Like any other couple in South Philadelphia, Leigh Goldenberg and her husband, Aaron Bauman, have a family vehicle. Theirs just happens to be a tandem bike, with a seat for their daughter, who's almost 3.
Recently, at a barbecue with neighbors, it caused some tension.
"People were getting so angry with us. They were talking about, they're trying to get to work and a bike shouldn't be there; it should be on the sidewalk," said Goldenberg, whose daily commute to Old City is fraught with near misses, profane shouts and honking horns.
Here in Philadelphia, where Mayor Kenney came into office promising 30 miles of protected lanes, the bike-vs.-car debate has lately reached unprecedented levels of vitriol. It's also become a proxy for a larger culture war, over a changing city and the newcomers who are gentrifying it.
Randy LoBasso, of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, has noticed certain through lines.
"When I saw the same people complaining about bike lanes were the people calling [Councilwoman] Helen Gym racist [for calling to remove the statue of Mayor Frank Rizzo], I started thinking it's not as much about bikes in particular, as about people feeling like they're losing a way of life," he said.
That rings true to people like Jody Della Barba, a lifelong resident of South Philadelphia. To her, cyclists' agenda is clear: "a complete takeover."
This ideological struggle is having a very real effect where rubber meets road. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson dug in against protective barriers on South and Lombard streets in Southwest Center City this summer. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, inundated with angry phone calls, says she's debating whether to rip out $50,000 worth of newly installed infrastructure in the form of one of Philly's first car-protected bike lanes. While Philadelphia still claims the largest contingent of bike commuters in any major city, cyclists complain existing lanes aren't maintained, and interactions with drivers have grown more antagonistic.
And Kenney's pledge of protected lanes no longer seems plausible. The focus now, said Michael Carroll, deputy managing director in the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Services, is more strategic: "filling gaps and making connections."
LoBasso admitted if there's a car-vs.-bike war, "the anti-bike people are winning. Look at almost any street, and it doesn't have a bike lane. And compared to other cities, we don't have nearly as many protected bike lanes. Car culture remains predominant."
On the other hand, he said, "I don't think of it as a war. It's more like an occupation."
‘Mayor Bike Lane’
Like other cities, Philadelphia began thinking seriously about bike infrastructure just over the last decade. In 2009, Mayor Nutter — known derisively in some circles as "Mayor Bike Lane" — oversaw a road diet on Spruce and Pine streets that gave over a lane of car traffic to bike lanes. Suddenly, cyclists had a designated river-to-river path across Center City.
In 2012, such radical interventions became much more difficult after City Council passed a law requiring an ordinance for any new lane to be installed.
So, while New York has built more than 70 miles of protected bike lanes in the last decade, here it can require years of consensus building to win Council approval for a single, one-mile stretch. LoBasso said it's no coincidence that the pace of cycling's growth in other cities has outstripped Philadelphia's since that law passed.
The city did install protected lanes on Ryan Avenue in the Northeast. There are more planned on American Street, Spring Garden Street and Delaware Avenue. The Bicycle Coalition has for years flogged a proposal for such lanes on Market Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
But in August, the city's newest protected bike lane, on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, became immediately controversial. LoBasso said it took six years of consensus-building to get Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell's support for the lane. Now, Blackwell is rethinking it.
Given the volume of correspondence she's received, she expects to call a community meeting in October.
"People feel strongly about it," she said. "It's my responsibility to assess public opinion and try to do the right thing for the majority of people."
Carroll said the lane's here to stay, though adjustments are possible. "It's part of the infrastructure now," he said.
He said public feedback is important — but not paramount.
"Safety comes first. We've adopted the executive order for Vision Zero, and what most influences the decisions we make is our opportunity to prevent deaths and serious injuries due to traffic crashes."