Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


Bicycle City: The War Between Bikes and Cars

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By Elise Vider

Tension and even aggression between motorists and bicyclists has been a dirty little secret in Philadelphia for years, but it took the confluence of two, highly-publicized fatalities and the opening of two, new crosstown bike lanes to bring the ugliness to the public.

Two pedestrians - Tom Archie in South Philadelphia and Andre Steed in Center City -died in October 2009 within days after being struck by bicyclists.

The tragedies, made worse by the fact that Steed's was a hit-and-run that is still unsolved, resulted in a media maelstrom. Predictably, bills appeared before City Council to increase penalties and require license plates on bikes.

Meanwhile, the city's striping of two east/west bike lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets was drawing rapturous praise from bicyclists and the ire of some motorists, with Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky leading the charge. It got ugly fast.

"Can we be real?," Bykofsky wrote in November. "Bicycling ... will never be a serious mode of transportation in and around Philly. Bikes will always be bit players." Bykofsky also railed that the new bike lanes were slowing him down on Spruce and Pine Streets and were a concession to "a noisy minority."

Biking Nutter.jpgThe comments on Bykofsky's column and on bike-related blogs went postal. Words like "arrogant," "ignorant" and "entitled" were bandied about by both sides. "The sort of attitude expressed by this article is a remnant of the old Center City no one wanted to live in," was one post. Another accused Bykofsky of preferring to "maintain the status quo as a second class city." "I love Philadelphia, but seriously, people need to stop being so ignorant, fat and angry ... Get out of your cars and try riding a bike," was another.

One motorist wanted to know, "Who is paying for the elaborate and durable paint on the streets? They can't buy salt for ice and snow, yet they have the dough for bike lanes." Wrote another: "The bicyclists in Philly are a huge nuisance. You people have absolutely no regard for traffic laws and [because] of you people, I simple cannot stand to go downtown Philly."

Nor is the tension limited to a war of words. Many cyclists in Philadelphia have their stories of being punched, pushed, yelled at or getting the finger from angry motorists. They're frequently "breezed" by close calls with cars, "doored" by drivers opening the car door into their path, passed illegally or worse. Mark Alexander, 50, a longtime cyclist, was pushed off the road - twice - by the same SEPTA bus.

In a Planning Commission poll of bikers, more than 85 percent mentioned "drivers not respecting bicyclists" as one of their most serious problems. 

Early last Thanksgiving morning, Rachel Fletcher, a bicycle messenger, was seriously injured when she was run off the road by a motorist at 23rd and Locust streets. "What happened to Rachel happens a lot, but she got hurt really bad," says Jorge Brito, a longtime bike messenger. (Fletcher has recovered and back at work.)

On the other hands....

Although many bike advocates urge cyclists to follow the rules of the road, it is obvious that many bicycles ride the wrong way on one-way streets, run lights and stop signs, ride on the sidewalk (illegal for cyclists over age 12), weave in and out of traffic and otherwise drive recklessly and aggressively.

To devise some short-term strategies, the city has created a Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Committee, with representation by a number of city agencies, the Police Department, City Council, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bike Messenger Association and others.

As for the Spruce/Pine bike lanes, the city determined that the time it takes to drive across Center City is barely impacted; the mean vehicle speed is now only about 2-mph slower at some locations - and faster at others. Last year, it declared the experiment a success and made the bike lanes permanent.

Alex Doty of the Bicycle Coalition reports that sidewalk riding is down significantly on those streets and that the lanes have drawn cyclists from the more congested Walnut and Chestnut streets.

Meanwhile, bicyclists are effusive: "The very first day I got on Pine heading east, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders," says Alexander, who commutes daily across Center City. Brito calls them "a declaration that bikes have the right to be here."

Last year, the Center City District did a count of biker-commuters and found that 10 percent of those who come into Center City to work from adjacent neighborhoods ride bikes. The same study found there were an average of 800 bikers on the streets of Center City during rush hour each day.  Click here to see a copy of the report.

The prognosis is obvious: everyone expects the number of bikers to increase.  For many younger people it is the preferred way to travel, far cheaper -- and greener -- than a car.  

With bicycling poised become a permanent part of urban life, many observers view the rancor as growing pains. The Center City District's Paul Levy observes that traffic lights weren't introduced to Philadelphia until 1933. "Surely there was resistance. These culture wars are just silly. It's a sign of a city in transition."

"Philly has a deeply ingrained culture of reckless, angry, me-first driving. We're just not used to seeing reckless drivers on bikes," was one post to a New York Times blog. "Center City Philadelphia has recently seen a boom in cycling. I predict the current anti-cyclist hysteria will die down as we continue to become a more bicycle-friendly city and folks get used to seeing more bikes on the road."










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