Could Philadelphia Become As Green And Progressive As Portland?

That’s the goal of a cadre of Philly cyclists who dream of turning the city into a bike-friendly paradise. In their way: one cranky Daily News columnist … and a whole lot of angry (sometimes punch-throwing) Philly drivers

REMEMBER YOUR FIRST TWO-WHEELER? It was shiny blue or black or red, and it took you everywhere, and you were unshackled — finally — and boy, could it fly. Your bike was freedom.

Now speed forward 20, 30, maybe 50 years. Biking is the scourge du jour, the root of a new city culture war the likes of which Philly hasn’t seen since someone airily suggested moving the Barnes.

On the surface, it all seems like a simple case of Us vs. Them. In Philadelphia, with its narrow streets and potholes the size of Smart cars and stop-and-go traffic and coronary-inducing parking issues, bicycles on the road are just one more thing for drivers to deal with. And when the price of gas skyrocketed, and “green” became the new black, and Philadelphians got tired of being so fat, more people began biking. Suddenly, there were things to deal with everywhere.

But what looks like your archetypal Philly street squabble — the kind that’s been around since the first guy on Passyunk put the first orange cone in the first shoveled-out parking space — has actually turned out to be about much more than who has the right of way. Because this time, the decisions shaping our roads are also the decisions shaping our city. If bicycles telegraph certain things — clean and healthy and progressive things — then, the argument goes, accommodating bicycles (or not) telegraphs just who we are, and who we want to become. In other words: Do we want to be Amsterdam or … Birmingham?

Well, says Center City District president and CEO Paul Levy, on the Amsterdam side of the ledger are the influx of young people in their 20s and 30s who are staying in the city to raise families: “people who’ve grown up with values in sustainability and walkability — and bikes fit into that.” By the CCD’s count, today something like 500 cyclists ride on the northbound blocks between 3rd and 20th streets in morning rush hours; more than 200 zip along the 22nd Street bike lane alone. “It’s key to our success,” says Levy, “to accommodate bikes.”

But when the Nutter administration “experimented” last September, painting thick white stripes onto Pine and Spruce streets — river to river — to carve bike lanes from what had always been traffic lanes, drivers on (and off) the guinea-pig streets balked: In a city already a nightmare to traverse (see: Expressway, Schuylkill), what was all this new parking-biking-driving-lane-equality nonsense?

“The novelty of progressiveness is starting to wear off,” scoffs one former high-ranking city official who didn’t want to be identified. “The cycling stuff is probably one of the most hated things in Society Hill, Queen Village, that whole area. The Mayor gave away traffic on streets that everybody uses to go across town, without getting anything for it. Well, actually, you’ve got three people wearing ankle socks in those bike lanes — he’s made them happy.”

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  • Diane

    Delighted to see the magazines extensive coverage on “Bike Lanes”, and quickly devoured the 8 less than content rich pages, which disappointed my “Bike People” spirit.

    Once again Philly mag. there is more to “our region” than just our city! Our city and its suburbs have for years been building cohesive bike trails and safe riding routes in Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties. Successes and failures are local efforts with the big picture plan of an interconnected trail system for all of our regions use. The Schuylkill river trail project is one great success, 67 planned miles connecting counties.

    Bike and non Bike People live and work in this region; its education, culture & life style are the richness of this region. There is little real education on sharing the roads for cars, pedestrians & cyclists. The League of American Bicyclists has a great deal of information to tap into, which was not referred to in the article. Bicycling magazine, published in our region, ranked Philadelphia 27 out of 50 for bike friendly cities.

    Lets stop venting Philadelphia and start talking, planning and implementing information to educate our region.

    For the record I am an avid cyclist.

  • Amanda

    Too bad this article was posted before the recent murder of a toddler by a driver and maiming of two other children and woman…all in one weekend. But drivers are up in arms about going 2mph slower. When will this podunk excuse for a city and police start enforcing red lights/stop signs/cell phone use for the people operating two ton vehicles who feel entitled and that the world should be catered to them. The people in this city show no respect for the well-being or rights of the people around them.

  • eltoro

    roll rampantly through our city every minute of every day. experienced both form of outrage mentioned. more than once. luckily that jerk off was caught. most cases don’t end so luckiy. and with the retarded laws in this city, i’m surprised it didn’t end the other way around. this town will never be like Portland because we’re not smart enough to realize that anger and ignorance is unnecessary and a detrement to a better way of life. this town hates peace.

  • Katharine

    As someone who was not a cyclist, I was initially concerned when a bike lane was put on my street. In the past, I have witness bicyclists riding aggressively and in ways that seemed designed to aggravate drivers. I thought that the lanes would lead to an increase of these antics in my neighborhood. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that I have witnessed none of this behavior since the bike lane was put on Spruce. Giving cyclists a designated space on the road seems to have decreased conflict between drivers and cyclists. As far as the traffic issue is concerned, it is really a non-issue in my neighborhood. Spruce and Pine are not arteries for commuters, especially since the South Street bridge closure.

  • Denise

    Really, a grant to teach bike ED? typical government response.
    Obey 3 rules.
    1.STOP AT ALL STOP SIGNS.
    2. DO NOT DRIVE BETWEEN CARS.
    3. STAY OFF THE SIDEWALK. There is your BIKE ED.

  • Andrew

    Why exactly does this magazine (and most other publications writing about this issue) paint a picture of biker vs. driver, us vs. them. I think the entire bicycle issue is overblown by a few loud voices. In the end we are talking about transferring only a small part of our street network to a group of low impact users. While bikers may be a new irritation to drivers already stressed by the challenges of urban driving, I think for the vast majority of people in Philadelphia, bicyclists are a non issue. The public needs to understand the benefits new cycling facilities bring to the city. They provide people with new mobility options and recreation opportunities, while making our streets safer. In a city that prides itself on having an ingrained way of doing things, maybe we should all lighten up and try new things for a change. Why must everything be such a battle?

  • Andrew

    Why exactly does this magazine (and most other publications writing about this issue) paint a picture of biker vs. driver, us vs. them. I think the entire bicycle issue is overblown by a few loud voices. In the end we are talking about transferring only a small part of our street network to a group of low impact users. While bikers may be a new irritation to drivers already stressed by the challenges of urban driving, I think for the vast majority of people in Philadelphia, bicyclists are a non issue. The public needs to understand the benefits new cycling facilities bring to the city. They provide people with new mobility options and recreation opportunities, while making our streets safer. In a city that prides itself on having an ingrained way of doing things, maybe we should all lighten up and try new things for a change. Why must everything be such a battle?

  • David

    This really shouldn’t be about two categories of people. I drive and I bike and I try not to be a jerk. Think about this, how many times have you, that’s right you yourself made a bone headed move while driving in your car. Maybe once in a while, right. Well multiply that by the numbers and there a lots of unintended, jerk actions happening all day by decent law abiding people, even if only 0.001 of a percent are making those mistakes offensive to the rest of us. Cyclists who weave in and out between cars in the street and pedestrians on the sidewalks are just as bad as the drivers selfish enough to believe they are the only people who matter. This debate isn’t about driver against cyclist, it is about taming and calming the rhetoric when a jerk is identified as a “biker” or a “driver.” Those people are jerks first.

  • jack

    Bikes go slow, clog up the roads and are generally helmed by self righteous over-educated gree-fascists. No Thanks Philadelphia