A Bicycle Utopia

Panelists (from left to right): Mike Carroll, Laura Ahramjian, Randy Lobasso.

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, has been widely praised as a bicycle utopia. With over 250 miles of bike lanes in the city itself, and about 600 miles in the greater metropolitan area, Copenhagen has far exceeded many American cities in terms of biking infrastructure.Biking is so prevalent in Copenhagen that an estimated 9 out of 10 Danes own a bike and many either sell their car or seldom use it. For comparison, Philadelphia, one of the most bike-based cities in America, has only 200 miles of bike lane but with 2.5 times the population size.

Could an American city like Philadelphia ever become like this? The American Institute of Architects Philadelphia Urban Design committee held a panel on December 3rd to discuss the transition of Philadelphia to a more bike centric city and the obstacles that would need to be overcome. Though it is possible, there are major differences between the two regions that hinder Philadelphia’s abilities to match Copenhagen.

Bike lanes in Copenhagen are raised slightly above the main road. A small curb separates them from the motor vehicle lanes.

The limited street size in Philadelphia is one of the greatest barriers of implementation. American cities are mostly car centric by design, with most of the street allocated to motor vehicles. Typical three lane streets in Philadelphia are 44 feet in width, with 30 feet dedicate towards motor vehicles and the other 14 free dedicated to street parking. Bike lanes are usually drawn in one of the motor vehicle lanes to share. Allocating some of this space to bicycling would require the removal of an entire 10 foot car lane, with 5 of those feet dedicated to a bike lane and 4 towards a buffer to protect the bikers. As moderator Christine Knapp pointed out however, reallocating street space can be difficult. There tends to be a lot of animosity towards the idea of removing car lanes especially in congested areas where traffic will only further be increased. This is further reinforced by the fact that there is very little margin of error, as giving too little space towards other vehicles can lead to fatal accidents. Copenhagen actually has smaller streets than Philadelphia, but they also do not have on road parking. In the end, it all comes down to priorities and what the city of Philadelphia deems to be the most important mode of transportation.

Difference in space allocation between existing and proposed road configurations. Having bike lanes between the sidewalk and parked cars add extra protection.

Ensuring the safety of the biker is one of the highest considerations when discussing an implementation plan. In Copenhagen, rather than physical barriers blocking cars, the bike lanes are essentially raised up pieces of street with small curbs. This further maximizes road usage as no space needs to be allocated to a physical barrier. Philadelphia on the other hand does have a fence like structure to separate bikers from cars which takes up road space. However, mimicking a system like Copenhagen’s might prove difficult considering the road work that would need to be done. Furthermore, Philadelphia has one of the highest car crash deaths per capita of any major US city with 6 deaths per 100,000 people. Lacking a concrete separation might disincentive bikers given the high risk. The necessary measures to ensure biker safety only further adds obstacles to a more bike centric Philadelphia.

Philadelphia, despite the difficulties, has had some success with bicycle lanes in the past. Notably, Ryan’s Avenue near Lincoln High School was the first two-way protected bike lane in Philadelphia. The street has 143 users daily, and many residents also enjoy the added safety the addition gives pedestrians, joggers, and the students. This success has led to further aspirations to increase the amount of lanes in the city. Mayor Kenny has a goal to implement 25 miles of protected bicycle lanes.

It is undeniable that sustainable and carbon free transportation will be one of the more significant players in reducing humanity's carbon footprint. Transportation makes up 42% of all emissions globally, so cities such as Copenhagen are pioneers in the shift towards less motor vehicle centric cities. There’s also been a huge resurgence in electric vehicles (electric scooters, boards, etc) but these alone will not solve the problem as it is still significantly safer to be in a car in an urban setting. Given the infrastructure restraints in redesigning roads, initiatives such as greater use of public transportation may also help supplement these efforts.






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