I have been a cycle commuter in Philadelphia for about five years now. I’ve lived in many places, but as a student of Penn, I always aim for University City. Lately, I’ve expanded my ‘hood, if you will, to include the majority of Center City, Queen Village, Fairmount, West Philly and the Schuylkill river trail.
When I ride, I can’t help but notice the various challenges that cyclists face trying to navigate this city. For all the efforts that have been made (and I attribute all of these to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and our wonderfully accessible Mayor Nutter), it is still the case that cyclists don’t get a lot of respect out on the roads. Cars don’t give us enough room when passing, we get doored, we get walked into by pedestrians jay walking and not looking out for the silent vehicles that we are. We get shouted at, honked at, cut off and generally hated. Even when we do have bicycle lanes, cars use them to pass each other, to park in, to have a little more distance from other parked cars. People walk in them, run in them… I won’t even start talking about skateboards. It isn’t easy being a cyclist in Philly.
However, I am not just a Philly Cyclist. I am also an occasional driver and frequent runner. I like to believe that I get to see all three sides of this struggle for respect on the roads. I don’t drive very often. Mostly I just rent a car and take it out of state, but I still have to get out of the city. I went out of my way recently to be polite to cyclists — to look out for them before turning, to give ample passing distance, to be patient when the street is too narrow to share. And do you know what I discovered? It isn’t easy being a driver in Philly! Cyclists are hard to see, and they don’t often stop at intersections. Many times they’re riding the wrong way down the street, or they’re appearing out of nowhere as they jump a curb or dodge some other obstacle.
When I’m running, I downright hate cyclists, especially the ones wearing team jerseys or riding BMX bikes. They never EVER call their pass. They cut close to me when the path is crowded. They shout at me to get out of their way when they don’t want to slow down. They don’t ride on the right side of the trail, even though it’s marked with huge arrows and yellow “don’t cross” lines. And that’s just on the trail. Cyclists blowing lights are pretty frightening to a pedestrian who is already worried about getting run over by a taxi cab (this has nearly happened to me twice, and actually happened to a friend once). Bicycles are also pretty silent. At night, a cyclist without lights is about as imperceptible as Casper the Friendly Ghost. Surprise, surprise, it’s not easy being a pedestrian in Philly.
So lately as I’ve been riding around this glorious city, I’ve been wondering to myself, how can we make things better for us as cyclists? The answer that I’ve arrived at is that we need, as cyclists, to make things better for everybody else. It doesn’t matter how strongly we believe we ought to have a right to the road. It doesn’t matter, even, if we think that giving us more rights to the road will make this city on the whole a better place. We live in a democracy and we are the minority. We need to convince everybody else that giving cyclists a place on our streets is going to make everybody else’s lives better.
How many times have you, my cycling compatriots, called your pass and heard an emphatic, almost resigned “thank you!” from your less hastily traveling fellow human? In that thank you, have you not, perhaps subtly, sensed a feeling of exasperation, as if to say “wow! a cyclist with manners! I never thought I’d meet one.”? I know I have felt this same sense when a car driver turns on his or her right turn indicator and then pauses at the intersection until I am safely in front of them, or perhaps when I have heard the light tooting of a horn saying “on your left!” Perhaps, even, this is my own optimism playing tricks with me, but I am sure I notice these things more often when I myself am making a point to stop at lights and indicate my own turns.
So here is my idea on how to make cycling better for everyone in Philadelphia — cyclists, car drivers and pedestrians alike: we as cyclists need to go out of our way to send a message to everybody else that we appreciate them making space for us and that we, in turn, are going to make space for them. I think we can do this by staging an intentional cycling etiquette demonstration.
The Schuylkill river trial would be a great place to start. What we will do is gather a large(ish) group of cyclists and give everybody arm bands, stickers or t-shirts showing that we are all together on that day. To those cyclists that are participating, and anyone else interested in hearing, we will explain what good cycling etiquette means and how important it is for us that we show it to everybody else. Then we ride out on the trail in waves, calling our passes, slowing down when the trail is crowdy, indicating our moves to others on the trail. In short, we make a point of being seen behaving well.
I believe that everyone on foot that day will appreciate being made the center of attention, and in a good way. I also believe that everyone out there on wheels will get a good glimpse of what a good cyclist ought to behave like. The fact of the matter is, there are so many poorly behaved cyclists on the roads and trails that the few who do try to follow the rules get swallowed up in the numbers and not noticed by anyone. The result is irritation for all and no good role models for those who would try to be better. I also believe that those who do participate will get a much needed sense of pride in their identity not only as a cyclist in Philly, but as a good cyclist in Philly, someone who is making our city a better place for everyone.
We as cyclists need to be seen, but we need to be seen in a good light. It is certainly gratifying to whine amongst ourselves about how little the “others” respect us, but it doesn’t change anything. First we need to realize that every body in this city is a human being with goals and frustrations. Then we need to let people know that we are here to make things better for everyone, not just for ourselves. Only in this way will we ever get the support of our city to truly make Philadelphia the greenest and most bicycle-friendly city in the nation.