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Bicycle City: The Revolution Will Have Two Wheels

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By Elise Vider

The story of bicycling in Philadelphia can be told as a tale of two bridges.

In 1990, at the ribbon cutting for the reconstructed Walnut Street Bridge, bicycle advocates lay down on the span to protest the lack of bicycle lanes. It took until 2004 to get a bike lane painted.

Eighteen years later and less than a mile south, community groups, with the support of Mayor Nutter, forced changes to the design of the South Street Bridge to better accommodate bicycles (and pedestrians.) When it reopened last year, the new bridge had a reduced 25-mph speed limit and a dedicated bicycle/pedestrian crosswalk with the Schuylkill River Trail, itself a major bicycle amenity.

In 1987, Bicycling Magazine named Philadelphia the worst city for bicycling in the country. In 2009, the League of American Bicyclists gave us a bronze plaque - and, says the mayor, we're aiming for platinum.

Bike city Pix.jpgEven the AAA is riding the handlebars: in 1972 a spokesman told the Philadelphia Bulletin, "If more bicyclists started using Center City streets, there would be a dramatic increase in accidents." Today the organization (significantly, no longer officially called the Automobile Association of America) emphasizes that bicycles have a legal right to the road and preaches the need for all users - motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians - to safely and courteously share the road.

What changed? Everything. Rising gasoline prices, the green movement, an influx of young people to Center City and adjoining neighborhoods, an emphasis on health and fitness, more congestion and more sophisticated bicycle advocacy have all brought us to the tipping point. The number of bicyclists on the streets of Philadelphia is increasing exponentially.

The numbers tell the story:

  • Using Census and Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission data, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia estimates 75,000 daily bike trips are made throughout the city, covering 260,000 miles a day.
  • In Center City and University City, the Coalition reports that bicycling rose roughly 35 percent per year between 2005 and 2008 and is up 300 percent since 1990.
  • The Census Bureau recently reported that Philadelphia, at 1.6 percent, has the most bicycle commuters per capita of the nation's largest cities.

Love them or hate them, the reality is that Philadelphia is becoming a Bicycle City.

No surprise, then, that incorporating bicycle interests is an accepted part of transportation and urban planning and Philadelphia is playing major catch-up. "The Nutter administration understands bicycling completely as one element of transportation and transportation as one element of quality of life," says architect Bob Thomas, who has been plying Philadelphia streets on a two-wheeler since the 1950s. (During a late '60s SEPTA strike, he was featured as an oddball in a newspaper piece because he biked from Mt. Airy to his Center City job.)

Among the city's major steps so far: the new, east/west bicycle lanes along Spruce and Pine streets, hiring the city's first pedestrian and bicycle coordinator in the resurrected Mayor's Office of Transportation, widespread installation of new bike racks, and a new law that requires large real estate developments, including parking lots, to incorporate bicycle parking.

In 2009, Nutter signed a "Complete Streets" executive order requiring all city departments to give full consideration to bicycles, among other means of transit, in making transportation and development decisions.

Last spring, the City Planning Commission released a new bicycle plan that set the ambitious goal of increasing the number of bicyclists from 1.6 percent of commuters to 6.5 percent by 2020.  Click here to read a complete copy of the report.

"As cities actively look for ways to reduce congestion and their carbon footprint, bicycling offers a compelling 'green' alternative to getting around the city," says Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for planning.

The bicycle is essential for the city's economic growth, argues Center City District President Paul Levy: "Bicycle commuting five years ago was a marginal issue," he says. "Now [supporting bike travel] is what cities need to do to be attractive and competitive."

It hasn't all been easy coasting, however. Several well-publicized fatalities and, the new Spruce/Pine bike lanes have raised a virulent anti-biking backlash among some motorists.

Reports of drivers harassing bicyclists - and worse - and of obnoxious bike riding behavior are a cottage industry on relevant blogs.

In a web poll of bikers taken as part of the recent Planning Commission study, nearly 85 percent agreed with the statement that drivers do not respect the rights of bicyclists.

Hoping to cool tempers, most bike advocates, like Andrew Stober of the Mayor's Office of Transportation, argue that no one mode of transportation has inherent supremacy over the streets.

"Our goal," he says, "is to make Philadelphia a city where you have options about travel. We want it to be safe, efficient and convenient for people to bike, to walk, to drive or to take transit.

What would be the ideal -- at least for bicyclists -- would be to make Philadelphia more like Copenhaben.

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 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.

In its report last year, the City Planning Commission identified 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. In Philadelphia, 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, have been 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.

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."

After the outcry over the deaths of two pedestrians struck by bicycles in late 2009, the police have begun occasional crackdowns on bicyclists in Center City, but there is a long way to go.

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."

 

Cover Photo: Mayor Nutter leads a flock of bikers along the parkway on Bike-To-Work Day 2010.

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