Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Bicycle City III: Making the Future Work

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By Elise Vider

When bike advocates wax rhapsodic, sooner or later Copenhagen comes up.

The Danish city of about 500,000 has more bicycles than residents and a staggering 37 percent of the population commutes by bike --compared to Philadelphia's 1.6 percent. There are almost 35,000 bike parking spaces, a citywide network of bicycle lanes and traffic systems engineered to accommodate bicycles. Traffic lights turn green for cyclists six seconds before car signals and cars are required to stop behind bikes at many intersections to allow cyclists to make safe right turns.

Copenhagen Bike 2.jpgBy any measure, the biking culture in Philadelphia is a long way from Copenhagen's.   But the consensus is that, despite the friction inherent in introducing multitudes of bikes to our narrow streets, we're playing catch-up, fast. Bike advocates talk about the three "E's" -- education, enforcement and engineering -- and there is at least some progress to report on all those fronts.

Engineering, or the introduction of physical bicycle amenities, is probably the biggest success story so far. With 215 miles of bike lanes, Philadelphia, believe it or not, already has one of the largest bike networks of any U.S. city. But until the introduction last fall of the new east/west lanes on Spruce and Pine streets, only about four of those miles were in Center City.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission is now at work on an update to the 1998 bicycle plan. The report, expected this summer, will identify streets where bicycle routes can be introduced, focusing for now on Center City, lower North, South and Northwest Philadelphia. The goal is to grow the citywide bike network to 300 miles of streets, relying mostly on simple treatments, such as signs and painted pavement markings. "Bicycles are a cheap date, compared to say, highway ramps," notes Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Bike parking is another essential piece of infrastructure and there is simply not enough of it. To begin to remedy the situation, the city recently installed about 1,400 inverted U-racks. About 2,000 parking meter poles, made obsolete with the introduction of parking meter kiosks, are being converted to bike racks in Center City and University City, bringing the total of city-installed racks to about 4,600. The Coalition has called for installation of 7,500 racks by the city over the next five years.

Bicycle parking is also starting to appear in unlikely places --for example the airport -- and there is a growing awareness of the need at major public gathering spaces such as cultural attractions, sports facilities, shopping centers and office buildings.

Enforcement of bicycle laws is a more complicated matter. Bike advocates are virtually unanimous in their frustration over efforts to crack down on cyclists without equal attention to all categories of road users, especially motorists. But that's where the agreement ends.

The Coalition urges bicyclists to strictly follow the rules of the road - stop at red lights and stop signs, no riding on the sidewalk - as called for by state law. Some purists put their foot down and count to three at every red light or stop sign. But many cyclists, even the most conscientious, argue that the rules don't always ensure bicycle safety.

Michael McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes and a longtime bicycle advocate, teaches bicycle education classes. But, he says, "If you stop at every red light and stop sign, you're always in the company of angry motorists. Savvy city cyclists perennially slip through stop signs and red lights to get out of phase with giant masses of cars."


As for riding on the sidewalk, he says. "At least once a week, I jump on the sidewalk to avoid a dangerous situation." Or, as one post on a biking blog put it, "I ride on a sidewalk from time to time, as I approach a final destination where the street is one-way opposite my direction of travel. The sidewalk is safer than illegally riding against traffic on a one-way street. If I ride on a sidewalk, I only do so where there are no or very few pedestrians around, and I always ride a lot slower than I would on a street."

After the outcry over the deaths of two pedestrians struck by bicycles in the fall, the police have begun occasional crackdowns on bicyclists in Center City, but there is a long way to go: in 2008, only 14 tickets were issued to cyclists.

What is really needed is an effective education campaign.  The Coalition's Bicycle Ambassadors hold educational events for cyclists from May to September and the city, as part of the new plan, is looking at policy issues involving education and enforcement. New York City is considered a good model, especially with its effective "Look" bike safety ad campaign.

Getting the balance right between the interests of cars and bicyclists in Philadelphia on all fronts is ongoing. But, as Doty, points out, "The changes that have happened in Philadelphia have happened with very little planning and very little encouragement until recently. Imagine what can happen in the next 10 years." Or as McGettigan reckons, "Five years ago, we were five percent. Now we're 20 percent of our way to Copenhagen."


Elise Vider is a writer and journalist who lives in Center City






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