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.
IN SEATTLE, THEY hate drivers,” my friend Jason declares. He moved here last year from Seattle.

It’s not just Seattle’s “poorly built” on- and off-ramps, he elaborates, or the tiny one-way streets with interminable traffic circles; it’s the residents’ attitude about the whole thing.

“They’re proud of it,” Jason says. “It’s a city that doesn’t want people to drive, so they make it more and more difficult to do it. It’s aggressively anti-car.”

Philly, it’s fair to say, is no Seattle.

For the record, neither am I. I don’t hate cars; I own one. I mostly use it to get to Target, but my husband drives it to his job in Phoenixville most days. We street-park, so I harbor fantasies about one day getting a place with a garage.

These facts don’t blind me, however, to the forces that currently seem to be converging to change the role of cars in this city. While Philadelphia may never really be anti-auto, everything from gas prices to tree-hugging­ is on the rise, making it clear that we’re moving in a less car-centric direction than we have since … well, before cars. What’s less clear is what that means for drivers.

This has me thinking about smoking. One of the biggest cultural shifts to occur in many of our lifetimes has been what happened to cigarettes in this country. If you were an adult in the ’60s, chances were pretty good that you were a smoker: Almost half the country was, and they were lighting up wherever they wanted—at work, in restaurants, at the movies. By 1970, the number of addicts had begun to drop, but even then, smoking was omnipresent. I can remember flying to Germany as a seven-­year-old and watching endless serpentine wisps rise from certain seats late into the night, melting into our shared pressurized air. We forget it now, but well into the ’90s it was totally possible that your baby might deplane bleary-eyed and smelling like a dive bar.

Slowly, things changed. Airlines put the kibosh on cigarettes; smokers went from being allowed to light up at their desks and restaurant tables to being herded into special smokers’ lounges, to being offered a roof or patio, to finally being asked to take that filthy cig outside and at least three feet from the front door, thank you very much. I don’t know what the social tipping point was, but somewhere, less smoke made room for more moralizing, and in a matter of a few short years smokers went from being James Dean to the new lepers. People quit en masse. To be a smoker now—only one in five people is—is to both brave societal­ disapproval and overcome conditions that make a cigarette break about as convenient as a trip to the DMV.

It may be a stretch to imagine a moment when cars become like cigarettes, when driving in the city will become more of a pain than not driving, when hard-core addicts feel the popular mood shift against them. Then again, plenty of cultural transformations equally hard to imagine have come to pass. (See: Gay weddings, female presidential candidates.) In 1910, no doubt plenty of Philadelphians shrugged off the Model T: Whatever. Horses are here to stay.

If major change is the result of a series of smaller changes over time, I’d say that in this car town, we’re already rolling slowly toward that next tipping point. Take, for example, those 21 miles of new bike lanes, the pet project of Philadelphia deputy mayor­ of transportation Rina Cutler. A good-humored, even-keeled woman with Boston in her vowels, she’s a walking, talking seed of change, though she balks at the idea she’s doing anything particularly revolutionary.

“The goal is not to get people out of their cars,” she says. “I think my job is to give people options as to how they move around. We’ve spent a great deal of money on the infrastructure needed for cars, and spent substantially less on the notion of paying attention to pedestrians, people who bike, the transit side. I think there’s a slight shift in that we’re getting to correct the balance.”

This “rebalancing” act has created noticeable change: On Spruce and Pine alone—two streets that lost car lanes to make room for bikes—serious accidents are down 45 percent, and fender-benders are down 17 percent. Last spring, the city replaced a traffic lane on 13th Street with a bike lane; today, at rush hour, 23 percent of all vehicles there are bikes, almost triple the figure of the year before. And on a strictly qualitative front, ask any biker: Those stripes of white or green paint have changed the whole feel of city cycling. It’s not just us, either. When the President’s transportation secretary­ announces an end to “favoring motorized­ transportation at the expense of non-motorized,­” it feels less like some fleeting granola-powered movement and more like a new, grand American mandate.

As I look around, I see other factors helping all of this along here. The Parking Authority is collecting higher fines for expired meters; a lack of money available for capital spending is leaving a lot of city streets almost undriveable. And, hey—did you hear that gas prices might go up to $5 a gallon this summer?

With conditions like these, an anti-car crusade almost seems beside the point.
THE SOUNDTRACK OF my childhood was really my parents’ soundtrack. Don McLean drove his Chevy to the levee. Janis Joplin prayed for a Benz. Wilson Pickett lusted after Mustang Sally, and the Beach Boys—my dad’s favorite—­drove their 409 and their little deuce coup, and had a lot of fun in a T-Bird. They got around, man.

When I tried to think of car songs popular with my peers, all I could come up with was Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” which came out when I was four and isn’t, ahem, really about cars. I also remember Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Not exactly the anthem of a generation.

Right now, it’s that generation—that is, 25-to-34-year-olds—that’s growing in this city at a rate double that of the national average. My friend Patrick is in that group. He’s 34, and just bought a beautiful old place in West Philly, about 30 minutes away from his job in the ’burbs. He’s an extremely smart guy, a dedicated transit rider, and someone who I think is reflective of still another change, this one emotional, that has us slouching toward The New Tipping Point.

“In a strange way,” he tells me, “I see not having a car as freeing—freedom from having to concentrate on the roads as I go from point A to B, freedom from the frustration of sitting in traffic whittling my life away, freedom from worry that I have to find parking or that it will get broken into. I’m free to spend that mental energy on more productive pursuits.”

Patrick’s freedom is a far cry from the kind the Beach Boys sang about. But then, the Beach Boys didn’t have iPads and iPhones for their commute. They didn’t feel the same desperate need to constantly be doing three things at once, that hallmark of our technological age. In March, the New York Times reported that 46 percent of drivers ages 18 to 24 would choose having Internet access over owning a car.

Center City CEO Paul Levy points out that in 1964, he was filling up his Volkswagen’s tank for $3. Three bucks! That won’t even get you a gallon now. Levy thinks we’re in a moment where saving money is aligning with that set of environmental values the 20- and 30-somethings were raised on. Our car-sharing services are thriving; SEPTA ridership has risen four percent in the past two years, a spike that began before gas prices started shooting up. Transit ridership nationwide is at its second-highest level since the 1950s. Self-interest plays a role in that, and probably technology, too, given that electronic apps have made it easier to know when buses and trains are coming. Even SEPTA has launched a handy app with schedules and routes—although its motto, “We’re getting there,” makes it easy to note how far we still are from universal convenience. But Patrick shines a hopeful light on the whole thing: “Public transit is one of those rare goods that the more it gets used, the better it gets.”

He likes the idea that he plays a small role in a cycle that makes Philly better, “which attracts new residents, which drives a healthier economy, which benefits me in all types of ways.” He’s not the only person I know who thinks riding the El can inherently make the city a better place—he’s just the most articulate.

I think Levy is right on with the sustainability thing, too. We 20-, 30- and early-40-somethings have been hearing about recycling and global warming and our dangerous dependence on oil since the third grade. I think this is why I buy into the idea that a less car-congested Philadelphia—despite the various pains it brings with it—is an inherently good thing.

“It used to have a stigma, not owning a car.” That’s my friend Ashley, 32, and the stigma she’s talking about is lameness. Now, she says, “It seems like saying you don’t own a car has the opposite sort of effect. It’s sort of … cool, in its way.” It’s like the renewed dedication among moms I know to using cloth diapers, or the designer clothespins you can buy on Etsy for air-drying your laundry, or the jam-canning craze. This generation seems to see a renewed chic in the pre-industrial. And it’s also what Levy was saying, that doing things like this somehow feels virtuous. Even in our disillusioned, $5-a-gallon, post-“American Pie” world, virtuous is still appealing.
THERE’S BEEN ANOTHER comeback here in Philly, if you haven’t noticed: grass. The city that spent much of the 20th century painting itself in asphalt is, in the 21st, desperate to get back to parks and yards and plazas. To choose green over black, people over cars. Studies have been done: It’s about quality of life, economics, image, the environment … everything is better with a little more green.

Last August, the city created something called the Pedestrian Plaza Program to help turn “underutilized” street space—extra-wide swaths of road, or those weird triangles where multiple streets converge—into public spaces with benches, landscaping and bike parking. There’s also the behemoth public Penn Park at 31st and Walnut, now lush with grass and joggers in place of asphalt. And there’s that new plaza outside 30th Street Station, which turned parking into public hang-out space. And, maybe most importantly, the city’s brilliant “Green City, Clean Waters” program, which involves, yes, more grass to help keep storm water from running off all that asphalt and overloading our sewer systems. Seems we’ve entered the age where “Put a Park On It” is an official city motto.

The face of this movement at the moment might be that of Diana Lind, the spirited head of the nonprofit Next American City. I heard her talk last winter about “creating vibrant cities in the face of car culture” at TEDx, the national community lecture series about “ideas worth spreading,” and she’s since become one of the most vocal proponents of having the city rethink—or at least think about rethinking—the future of I-95, long criticized for cutting off the Delaware River waterfront.

Look at Dallas, she told the crowd. That city, she explained, was similarly bifurcated­ by a highway, but Dallas knit itself back together by building a five-acre park on top of that highway, complete with restaurants and playgrounds and dog zones: It’s “the city’s front lawn, a space where anyone can come and hang out.” Pleasant and forward-thinking as that is, projects of this scale can be staggeringly pricey. Dallas’s park will run the city more than $100 million; something like Boston’s “Big Dig” could cost upwards of $15 billion, Cutler estimates. Predictably, city officials have thus far deemed such a park out of reach. Though there’s debate about that, too.

To some, the very notion of spending any dollars, let alone millions, on a park to hide a highway seems as insane as ivory-tower mumblings about getting rid of driving. Lind, for her part, tells me she’s not anti-car, but rather “multi-modal,” a nerdy yet sweetly inclusive phrase that kind of gets at the future I think we’re moving toward.

Many of the Philly moms I know—some of whom probably use cloth diapers—would laugh (or cry) at the idea of schlepping babies and small children around town in anything but a car. As someone who doesn’t have babies to schlep, or multiple jobs that I must rush off to, or a career driving a delivery truck, I do realize that for many—if not most—people, driving isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. Any real, properly running city will always need people to drive in it.

But at some point, all of our small changes are going to overflow, creating a shift. People who don’t need to drive won’t want to—because their friends aren’t, because it’s expensive and no longer convenient, and because it’s just not great for us as a city. Sure, we’ll all indulge sometimes, but in 20 years, it’s not so crazy to imagine that a new “multi-modal” norm will mean leaving the car parked. And that the rules of the road won’t merely be about getting out of the way.

  • 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.