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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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bikePHL

A Local Commuter Goes Long

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.

Wishing for Role Models

Dear Penn Public Safety,

This evening at approximately 9:00 pm on 45th street just south of Chestnut, I was riding in the bicycle lane when a uniformed University of Pennsylvania security officer came riding in the bicycle lane against the flow of traffic. I hope I don’t have to explain how dangerous this is.

I have been a cycle commuter in Philadelphia for six years. I am a member of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and I take pride in my identity as a cyclist. I like to believe that my choice to ride instead of drive helps alleviate pollution and congestion problems in the city, and I make a point, however difficult it may be, to demonstrate good cycling etiquette on the road. Nonetheless, I am constantly exposed to carelessness, aggression and abuse on the roads which puts my life in danger every day. Both on campus and off I am acutely aware of the tensions present between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

I like to believe that the University of Pennsylvania is making a positive impact on the community that I have called home for the better part of a decade. However, it absolutely destroys my spirit to see university representatives blatantly disregarding the rules of the road. Cyclists have it so hard in this city because really, everybody hates us. I want to believe that at least we cyclists are trying to do our part to better the circumstances, but when even security and law enforcement refuse to respect the road and their fellow cyclists, I simply lose hope.

Here’s to hoping tonight’s incident was no more than an oversight.

Sincerely,

xxxxx

Philly Cycling Etiquette

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.

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