Road rage and tensions between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians is another problem. There is a network of more than 200 miles of bike lanes in Philadelphia, but Center City, with its narrow, congested streets and teeming throngs of workers, residents and tourists, accounts for very few of those miles. It’s not uncommon for drivers to tell – and yell at – cyclists to ride on the sidewalk, unaware that doing so is a ticketable offense. There are “share the road” signs and drivers are getting more accustomed to the masses of cyclists, but the spirit is not always one of “brotherly love.”
“There’s a lot of hostility,” says Collins. “There really aren’t concrete laws on cycling in Philly. Cyclists feel they can do whatever they want because they’re in this gray area between being a pedestrian and being an automobile. Pedestrians can run red lights, so, bikes do.”
The Bicycle Coalition’s Doty agrees. Traffic enforcement – for everyone – is key. The Coalition has a Bicycle Ambassador program up and running, with its T-shirted emissaries handing out “rules of the road” fliers and trying to encourage Philadelphians to get on their bikes, even helping folks map out the best, safest routes from where they live to where they work.
“There are a few things we know,” says Doty. “We know that if we double the number of bicyclists on any given street you ease the crash risk for each bicyclist by a third. Bicyclists, when they are more visible on the streets, are safer because people expect to see bicyclists there. The same actually holds true for pedestrians.”
But Doty laments the lack of enforcement by the police department. “There are no consequences for a car driver, or a bicyclist or a pedestrian to not follow the rules of the road. And so it’s chaotic, and people aren’t really being held accountable.” And attorneys who represent bicyclists injured in accidents have a booming business on their hands.
But almost everyone agrees that the climate is improving. “There are just more people riding,” says James Loughead, 43, a neuropsychologist who works at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and commutes there from Center City – dropping his five-year-old twin girls off at school on the way (he’s outfitted his long wheel-base Kona utility bike with a bench and foot pegs for the girls to sit on).
Loughead says that on some days when he’s pedaling along Arch Street or over the bridge to University City, flanked by other cyclists heading for work or school, Philadelphia feels almost, well, European. “In general I think things are improving. I am not an anti-motor vehicle person… I just think that at this point in an urban setting, we need to do something to reduce the number of cars and increase the number of pedestrians and cyclists and alternative fuel vehicles.”