Last week I decided to take my lovely bike Pikuro out for a very long ride. I have a friend who is “woofing” in Delaware at a local organic farm. Essentially, woofing is an unpaid internship in organic agriculture and farming. I don’t have a car and I’m too scatterbrained to plan out a trip with buses and transfers and schedules, so naturally I decided to ride. I learned many things on this trip, things about myself, things about public transit and things about people in general. It was a wholly worthwhile adventure.
I planned my trip with the help of a friend and google maps. I started by taking the SEPTA regional rail to Newark station. I didn’t have trouble loading Pikuro onto the train, but there was a very awkward moment where I had to ask the passengers in the handicapped section to move to make room for my bicycle. From there I rode approximately 65 miles along a 55 mph state road. The Delaware roads were good quality and the shoulders were wide. I didn’t have to deal with much debris and I don’t think I met even one pothole.
It was not a particularly scenic trip and I do wish there had been more trees lining the highway — more trees and fewer car dealerships. However it was a pleasant trip in the way that riding through Philly has never been. The drivers on the road gave me an unheard of amount of space on the road. Even passing me at 70+ mph, which was unnerving for sure, I found that many drivers edged over to the left side of their lanes, or even slowed down or changed lanes as is required by Delaware state law when passing disabled vehicles. When I came to an intersection I noticed on more than one occasion that the people waiting to use the right turn lane gave me over two car lengths of distance as they waited for me to clear through. At first I was confused because I have never been given this much space on the road before. Once I realized what they were doing I was grateful and pretty shocked at the same time.
Twice I met with other cyclists along the way. We waved at each other and I felt as if we were two of a kind traveling through a world that only we could see. We were exposed to the wind and the sun and the wispy corn fields that we passed. When you ride in a car you are sheltered. You can look out the window at the things passing by, but you are never a part of the world you travel the same way that you are on a bicycle. At one point I also rode by a motorcycle gang of about a dozen or so people. Every single one of them turned their heads at me from across the road. That’s right. We’re all on two wheels, here, but mine are powered by muscle, grit and sweat. I think they were impressed.
As a very passionate advocate for cycling safety in Philadelphia, I could not help but notice the difference in attitudes down in Delaware versus at home in the city. People were much more polite and patient with me. I felt like a person, a real human on the road. At times I was definitely uncomfortable, for example when I had to ride over a covered bridge with no shoulder. People can be polite all they want, but when you’re driving at highway speeds on a tiny bridge and you don’t expect to see a cyclist puttering along at thirteen miles per hour, death can happen pretty quickly and it’s not going to come for the one in the steel safety cage. But most of the time I sensed that there were people inside the cars one the road and that they understood that I wasn’t trying to make their life difficult, just trying to get along on my bicycle. I waved a lot.
In Philadelphia people are very impatient, rude, and downright dangerous to cyclists. When I ride in the city I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can protect myself better, how people are being jerks, and how the city neglects to take the proper measures necessary to protect the precious and vulnerable cyclists that are trying to make their way around. I also do a lot of deep breathing and counting to 10. What I realized when I was riding was that people in Philly aren’t nasty because people in Philly are nasty, they’re nasty because it’s a tight city where nothing works the way it should. Philly has a problem with broken promises and wrong expectations.
Think about this scenario: You have an appointment on the other side of town at 3:30. You’ve made the trip in under fifteen minutes before. It’s 2:00 pm and you need to pick up your dry cleaning before you go, but it’s on the way. Plenty of time, right? First hangup: you’ve been parked in. It takes ten minutes of wiggling to get your car out of its space and onto the road. Next, you’re on your way to the cleaners and you find out that the road is under construction. You want to make a detour, but there’s a park in the way (Let’s say Rittenhouse, just for fun) and anyway, you’re already stuck between two solid block of other cars who didn’t know about the construction. Another ten minutes passes as you try to wiggle and ginch your way through. Next thing it’s a taxi double parked on Pine street. Now you’re starting to stress. You just wanna get to the cleaners and it’s only another three blocks, but when is this car gonna move? You’re tempted to go around, but the other side of the taxi is a bike lane. You take a deep breathe and wait. You’re a good citizen. You make it to the cleaners and there’s even parking right out front, but just as you get to the light a woman thrusts her baby carriage out into the street without looking your direction. You slam the breaks, miss the light and watch miserably as your precious space, and another five minutes of your preciously dwindling lead time, disappears to the volatility of the city. The next time you come to a yellow you don’t even wait. You swing around the corner quick as a …quick thing, and bam! Down goes the cyclist. You might have had a chance to make your appointment, but by now it’s hopeless. You have to wait for the police to show up and make a report. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to wait for an ambulance. Even though it was every facet of city living that lead you to your final moment of poor judgment, your anger is at yourself, and at the cyclist. Why the hell wasn’t he looking? Didn’t he see that you were obviously trying to turn?
This is the problem with cycling in Philly. At the beginning of the day you start out with every good intention, but with all the things that happen along the way due to poor traffic infrastructure and general neglect on the part of enforcement, your patience wears thin. Cyclists are guilty of it, too, don’t get me wrong. I once yelled at a man who was legitimately crossing the street on a green in the crosswalk and almost ran him down because I had just been attacked by an old lady walking excessively slowly and unpredictably in the bike lane only seconds before. I felt like a complete ass. I’m sure the man I almost ran down is now a solid opponent of bicycle lanes in the city. There is only one way to make cycling safe in Philadelphia and it’s to close down the gap between people’s expectations and the way the city’s streets actually flow so that the frustration, irritation and frayed nerves that are always a side effect of a crowded metropolis can be soothed to the point that people are actually capable of sharing.
To this end, I think Philadelphia needs to set some priorities. First of all, a visible police presence that actually knows the rules of the road is absolutely critical. Police don’t necessarily need to give out tickets, in fact I think that information is more important now than enforcement, but they should correct everyone’s use of the streets from pedestrians to motorists, with cyclists and skateboarders included. Jaywalking should be taken more seriously as it is a major danger to cyclists from a civil as well as a physical perspective. The notion of “don’t block the box” should be enforced vigorously, and for this I think tickets should be handed out as this kind of behavior is a nuisance to all users of public pathways. And for everyone’s sake, no stopping zones should be enforced with a passion!
Second, I think the city should recognize that no one is going to get through quickly. Speed limits should be set at no more than 20 mph for the safety of everyone, and if at all possible the lights should be timed everywhere in the city as they are on Lombard, Spruce and Pine. On the side of the drivers, a lower speed limit is not actually restrictive so much as it bring their expectations of how fast they can travel through the city more in line with the actuality of it. On the side of cyclists, it lowers the gap between what leg power and what fossil fuel can do. This means that cyclists are less of a hindrance to drivers and also that any accidents will have lower expected damage.
There are a number of other things that the city can do to make cycling more safe. Many people might argue that it is not a priority, but protecting cyclists goes hand in hand with increasing everyone’s welfare. Cyclists are known to shop locally much more than motorists do. Everyone loves supporting local businesses, except, perhaps, politicians and major corporations, but those are not actually people, so we shouldn’t mind them. Cycling also connects people to the world around them. A connected city is a healthier city as people care about their environment and want to protect it to the extent that they feel it is theirs. And people are happier and healthier when they have solid human connections. But even setting aside the benefits that are specific to cycling, the steps the city needs to take to make the roads safer also move its entire population towards a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, benefits from lower stress, and do I even need to explain why?
Coming back from my adventure I carried with me a calmness that I had lost somewhere between the Ben Franklin Parkway and Washington Avenue. Or perhaps I left it on Cecil B. Moore? I believe that Philadelphia can raise itself up from the filth and the crime and the anger that pervades it, and I think that the road to protecting cyclists runs parallel to the road to being a better, healthier, happier city. There is an abundance of energy here that I had lost sight of, but one long ride out of state gave me the perspective I needed to find it again.