The Status of Biking in the City of Brotherly Love: An Interview

In the past year Philadelphia has passed legislation encouraging the use of bicycles and started a pilot project for bike lanes in Center City. Maria Dziembowska, Events Director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, talks with Next American City about the status of biking in Philly.

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In April 2009 Mayor Nutter with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability officially announced the Greenworks Philadelphia Plan that was meant to make Philadelphia the “greenest city in the United States of America by 2015.” The plan sets out various targets within these five goals:
Philadelphia reduces its vulnerability to rising energy prices;
Philadelphia reduces its environmental footprint;
Philadelphia delivers more equitable access to healthy neighborhoods;
Philadelphia creates a competitive advantage from sustainability;

And most importantly that Philadelphians unite to build a sustainability future.

One of the ways that Philadelphia can achieve the ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, decreasing reliance on non-renewable resources and uniting residents to build a more healthy and sustainable future is through encouraging the use of alternative modes of transportation like bicycling. Working with the Bicycle Coalition, Mayor Nutter and other city officials are putting in place the framework to make Philadelphia the “premier bicycle friendly” city on the east coast.

I had a chance to speak with Maria Dziembowska, Events Director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia about the status of biking in the city and the various events hosted by the Coalition to raise awareness about the benefits of having a bicycle friendly Center City. Since starting work with the Bicycle Coalition in May 2009, Dziembowska has seen first hand how the Bicycle Coalition has had a positive impact on the biking culture of the city. Since coming back to Philadelphia from Los Angeles she has enjoyed living in a city that is not car-centric but admits that although she owned a car, she commuted to work by bike. The car did not follow her to Philadelphia. Dziembowska enjoys working at the coalition because it dovetails with her passion, bicycling and allows her to promote an activity that is both healthy and environmentally friendly. Dziembowska herself is a bike commuter, tri-athlete and hopes to get into bicycle racing in the near future.

Akua Nyame-Mensah: What is the Bicycle Coalition of the Greater Philadelphia?

Maria Dziembowska: The bicycle coalition is an advocacy and education non-profit that promotes bicycling in the Delaware valley, not just Philadelphia but also the five counties including Delaware and New Jersey. Our mission is very simple: To promote bicycling as a safe, efficient and an environmentally friendly form of transportation and recreation. All of our work focuses on advancing that mission.

ANM: What sorts of projects are the Coalition working on right now? The city recently put in some bike lanes. Was the Coalition involved in their development?

MD: The pilot project of the Pine and Spruce pilot bike lanes is something that we are very intimately involved in. The lanes were a campaign promise that Mayor Nutter made to the Bicycle Coalition. He promised to put in lanes that connected the Delaware valley and the Schuylkill River, the east, west portion of the city. Like with any pilot it will take some time for people to get used to the change in traffic patterns.

Mayor Michael Nutter cuts the ribbon at the opening of the Pine and Spruce Streets bike lanes.

In Pennsylvania a bicycle is considered a legal vehicle so with having the right to be on the road comes the responsibility of following the rules of the road. Staff and volunteers are spending time on those streets monitoring how the lanes are being used. We are counting bicycles to see whether it is something that is really of use to the riders and educating both motorists and bicyclists on how to properly use the bike lanes. We find that a lot of bicyclists obey those laws and a lot don’t. We want to make sure that when we create these spaces for cars and bikes that both bicyclists and motorists follow the rules. Every week until it gets too cold to be outside we will be out on either Pine or Spruce or both having what we call a service station where we offer free air to bicyclists and have them stop by so we can share with them safe cycling tips and talk to them about the bike lanes and encourage them to join the Bicycle Coalition.

ANM: What would make the pilot program a success to city decision makers?

MD: From what I have been hearing the city is very much behind this project and is very excited about the bike lanes. Philadelphia is one of the few cities, beside New York, on the East coast that has these types of dedicated bike lanes that are buffered from traffic. So I think the city wants to be conservative, understandably, in working out the kinks of this project before they turn it into something permanent. But there is doubt that bicycle friendly spaces are going to continue growing in Philadelphia.

ANM: What other sorts of successful projects have the Coalition been involved in recently?

MD: The executive order that the Mayor signed in June that is a Complete Streets Executive Order that basically mandates that city agencies whenever issues of planning or zoning or construction are being considered also consider the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to those of the motorists.

One ordinance that was recently passed with our help was the ordinance that requires any new or renovated commercial building to put in bike parking. So you can imagine a huge commercial building with a people that would potentially want to commute to work and needing the space to put their bikes.

and Bicycle Plan. Right now Philadelphia actually has over 200 miles of bike lanes. This is something really exciting but unfortunately these built bike lanes are mostly outside of the center city. The first bike lanes were put in about ten years ago and the idea was that you put bike lanes in places that are easy to do that and those tend to be non-center city spaces. Right now we are in the second phase. We would like to update the bicycle plan and are looking at how to connect bike lanes throughout the city. It is a huge project that is probably going to take another couple of years.

Complete streets, connecting the east-west bicycle corridors, the city has put in something close to 1,400 new bike racks and SEPTA has recently outfitted all of its buses with bike racks as well. These are all types of initiatives that the city is pushing in order to make a reality this idea of Philadelphia becoming the Greenest City in America.

ANM: What needs to happen to make Philadelphia a bike friendly city?

MD: Philadelphia was actually was awarded a Bronze Level, Bicycle Friendly City award by the League of American Bicyclists. So we are certainly on our way to becoming a premier bicycle friendly city.

Another statistic that I wanted to share with you is that the 2008 Census figures came out and Philadelphia is one of the top ten biggest cities in the United States with most bicycle commuters. The number of bicycle commuters in the city has really increased. According to the Census Bureau 1.6 percent of Philadelphians who commute to work more than 3 times per week use their bike as their mode of transportation.

I think that our work with the Mayor is really showing and bearing fruit in those kinds of statistics. In terms of getting from the bronze level to the gold, or platinum level, I think it is really continuing the work that we have been doing and includes trying to increase the bike parking.

The city parking meters have been replaced to parking kiosks. While that is great for the Parking Authority, getting rid of the parking meters means far fewer options for bicyclists to park their bikes. The City and the Parking Authority have agreed to install rings on the parking meter poles so people can once again park their bicycles.

Both motorists and bicyclists need better education on how to share the road.

We are continuing to educate people about how to be on the road and share that road with bicyclists and motorists. It is just something that develops over time. I was recently in Portland where bicycling has been a big portion of the city culture. You can just see it in the way that most bicyclists and motorists navigate the streets. Cars are a lot more adapt to let bicyclists go and drivers, I think have internalized the fact that they need to look in their rear view mirrors before they make a turn to make sure the bicyclists are not in their way. Virtually all bicyclists hear helmets, signal every time they turn and stop at lights. So I think that it is something we are going to see more and more of over time as we continue to spread the word and educate people about this.

ANM: You mentioned that almost all people wear helmets in Portland. Are helmets required in Philadelphia? What is the coalition’s stance on helmets?

MD: If you are a child of twelve or younger you are required to wear a helmet but not once you are past that age it is not against the law to ride without a helmet. We all have our personal opinions about it. Helmets have been proved to reduce head injuries in many types of crashes and therefore we highly recommend them. If you are a bicyclist long enough you care about the crashes and the fact that the helmets helped save someone’s life. We practice that as much as we preach it but we will not pull over a rider and say that you have to wear a helmet. Personally I think that helmets are a must.

ANM: Why should people bike?

MD: This past May we did a commuter race between a bicyclist, car and a bus where the bicyclists won. It was a somewhat a staged race but showed that bicycling is just a faster way to commute and in addition to a stress reducer. It is sort of an optimal way to get to work. And then for me as someone who is active and leads a healthy life I see the health benefits of bicycling. For people that are short on time, incorporating into their commute a form of exercise is sort of a great way to kill two birds with one stone and get some movement into their daily life. . The Surgeon General recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily. Only about 1/3 of all adults manage to meet this modest goal.

If you are interested in learning more about the Bicycle Coalition and the work they do in Philadelphia and the surrounding the city visit:

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Tags: philadelphiainfrastructure

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