A deeply divided populace. Little room for compromise. A lack of civility. Angry debate and the potential for life-altering consequences.
It sounds like the state of our government, but I’m talking about what’s happening on the streets of Center City. Forget red versus blue—it’s the war between cars and cycles that’s become one of Philadelphia’s hottest topics. Last week, City Council approved a “Complete Streets” bill that aims to regulate the bad behavior of both parties. Its heart is in the right place. But will these measures make commuting downtown any safer?
Much like gun control, the arguments for and against either side often fall apart when someone catches a whiff of bias. For the record, I have very little skin in this game. I own a car, but drive it only a handful of times a month. I had a decent mountain bike, until it was stolen. Most of my travel around town is either on foot or through public transportation, and I’ve had plenty of encounters with assholes of both the two and four-wheeled varieties. Anecdotally speaking, neither side can claim superiority here. Walking or jogging, I’ve been nearly run over by cars, cabs and bikes whose pilots think the rules of the road don’t apply to them. (And let’s add buses to that list. Can’t count how many times I’ve seen a SEPTA tank rumble through a red light. Note to drivers: honking the horn doesn’t make it legal or safe.) Some folks behind the wheel are notorious for bullying bikes. But in turn, a lot of cyclists have paid that abuse back, treating people on foot like pylons in an obstacle course, if they even notice them at all.
Council’s new attempt to crack down on all offenders is a fairly balanced effort. The bill stipulates that if you fling open your car door and hit a cyclist, you’re at fault. If you’re on a bike and run a light, it’s the same as doing so in a car. Park in bike lanes or bike on sidewalks and you’re subject to a ticket. It all sounds great in theory. But will any of these measures really be enforced? Of course not. That’s the real issue here—not whether the real menace on the streets is autos or bikes, but whether either will be punished for breaking the law.
I’ve never seen a cop pull over a motorist for running a light, or flag down a pedal-pusher for commandeering a sidewalk. Yet I’ve been nearly mowed down more times than I’d like to recall (note that all of which were in daylight, with the right of way, on foot, and not playing Words With Friends on my phone). After I shouted at a cabbie who nearly clipped me in an intersection, he informed me I was lucky he didn’t back up and really run me over. A bicyclist nearly flipped over his handlebars after hitting the brakes to avoid taking me out, despite the fact he had a red light.
I was glad he stopped, and to the guy’s credit, he apologized. But the point is that the problem isn’t what you’re riding—it’s what you think you can get away with. “Complete Streets” provides a road map for making Center City feel less like a Wild West, where lawless bikes and renegade cars run wild. What’s essential from here is placing a priority on enforcement. Otherwise, all the proposed bills and bike lanes won’t make commuting in this town safer for anyone, regardless of how they choose to get around.