Everyone wants safe streets—but too many people refuse to see things from the other vehicle's perspective.
His girlfriend interrupts to fill in his blanks: “Legally, that was your fault,” she says.
“Yeah,” he shrugs.
The numbers tell their own story. The Bicycle Coalition measures bike traffic each September and October on various streets throughout the city during rush hour: 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. During their September 2012 count, taken from five locations, they observed between 150 and 250 bikes per hour on Spruce and Pine.
Are those stats accurate? Well, the city takes them at face value. That’s one of Bykofsky’s objections: that those studies are conducted by a pro-bicycle advocacy organization, and then accepted unchallenged by the city.
That’s a fair criticism. So Philadelphia Weekly decided to do some counting of our own.
In a nonscientific survey of bicycles riding past the corner of Broad and Sansom streets from 4:45 to 5:30 on July 29, an assistant and I counted 30 cyclists going either north on Broad or west on Sansom. Of them, we saw three going through red lights (one of whom was also going against traffic in the wrong lane) and four riding on the sidewalk. During the same time frame, going south on Broad, there were 23 total bikers. Of them, 10 went through red lights; three rode on the sidewalk or in the opposing lane.
On Aug. 14, I went back out—this time to Pine Street. I stood on the southeast corner of 15th and Pine, counting the bikers going east on Pine and south on 15th. From 1:22 p.m. to 2 p.m., there were 46 total bikers riding down Pine. Of them, 12—that’s 26 percent—broke the law by going through a red light. (It should also be noted that when I first got to the spot, a large truck was blocking the bike lane close to 16th Street, which is illegal. It left at 1:28 p.m.) In both directions, seven bicyclists rode on the sidewalk—not counting two young girls who used the sidewalk while a man—presumably, their father—rode in the bike lane, watching them.
Twenty-five bicyclists rode south on 15th Street during that time. Of them, 12— almost half—went through red lights. That included one young woman who rode in front of a car while on her cell phone, forcing the car to stop short; she seemed to barely notice the vehicle, and it didn’t honk.
In both directions, no cars broke the law by going through a red light. One did, however, park between 15th and Broad and put on its hazard lights as a woman slowly got out of the passenger’s seat to drop off a small box at the adjacent building. That car almost caused a terrible accident when a bicyclist tried to go around it and ended up cutting off a truck.
At one point during the 38 minutes, a man asked me what I was tallying. Bicyclists, I said, and cars going through red lights. “What’s it look like so far?” he asked.
“Six bicyclists have gone through red lights, out of 17 total,” I said.
“That’s not so bad, but it would be really bad if there was an accident, I guess.”
“Yep,” I said.
While these surveys were non-scientific, they do suggest the same conclusion the Bicycle Coalition announced in their own September counts: Where there are bike lanes, there’s a higher proportion of bicyclists who follow the law.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Police Department reports that, as of Aug. 14, 51 tickets have been handed out this year to bicyclists riding on the sidewalk—a $10 fine. Officer Jillian Russell of the department’s public affairs office says that the police don’t track statistics for the number of tickets issued bicyclists for riding while wearing headphones (yes, that’s illegal)—or tickets issued drivers for violating the state’s four-foot rule (physically impossible to obey on many narrow streets) or opening their car doors in front of cyclists.
So can we ever find a way to get along? It’s hard to say.
On the one hand, bicycling is just a form of transportation; why do we cyclists have to treat it as some kind of profound lifestyle identity? Why do we take to Twitter and “Follow Friday” each other based solely on how many wheels are under us? Why, in short, do we have to turn our bikes into instruments of moral superiority? Insisting on bicycling as a subculture will seem increasingly silly as bikes become a more and more mainstream vehicle for simply getting to Grandma’s for Sunday dinner.
Similarly: Car drivers’ road rage is a nasty thing that needs to be dealt with. City streets are already plenty congested with other cars; drivers can’t be in so great a rush that their hurry is more important than a vulnerable biker’s safety.
Other cities, like Boise, Idaho, have enacted a “Stop as Yield” law allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, recognizing that bikes and cars don’t actually have equal footing on city streets. Getting “doored” needs to be a higher fine than $75, too, and urban driving tests should put more emphasis on cyclists in the streets.