Is Driving Going Out of Style in Philly?

In the city of I-95, the Schuylkill Expressway and Parking Wars, could a new generation actually make cars … obsolete?

When I was 15, my father taught me the skills needed to drive on the highway, but it fell to my mother to teach the less clear-cut rules of the road.

“For God’s sake, just get out of the way,” she’d say, fingers digging into upholstery every time an even semi-aggressive driver edged near. “They could have a gun for all you know.” She grew increasingly nervous in later years, when I would drop my speed to make a point to some idiot riding my bumper.

“They could have a gun” was one of my mom’s favorite refrains, and if you hear something enough, it eventually worms its way into your consciousness. And so I was thinking about guns one recent sunny Sunday morning after I’d hopped on my bike to run errands. Pedaling along a narrow one-way swath of 19th Street north of Spring Garden, where cars line both sides of the road, I became aware of one behind me. Close behind me. On wider roads, I ride on the far right to allow cars to pass. But 19th is that special sort of Philly street so slender that a driver’s sneeze can send an adjacent cyclist careening onto the sidewalk, mowing down pedestrians. On roads like these, I ride smack in the middle, so nobody is tempted to try to squeeze by and maim me in the process.

Maybe it was the long, deliberate honks, or maybe it was the engine rumbling a whole half-inch behind my back wheel, that tipped me off to the driver’s displeasure. Had I been in my car, I might have done my slow-down trick, but given that it was just me, a bike, and an old green helmet I inherited from a vegan who’d written on it “Meat Is Murder,” I finally decided to veer off into a narrow space between two parked SUVs.

“You’re not supposed to be in the road!” the driver bellowed as she passed.

If I hadn’t been busy wondering whether she had a .38 Special in her lap (thanks, Mom), I might have come up with something snappier than my heated and oddly Elizabethan “You are mistaken!” I might have had the presence of mind to holler back that she was a dinosaur. That her way of life—running­ the road like she owns the place—was about to change forever. That she and her dumb Honda and everyone who acts like cars and cars alone were granted permanent and inalienable right-of-way in the Bill of Rights are going to be edged out in this city.

I’m sure she would have driven off—or fired off a round—before the rant was done. But the reimagined exchange cheers me just the same. Mostly because I think it’s true.

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  • Valerie

    The last few times I’ve traveled to Philly on business I’ve forgone the rental car. What a relief! No parking, traffic, gas and other hassles. Sure, it means rolling my carryon from airport onto train to Center City hotels but my motto is, I pack it, I schlep it. Don’t want to pay baggage fees, anyway. Kudos to the City for making this easy and affordable.

  • Pablo O’Higgins

    Most residents and visitors to Society Hill would have preferred more parking to taking out a lane of traffic for the bicycle lane. But if Paul Levy approves of more cycling lanes then we must bow to his wishes. It’s great to have a youthful population, but when all the best paying jobs remain outside of Philadelphia, then it’s decision time for our 20-34 age group. It’s time to grow up and put away the bicycle.

  • Christine

    Terrific! My only slight gripe is your age-ism. It cracks me up that the 20-40-somethings think they discovered environmentalism. Until quite recently, being green was indeed associated with “granola crunchers,” by which one meant fusty old 50-60-70-something hippies. I’m glad that the younger generations are wising up, but wish it didn’t have to be at the expense of those of us who actually fought to make this a possibility.