IT"S NOT WILLIAM PENN’S FAULT, exactly, but if it weren’t for the city grid that he and surveyor Thomas Holme laid out in 1682, our roads wouldn’t be so narrow, and adding bike lanes wouldn’t be a problem. Although the really small roads aren’t Penn’s handiwork, but the result of early landholders subdividing Penn’s blocks of land, creating even skinnier streets. Of course, if the land they divided wasn’t so flat, it wouldn’t be such a great place to ride, but, well, that’s … God.
This conflict was basically fated.
The wheels really started spinning back in the early 1990s, when Ed Rendell was mayor and the Bicycle Coalition — led by Weyrich — agitated successfully for the city’s first bike racks and lanes. A traffic engineer and cyclist named Tom Branigan noted that many city streets were wider than your standard 12-foot traffic lane, but not quite wide enough for two full lanes. Branigan’s solution: adding four- or five-foot bike lanes to those streets, with one clear lane for cars and one for bikes. From then on, the city painted lanes wherever they fit (mostly outside Center City). The result wasn’t perfect — there were lots of lanes to nowhere. Still, street bikes multiplied like bunnies.
Twenty years, a few gas hikes and one “green movement” later, biking suddenly got bigger. Between 2005 and 2008, the number of cyclists zipping around Philly doubled. Even Camden is connecting bike lanes over the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philly. (Just who, exactly, is hot to Schwinn it into Camden is another story.) But still. This bike thing is national — global, in fact. Cities are racing to be part of what the U.S. Department of Transportation declared in March to be “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.” This bicycle moment was always going to happen. And people — well, some people — were always going to hate it.
But one thing you can say about Philly’s leaders: They know their constituency. “I’ve said recently that Philly really embraces change,” Cutler remarks wryly, “just as long as it looks exactly the way it did before.”