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The culture war in the bike lane: In Philly, are cars winning?

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.

Leigh Goldenberg, right, her husband Aaron Bauman, center and their 2 1/2 year old daughter Tilde B. Goldenberg. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Leigh Goldenberg, right, her husband Aaron Bauman, center and their 2 1/2 year old daughter Tilde B. Goldenberg. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT

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.

Such backlash — some call it "bikelash" — has become a reality in communities across the country as cities try to carve out space for cycling infrastructure.

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."

Philadelphia’s Bike Lane Network

SOURCE: City of Philadelphia
Staff Graphic

Projects like the Neighborhood Bikeway – a new initiative being rolled out in phases to divert cyclists from Broad Street to narrow 13th and 15th streets – are designed with that in mind.

To Della Barba, though, it felt like an invasion when she saw the new signs, which note bikes “may use full lane.” (“Which, it can be pointed out, is true of any lane in the city,” said Kelly Yemen, Philadelphia’s Complete Streets director.)

Della Barba wrote a Facebook post decrying the project, and calling for increased ticketing of cyclists. “Their constant disregard for traffic laws will be putting all our lives in danger,” she wrote. It was shared more than 250 times.

Back when Della Barba was a kid, an older relative was hit by a cyclist on the sidewalk. “She was 95 years old and she eventually died from her injuries.” Today, she said, bicyclists are still a menace – but there are more of them.

“It’s a lot of new people that move into the neighborhoods,” she said. “There’s been cars in South Philly since cars were invented. You move into a city, assimilate. Try to figure out what the customs are. Don’t just move there and say, ‘We don’t like that you park in the middle of Broad Street, and we don’t like that there’s no bike lane.’”

A sign on the Neighborhood Bikeway on 13th Street in South Philadelphia notes that cyclists may use the full lane.

John Furey, president of the Broad Street West Civic Association, agrees with her. He sees bikes as recreational vehicles, not transportation vehicles appropriate for South Philly streets.

Cyclists, he said, have “money and organization, so they’re getting attention. They’re trying to convert the city streets to bike paths.”

Instead, he would like to see legislation regulating bicycles: requiring inspections, insurance, license plates.

“It’s frustrating to drive, and there’s been a lot of incidents with tempers flaring. You’re driving down the street and you turn a corner, and have three or four bikers pedaling in front of you. How long can you put up with that?”

Kate Mundie pedals her kids, Aidan (left), and Declan, home down 12th Street from an after-school program on Jan. 11, 2017. (CLEM MURRAY/Staff photographer)

‘Bike Nice’

That’s the reaction to a modest intervention: merely adding signage to clarify existing road rules. Debates over bike lanes that reroute traffic are even more fractious.

The Bicycle Coalition ran a “Bike Nice” PSA campaign, in an attempt to improve the tenor of conversations. And city representatives are doing outreach whenever and wherever they can.

“We want people to get used to having intelligent adult conversations about transportation trade-offs,” Carroll said. “We’re maybe a little surprised at the ease with which people feel like there’s a conspiracy to slip things past them; maybe it’s part of the discouraging nature of public discourse at this point in history. But I think we have a commitment to put the effort in to break through that.”

But even listening sessions — before any actual proposal has been put forward — can devolve. At a meeting of Washington Square West Civic Association to discuss the idea of protected lanes on Spruce and Pine streets, “the rhetoric became unpleasant on both sides,” said Jonathan Broh, a board member.

“When the bike lane was created, there was a gentlemen’s agreement that cars would be permitted to pull over for deliveries,” he said. If the city reneges on that by putting in bollards, “It has the potential to cause traffic problems, delivery problems. Contractors park in front of houses, and the bike lane has the potential to disrupt that.”

Meanwhile, a city proposal to protect a stretch of bike lane on South and Lombard streets, was met with enough bikelash that Councilman Kenyatta Johnson said he would not support it. Carroll said the proposal is still on the table.

Advocates like Jon Geeting, a co-founder of the urbanist group 5th Square – which recently lost a lawsuit that aimed to end Broad Street median parking — doesn’t believe it’s possible to change people’s minds on this.

In fact, he’s not really trying to.

“It’s not about persuasion. It’s about power,” he said. “It’s about finding common cause between bikers and pedestrians and transit riders.”

Together they could be a large enough coalition to effect change — even if they never win over motorists.

“It’s not a conciliation-building strategy. You’re not making friends.”

But David Brindley, who lives along the controversial new lane on Chestnut Street, believes that’s missing an important point.

“It seems like bike lanes are a kind of shorthand expression for gentrification,” he said. But, he added, that ignores the serious safety function they can serve for all users of the road.

Brindley’s car has been sideswiped three times while parked in front of his house. He wants all traffic on Chestnut Street to slow down, for the safety of drivers, cyclists, pedestrians — and especially his young children. A bike lane is just a bonus.

He’s not sure how to solve the fundamental misunderstanding that exists between drivers and cyclists. But he believes roadwork shouldn’t depend on it.

“It has become politicized,” he said. “It needs to be depoliticized, and the power needs to be handed over to professional engineers.”