Everyone wants safe streets—but too many people refuse to see things from the other vehicle's perspective.
Dan came all the way to Philadelphia this weekend from Raleigh, North Carolina with one intention: getting naked on a bike. Most of the other 3,000 people standing here in Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park, though, are locals. We’re all waiting, unknowingly, for a police car to show up and escort us along a 10-mile route that includes some of the most biked spots in Philadelphia: Old City, Center City, South Street, Northern Liberties and Fishtown. The neighborhoods, that is, that define the primary battleground between Philly’s cyclists and drivers.
When the police cruiser shows up, around 4:30 p.m., the crowd begins cheering, loudly. The Philadelphia Naked Bike Ride, an international event dedicated to “fuel conscious consumption, positive body image and cycling advocacy,” is about to begin. When it does, onlookers will evince reactions ranging from laughter to extreme disgust at the thousands-strong mass of two-wheeled nude flesh—including at least one driver on Walnut Street who’ll spend several minutes attempting to pull his car out into the clot of bodies, honking at the cyclists while they yell back at him.
This whole situation—the cyclists’ enthusiasm, the bystanders’ mixture of appreciation and annoyance, the driver’s attempt to break through what’s essentially a city-endorsed parade so he can get to his destination faster—is representative of the slowly evolving culture around Philadelphia’s bike community. It reflects a fundamental truth: When it comes to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, we’re more likely to see one another as obstacles than as neighbors. And that may be the only thing we can all agree upon.
If you bike in Philly, depending on how often, you’ve probably experienced at least one of the following situations: You’ve gone through a red light. You’ve gotten into a screaming match with a driver. You’ve yelled at jaywalkers. Your wheels have probably been caught in unused trolley tracks. You’ve had something stolen off your ride.
Or maybe, like Daniel Hart, a bartender at McGlinchey’s Bar in Center City, you’ve been hit by cars. Plural.
“I try to be peaceful,” the 23-year-old says one afternoon in Center City, “but I’ve been hit by a car twice in the past six months. One of them was a taxi, too. A hit-and-run."
Hart’s most recent incident, in which a private cab clipped him, he says, for riding too close on Market Street, is pretty typical of bicyclists in a city full of tiny streets, rush-hour gridlock, few bike lanes and plenty of aggressive New Jersey drivers accustomed to different traffic laws.
Also typical of Hart’s story: He didn’t report the collision, even though a number of people saw it happen. That’s a common tale for city cyclists, who, unlike drivers, don’t have to report accidents to an insurance company and, if they aren’t injured beyond scrapes and bruises, would often rather just be on their way. (“Bicycle crashes and injuries are under-reported,” reads a University of Pennsylvania public safety pamphlet, “since the majority are not serious enough for emergency room visits.”)
Hart also didn’t report his other incident, in which an elderly woman ran straight into him: “I went over the hood and I was shaken up, but I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ She was very scared that she’d killed someone. I also landed like a cat in that scenario. But I have a lot of friends that have been hit by cars.”
Philadelphia is getting younger. The number of bikers on city streets has doubled over the past decade, and last year the city passed a law, the Complete Streets Bill, requiring that we accommodate those residents. Looking ahead, Mayor Nutter announced details last Thursday of a new, much-anticipated bike-share program set to launch in 2014.
There’s plenty of reason to embrace bicycles as an urban lifestyle—starting with dollar signs. According to a 2008 study conducted by Alison Lee at the University of Melbourne in Australia, bicycling cities are economically advantaged cities. Lee’s research, independently replicated by a separate study conducted in Germany and endorsed by the European Commission, found that bicyclists make more local shopping trips—11 in a month, compared to seven for drivers—and are better customers. Further, when a single car parking space is replaced with six bicycle parking facilities, Lee’s study shows, local business revenue is multiplied.
Of course, gasoline-free transportation is also more sustainable in a world that’s both getting warmer and obsessing over oil prices. And all that pedaling means that, except for getting stuck behind a bus and sucking in its pollution (a condition The Atlantic dubbed “biker’s lung” in 2011), cycling is good for you.
Yet the perfect harmony for which many bicycle advocates and enthusiasts forever hope is far from the reality of city streets. Consider: Before the Complete Streets Bill passed, the city’s big bike-support program was a public-awareness campaign touting the slogan, “Give respect, get respect.” That the concept needed to be spelled out so remedially underlines the fact that, generally speaking, those of us in cars and those of us on bikes aren’t offering much mutual respect in the first place.
Take Bryan Donovan. The 21-year-old graduate of Temple University, who completes his daily commute to and from work in Center City by bike, is pretty typical of Philly’s two-wheeled population. He’s young, he doesn’t own a car, he’s about to move residences and will be farther away from his work, and, then, he’ll still ride a bike every day.
The tricky part: Donovan doesn’t wear a helmet. He doesn’t have a light on his bike. And he’s not aware of recent changes in the laws—or the June police “crackdown” in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, in which 12 more officers were stationed in Center City to specifically deal with rogue cyclists.
When asked if he goes through red lights, Donovan says: “Yeah, definitely.” Stop signs? “Oh, yeah.”
He’ll slow down if a car is coming, he says. And he doesn’t ride on the sidewalk—well, unless there’s an obstruction in the road.
Donovan, in short, is the personification of why car drivers hate cyclists. And yet he doesn’t mean any harm. From his standpoint, the way he rides is practical and logical; in fact, to a certain extent, his actions that annoy drivers result from decisions cyclists make explicitly to avoid annoying them in other ways.
I say this not as an apologist but as a fellow biker. Because I do some of these things too. For every statistic that’s been pushed out regarding bikes in the city, regarding the friction between cyclists and drivers—I’ve experienced all of it.
Letters to the Editor