The guy in the white sedan wasn’t the first person to harass Dylan Fenton while he was bicycling.
There was the guy who spit on him. He’s had things thrown at him, too.
But on June 5, though, Fenton found himself tailed for blocks down 12th Street in South Philadelphia during rush hour. The driver repeatedly revved his engine and yelled out the window for him to get out of the center of the road.
Fenton yelled back, “I’ll ride where it’s safe,” and thought this motorist’s rage seemed not only excessive, but misplaced. The Route 45 bus was up ahead.
“It was weird, because there was nowhere for him to go,” Fenton said, “because there was a bus in front of us.”
At Morris Street, Fenton, who was heading home from his job at the University of Pennsylvania, pulled aside to make a turn. Then the angry driver, he said, “pulled over and pulled out this weapon and shot me.”
He was hit in the right eye and cheek with a pellet that he immediately realized had been packed with something like pepper spray.
“It was definitely painful,” he said. “The effects of the pepper spray. … I was instantly blinded, can’t breathe, want to vomit, the burning.”
Fenton never heard the driver say anything else and believes he immediately drove away. The Philadelphia Police Department confirmed that Fenton had filed a report and said the incident was under investigation.
He didn’t get a good look at the gun used to shoot him, but Fenton described it as patterned with yellow and black paint. The shooter seemed to be in his 20s, Fenton said.
Products sold as pepper balls match the description of what Fenton said hit him. They’re similar to paintball pellets but are packed with an irritant like pepper powder.
One company that sells pepper-ball guns, PepperBall LifeLite, advertises a pistol weapon that uses CO2 cartridges to fire pellets at a range of 60 feet. It sells for about $230. The weapons also come in rifle formats, and while easily available to civilians on Amazon.com, they also are advertised as a law enforcement alternative to firearms. The Army also uses guns that fire pepperballs, according to a Popular Mechanics article.
Philadelphia police said they were not aware of any legal restrictions to owning one of these guns in the city.
Police do not keep specific statistics on assaults on cyclists, the department said.
Fenton’s experience was more extreme than most cyclists report, but Randy LoBasso, a spokesman for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, said he and many other cyclists have been harassed or subject to assault from drivers. Women cyclists also have reported incidents of sexual harassment.
“I think part of it has to do with, you’re inside a vehicle,” LoBasso said. “It’s easy to do what you want to do and get away. Pedestrians, cyclists don’t always have that convenience.”
Drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and delivery trucks all vie for space on Philadelphia’s crowded streets, LoBasso said, and the pressure is increasing as the city’s population and Center City economy grows. Almost 14,000 Philadelphians now report bicycles as their primary means of travel to work, according to the Census Bureau. Factoring in students who cycle and recreational bikers could double the number of people using bicycles on city streets, LoBasso said.
“I don’t mean to necessarily move away from the idea of this extreme negativity on the streets and what needs to be done about people’s behavior,” he said, “but at the same time, a lot of this comes down to the fight for space on the street.”
Fenton received help from a passer-by after he was shot. The person called police and paramedics, who helped clear some of the spray from Fenton’s face. He declined a trip to the hospital, and went home and took a shower to wash away any remnant. He suffered a welt from being shot and said he was lucky he wears glasses, which he believes protected him from potentially worse injury.
He’s also continued biking. “The best form of commuting for me is bicycling,” he said, “and I’m not going to let somebody scare me away from it.”