It’s no secret that Philadelphia has seen a dramatic uptick in cycling in recent years. The two-wheeled revolution is not a passing fad, and city planners have been pushing programs to boost the city’s bike-ability in the long term. But like anywhere else, innovation faces stubborn competition with an ingrained car culture, often pitting bikers against drivers in a lopsided battle in the political and physical realms.
The city is experimenting with fresh ideas to make streets accessible for all users, especially following Mayor Michael Nutter’s 2009 complete streets executive order, which mandated that planners consider the safety and convenience of all people using the roads, regardless of their means of transit. For cyclists, this means that trial bike lanes have been painted bright green and delineated further into intersections to improve visibility. Cops have been sporadically assigned to educate denizens of their rights and responsibilities with targeted pamphlets for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Nutter hopes these innovations will help boost Philly up from “bronze” to “platinum” level bike friendliness by 2013.
But paving picturesque bike trails along the Schuylkill River is one thing; adding bike lanes that cut into motorists’ already cramped colonial streets is quite another; and cyclists snaking through lanes of traffic is a whole other beast.
There’s a David-and-Goliath conflict between Philly’s 11,000 daily bike commuters and 300,000 drivers. Some motorists ignore cyclists, while others are simply unaware of their responsibilities to share the road. Others still see cyclists as a nuisance. One impassioned driver referred to the biking community as an “environmentally superior, ostentatiously insouciant, self-centeredly oblivious two-wheeled scourge” in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
There has been recent pushback from the Philadelphia Planning Commission to increase bureaucratic hurdles to implementing new bike lanes. With a measure led by Councilman William Greenlee, Philadelphia became the only city in the country that requires council approval for new bike lanes. An Inquirer editorial said the bill “sends the message that the car remains king in Philadelphia.”
A cyclist on 22nd Street in Philadelphia’s Center City. Credit: Philly Bike Coalition
But when emotional frustration or indifference runs into physical collisions, it’s the bikers that pay: While bikers make up only 1.6 percent of commuters, they account for 3.2 percent of traffic fatalities. Philly may have been ranked the 14th safest city for bikers, but that was based on bike and car collision data. A third of cyclists that end up in the hospital wouldn’t fit into the safety ranking categories, and accidents are widely underreported.
The numbers take on a new significance when they affect you personally: A few days ago I was hit while cycling across an intersection in a bike lane. I had the green light, but the oncoming driver turned left into me as I crossed the street. If she had been moving faster, or I had opted against wearing my helmet, things could have ended up much worse. (Cyclists, forget helmet hair: 70 percent of bike fatalities involve head trauma.)
In spite of the grim statistics, one thing is clear: Cyclists in Philadelphia aren’t going anywhere. The city had the highest proportion of bike commuters of the 10 largest U.S. cities in 2009. Bike commuting in Philly increased 151 percent between 2000 and 2009.
This is all music to the ears of city planners pushing for a healthier, greener population, and in line with Nutter’s environmental aspirations. The city aims to increase bike commuting to 6.5 percent by 2020. But before that happens, the city will have to address the safety issues at hand.
A survey of Philadelphia’s cyclists found “driver behavior” to be a top concern, and as my personal bike-lane near-disaster shows, infrastructure alone won’t make Philly bike-friendly. Awareness of the rules of the road, plus plain-old empathy with fellow commuters, may be concepts harder to hone. But they’re essential ingredients for truly shared streets.
Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.