Thursday, December 17, 2009

City solves obstructed bike lane problem ... with ramps

Cycling along Spruce Street’s buffered bicycle lane last week I encountered several stopped automobiles on my westbound, cross-town journey. In only a few short months, this may no longer be a very frustrating occurrence for cyclists.

"There has to be something that can solve the problem," said commuter cyclist Ronnie Talbot. "Something that all interested parties will be happy with."

Most of the city’s bikers, including myself, are more than willing to share the road; however, when four, five or, even, six vehicles per block are parked or stopped in the designated bike lane it can be extremely dangerous for everyone involved. Soon, these stationary cars will no longer be a problem. In fact, autos may even be welcomed. Huh?

The City of Philadelphia can be credited for creating this dramatic turnaround in cyclists’ attitudes toward impeded bike lanes. Cyclists voiced their concern, the city listened and hit a home run with its solution.

Beginning in March of 2010 the city will adopt the country’s first bicycle car ramp program. What does this mean? The program, officially called Philadelphia Bicycle Ramp Pilot Program: A Bridge Over Obstruction, aims to provide cyclists with an easy way to traverse over the stopped or parked automobile blocking the outlined bike lane.

“It’s quite simple,” said Dan Yates, a Mayor’s office representative. “If you provide cyclists the means to pedal over the tops of cars with wide, comfortable ramps we think they will. And if motorists can easily set ramps up, they can remain stopped for hours … its win-win.”

I must give the city credit, after hearing the idea for this revolutionary car ramp pilot program last week, I was skeptical. My main concerns were the weight of the ramps, anti-theft devices for the ramps and possible tire damage to bicycles.

The Philadelphia Streets Department has announced that the program will be tested for two months on the new Spruce-Pine bike lanes beginning in March on the 2000 block of Pine St and the 700 block of Spruce St.

Up to ten ramps will be placed on each block in order for five motorists to legally stop or park in the bike lane area. Smart technology and Philadelphia Parking Authority cards will be used in order to give drivers access to the locked ramps located on the adjacent sidewalks. Rubber-coated magnets and clamps will keep the inclines in place on the backs and fronts of cars keeping paint and body damage to a minimum.

"It's a simple swipe of the card to unlock the ramps," said Mark Blanton, a planner with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. "Each ramp also has a cable attached so motorist or pedestrians don't run off with them."

The slopes can be extended up to 40 feet, allowing all cyclists a more gradual climb to the top of the automobile. The elongated ramps will also better serve cyclists when riding over tall delivery trucks.

"Bikers will need to ride as fast as they can in order to build up enough momentum to scale the vehicle," said Blanton. "Pedaling hard, balance and modern helmets will be the key to the project's success."

The ultra-light aluminum alloy ramps can support over 400 pounds and, weighing nearly 20 pounds each, can be set in place and disassembled by most everyone in less than two minutes.

There is no cost to motorists to use the ramps, at least, for now. The City feels the free service will encourage the use of the ramps, even if a driver is stopping in the lane for only 30 seconds.

One cyclist, who learned of the program last week, tested the idea in a South Philadelphia parking lot on his own car and ramps.

"I felt a bit unsteady going up the ramp," said cyclist Tom Bridgeton, 45, of Old City. "But going down the front ramp was much easier and, actually, very enjoyable."

The program is attracting attention from across the country as city officials from Portland, OR, one the nation’s friendliest bicycling cities, have twice visited Philadelphia to study its objectives and officially endorse the project.

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