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?

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.