Everyone wants safe streets—but too many people refuse to see things from the other vehicle's perspective.
Philadelphia is a pretty decent place to bike—not the best city, but not the worst—and most people are starting to understand that. Of the 10 largest cities in the country, we have the highest rate of bicycle commuting. One-point-eight percent of Philadelphians bike to work three days a week or more, according to an ongoing American Community Survey phone count for 2011.
That’s down from 2.16 percent in 2009, but it’s still higher than every other big city. The next in line is Chicago, at 1.15 percent. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia estimates that 36,000 people rode to work at least once a month in 2008—and that there are 75,000 bike trips made each day. John Boyle, the Bicycle Coalition’s research director, says he expects to see the numbers jump when the 2012 ACS figures are released later this month.
Recognizing that boom in bicyclists, the city has designated more bike lanes; Philly now claims more than 200 miles worth. Those lanes are designated into three categories: the familiar standard lanes, which are 5 to 6 feet wide; the newer buffered lanes, which are 6 to 9 feet wide; and protected lanes, which are off the street, and only exist for a short distance along the Delaware River.
Dedicated bike lanes tend to slow down traffic and therefore “calm” the streets, advocates claim, acting as a safety mechanism that reduces the number of accidents. The city wanted to see if that was true—and thus in 2009 tested out a Center City pilot program on Pine Street (where traffic goes east) and Spruce Street (which goes west), eliminating entire lanes of traffic to be replaced with a buffered bicycle lane. The next year, those lanes were made permanent. Then the city revamped the traffic light systems on those streets so that all vehicles going 20 miles per hour will keep hitting green lights. This means bicyclists on Pine and Spruce, depending on their speed, will probably hit two red lights at most while crossing Center City. There are now 11 such miles of buffered bike lanes in Philadelphia.
In the first year after the Spruce and Pine lanes were unveiled, the Bicycle Coalition measured a 44 percent drop in traffic accidents. That’s an astonishingly great statistic.
According to Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What it Says About Us, new bike lanes in cities often make things worse, briefly, before making them better: “When a new form of transportation arises, the number of crashes and injuries and death goes up [temporarily] . . . and then begins to go down,” he told WHYY’s Radio Times in July. So to have Philly start reaping the safety benefits right off the bat was an anomalously happy surprise.
One reason seems to be that the city actually did this right: The wider the bike lane and the better timed the traffic lights are, the easier it is for cyclists to follow the law—not just to avoid cars on the street, but to refrain from endangering pedestrians on the sidewalk. Bicycle Coalition numbers, endorsed by the Nutter administration, show that where there is no bike lane during rush hour, about 20 percent of cyclists will ride on the sidewalk. With a standard bike lane, five to 10 percent will ride on the sidewalk. And with a buffered lane, that number drops to a mere 2.4 percent.
That’s part of the reason why the Coalition endorsed the Complete Streets Bill last spring. The legislation, introduced by City Council members Mark Squilla, Kenyatta Johnson, Blondell Reynolds Brown and Jim Kenney, amended the local traffic code to make sure both bikers and drivers were a little more aware of their surroundings.
The law raised fines on those not following basic bicycling rules already on the books and added a couple more. It also raised the stakes for motorists to check their side-view mirror before opening the door and turning off their engine in a designated bike lane, adding penalties and costs for the driver—hopefully adding to the already-encouraging stats we’ve seen come out of Philadelphia, like the fact that sidewalk riding dropped by 70 percent between 2006 and 2011.
So why the sour pusses the city over? Well, for those who don’t ride, there’s some resentment that tax dollars are going toward making Philadelphia a better place to travel for, currently, about two percent of its population. But that’s just part of it. A bigger part of the conflict grows out of attitude and ignorance—on the part of those who bike as well as those who don’t.
On my way to work one typical summer morning, I go through three red lights: one at the corner of Frankford and Norris, one at Frankford and Berks, and one at 11th and Spruce. There are no cars coming, no people in the crosswalk. This is pretty much a daily occurrence. Tomorrow I could run a red at 6th and Race or 16th and Cherry. I don’t count the stop signs I went through today; there were a lot.
Let me explain why.
If you haven’t ridden a bike in a while, or in the city, understand this: When you come to a complete stop on a bicycle, it takes at least a few seconds, if not more, to get back up to speed. But the people driving their cars behind you don’t want to wait those few seconds—and that time offers plenty of opportunity for them to get mad.
Last year, a Jeep driver screamed and honked at me before swerving right into me on 16th Street between Arch and Race as I tried to get back up to cruising speed. During a more recent ride home up Front Street, where I stayed correctly to the right side of the road since there’s no bike lane, I was tailgated, honked at, then called a “bitch” by a couple who yelled at me to “get on the sidewalk,” before they revved their Honda Civic’s engine while accelerating past me under the El.
Riding on the sidewalk, of course, would be illegal. What drivers like this are asking isn’t for bicyclists to follow the law but simply to quit making cars drive slower.
I couldn’t keep up with the Civic’s speed, of course, even as my adrenaline pumped and, despite my better instincts, I screamed back at them. The rest of the ride home, I blew through quiet intersections as usual rather than risk prompting more road rage by stopping and thereby slowing traffic down. And afterwards, I knew one thing: The people in that car and I, we’re both part of the problem.
According to Right of Way, a New York-based nonprofit organization, 80 percent of bicycle accidents are the fault of the driver. Each year, the Bicycle Coalition holds a “Ride of Silence” in Philadelphia (one of 275 around the world) to acknowledge the cyclists who’ve been killed on the road. Six cyclists were killed between May 2011 and May 2012 in the Delaware Valley. Five have been killed between May 2012 and May 2013—all of them within Philly’s city limits.
Nationally, the problem persists: In 2009, 630 cyclists were killed in the U.S., mostly in urban areas, and mostly at non-intersection spots. (That said, about 80 percent of all bike accidents, including the non-fatal ones, do take place at intersections). Of the accidents recorded in which a death occurred, about 33 percent involved at least one intoxicated participant.