At the end of the month Alex Doty, executive director for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia will leave to run the League of American Bicyclists, an organization that since 1880 has sought to increase biking nationwide. After 13 years with the Bicycle Coalition, he leaves behind a legacy that has transformed transportation in Philadelphia and surrounding suburbs. The city, thanks to the Bicycle Coalition, now has 230 miles of bike lanes. He described Philadelphia as the most biked big city in America. He also was instrumental in creating 300 miles of trails on the Circuit, a network of paths that spans the region. Doty, 47, a Philadelphia native who also spent time growing up on Martha's Vineyard, plans to remain in the city and commute to Washington D.C. three days a week. He will be succeeded as acting executive director by Sarah Clark Stuart until the board selects a permanent replacement.
We talked Wednesday about his work, his vision for Philadelphia and his favorite biking spots in the area. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
Why was now the time to leave the Bicycle Coalition?
The reason why is because the need is there at the League of American Bicyclists. Their long-time executive director left over the summer and half the staff have left over that time. There's a need to go in and stabilize things and that's the appealing part to me in terms of the opportunity to be of service but also the opportunity to take the lead and build on the work and also take my local perspective and help the league provide tools to local groups.
I think we've made great strides [in Philadelphia]. We have a new administration coming up and we've been able to make a lot of progress. I think in fact my leaving may open up new opportunities and make changes at the Bicycle Coalition that will make it even stronger.
Why don't you talk a bit about the cultural impact of the Bicycle Coalition?
I think that the fact that Philadelphia is now called an outdoor urban oasis by the New York Times has a lot to do with the work the Bicycle Coalition has been doing for decades. What I find remarkable now is the number of people riding, it seems to me, on the worst, rainiest, wettest day today, you'll see the same number of people who were riding on only the most beautiful days when I started at the Bicycle coalition.
The work we've been doing has created this culture of biking. We also have to credit William Penn for creating a street grid in a city where biking is a really viable mode of transportation.
You see a lot of people biking in Portland [Oregon], but they bike in Portland because they want to bike. They're biking in Philadelphia because it's the fastest way to get somewhere. Ultimately I think we'll have more people per capita biking in Philadelphia eventually than Portland will. We have a better chance of being the Amsterdam of the United States than almost any other city.
What do you think the role Indego is going to play in biking culture in Philadelphia?
It's doing remarkable things and just looking at what happened over the papal visit, just the different kind of people that you see…
My dad visited last weekend and he hasn't been on a bike in 20 years probably, but he wanted to go on a bike ride because he wanted to ride Indego. That kind of thing is happening every day. It's something where somebody can just try it, and that's always been the challenge with biking is to get someone to try it. You can try transit because it's always there. I think turning biking into a form of transit is what's transformed it.
What are your favorite biking places in Philadelphia, or around this region?
I continue to just love riding down Spruce and Pine and now down the Schuylkill Boardwalk. The first place someone should go ride a bike, your first ride, is the Schuylkill River Trail.
My favorite sort of hidden spot is to take a bike ride is up onto the Belmont Plateau. That view is so much nicer once you've earned it on your own two wheels. There are so many places that are opening up with The Circuit regional trails network. I went on a beautiful ride on the Pennypack. Next week there's the opening of the Manyunk Bridge. That's going to be incredible.
How do you change people's transportation habits?
People need to feel like they belong and feel safe on the streets. Whether you're talking about someone who's walking, someone who's biking, someone who's driving, we all need to feel like this is a place where we belong and we are safe. The challenge of biking is trying to retrofit roads that really have for the past 80 years been designed with cars in mind. How do we combine making them more attractive to biking and walking?