest in. As Crut points out, the County seems to have an abiding interest in “keeping taxes low and government small.”

Suburban counties, or at least their planning departments, are fighting back against the rule. A letter sent to PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards last March, signed by the heads of the Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery county planning departments, urged the agency to revise the rule.

“Most municipalities simply cannot afford to assume maintenance and liability responsibilities as required by the BOP,” the letter states.

The letter was also signed by Andrew Stober, then chief of staff for the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities and now an at-large City Council candidate, even though BOP rules don’t apply to Philadelphia.1

“The view in the county is that the townships need to take the initiative and lead.”

Even in the suburbs, the BOP has a disparate impact. Some municipalities contain almost entirely state roads, while others, such as Media, have more local roads that they must maintain anyway. For the older boroughs, Krykewycz says, building bike facilities is an easier sell because they tend to have more local streets. The initial conceptual outline for the Media bike network proposes improvements exclusively on local roads.

The letter did not fall on deaf ears. Richards responded that PennDOT has initiated a study to look at opportunities for developing a statewide bicycle/pedestrian policy, which will include an examination of the BOP. She also noted in her response that the department is looking into hiring statewide a bicycle/pedestrian coordinator.

So there is a chance the BOP could be in for some changes. In the meantime, progressive townships like Media are moving forward despite it. But to what end?

Delaware County has never really pursued building an on-street bicycle network. Even in the County’s first bike plan — created in 1978, hot off a national craze — there was a focus on creating preferred routes, like Bicyclists Baltimore Pike, rather than real infrastructure.

A more recent countywide plan, released in 2009, makes the case for a more ambitious system. “The 1978 plan designated secondary street corridors as bicycle routes, an approach that has gone out of favor,” it reads. “Most back streets are already bikeable, but the places where bicycle transportation needs the most improvement is on the arterials.”

For bike advocates, tackling these tougher roads still means finding a middle path, especially when it comes to carving out space on the road.

In Haverford Township, which includes the wealthy Main Line towns of Ardmore and Bryn Mawr, advocates found a way to improve safety for cyclists without a single painted bike symbol. Instead of calling for bike lanes, they lobbied PennDOT to paint new shoulders on 11 miles of roads that were overly wide for two-lane car traffic. Eight miles have been completed so far.

While not designated specifically for cyclists, the shoulders will lower car speeds and provide extra space on the road, according to Rich Kerr, a retired New Jersey Transit engineer who coordinated advocacy efforts in Haverford Township.

For local officials, building bike lanes means expanding their municipal obligations not something that Delaware County’s largely conservative base has an interest in.

Kerr says he decided early on to take an “incremental and opportunistic” approach in his work as an advocate. That meant working with the available resources and political capital. Shoulder safety striping, as Kerr dubs it, is a way of “doing something now” despite barriers like the BOP.

In addition, Kerr has mapped out preferred routes on Google Maps in much of the eastern part of the county, working with local partners as he went. The map now shows a dense web of green lines marking bike routes. Based on a cursory scan, it appears that the area is the most comprehensively mapped for cyclists in the region.

Bike Delaware County recently held a “map-a-thon” where it solicited from local riders their thoughts on the best routes for cycling in the western part the county. The routes will eventually be plugged into Google Maps as well, according to Kerr.

This kind of strategic navigating can only go so far, and people who want to bike to get around, such as Johns, will continue to endure less-than-ideal conditions on the road. For now, Johns’ best hope for the Media plan is that it extends to the borough’s borders. This way, the network will make travel between municipalities easier to the best extent that it can. According to Crut, not until every municipality in Delaware County thinks on similar lines will a real countywide network be possible.

“In this county, until something changes, progress is going to made countywide only by townships working together,” he says. ◆

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