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.”