2010-06-03 / Local & State

Philly Hoping For No Repeat Of Car-Bike Wars


PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Just as a battle over city bicyclists heated up in the fall, a record-breaking snowy winter forced most riders off their wheels and put the issue on ice. Get ready: Here comes the thaw.

There are new crosstown bicycle lanes in place, a bikesharing plan is being eyed, and $17 million in new federal stimulus money will extend, connect and add bike lanes citywide.

More bikes returning to the road will bring with them the latest test of whether two-wheeled and fourwheeled commuters can peacefully coexist on the compact downtown streetscape first imagined in 1683 by William Penn. And finishing touches are almost complete on a proposed bicycle network that will add about 400 miles of marked bike lanes over the next 10 years as roads are repaved.

“We are in the midst of a change here that’s very exciting, but with any change comes some level of difficulty,” said Alex Doty, director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1972 to improve conditions for bicyclists. It offers education programs for adults and children and support for people intrigued but intimidated by the thought of urban biking.

Rush-hour bicycle counts done by the Bicycle Coalition at downtown intersections and bridges found the number of cyclists doubled from 2005 to 2008 – and that's with little more than some white paint designating bike-only lanes.

“Bicyclists are a cheap date; it doesn't take much to make things work for us,” Doty said. “The city has great bones for biking, but we need to bring a culture of civility to the streets.”

Friction between walkers, riders and drivers on the city's narrow and often pothole scarred roads always existed but intensified late last year after the addition of bike lanes and a pair of deadly crashes.

There were months of contentious debate over the installation of one-way bike lanes on two key downtown streets, one eastbound and one westbound, that reduced the number of car lanes on each from two to one.

Proponents contend that bicycle lanes calm traffic on the city's narrow downtown street grid, making roads safer for everyone. Opponents said that already clogged downtown roadways may become hopelessly gridlocked by restricting the flow of cars.

After a test phase went smoothly, the bike lanes were made permanent in October. Bicyclists were overjoyed. Many drivers weren't.

That same month, two pedestrians were struck and killed by bikes – not on the newly laned roads, but nonetheless adding to the anti-bicycle sentiment. Police started a ticketing crackdown and two City Council members introduced legislation aimed to rein in what a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial called “two-wheeled hazards.”

The bills called for mandatory registering and licensing of bicycles, raising fines for riding on the sidewalk from $10 to $300, wearing headphones from $3 to $300 and riding a “fixie” – a fixed-gear bike without brakes – a $1,000 fine.

After an outcry from the city's cyclists that the measures were reactionary and excessive, all have been put on hold. Bike advocates pointed out that while the pedestrian fatalities were unacceptable, there are from two to four bicyclists killed on Philadelphia's roads every year, according to the state Department of Transportation.

“None of the rules they proposed would have prevented those two fatalities,” said Bob Mionske, former Olympic cyclist and now a Portland, Ore.-based attorney whose practice exclusively represents bicyclists.

Sam Schuster, a bicyclist making the two-mile trek on a recent weekday from his South Philadelphia apartment to his downtown retail job, said drivers flout the law, driving and even parking on the new bike lanes.

“They complain that we take up a car lane, but then they park in the bike lanes,” he said. “It's this king-of-theroad mentality drivers have that's the biggest problem.”

A few minutes later and less than a block away, a motorist from suburban Conshohocken placed the blame on cyclists, who he said fail to obey stop signs and dangerously weave through traffic.

“Bikers say they want us to share the road,” Martin Alson said as he ducked into a coffee shop. “I have no problem with that, but it means they have to follow the rules of the road the same as cars do.”

The arguments and the conflicts aren't unique to Philadelphia; it's seen wherever competition tightens for precious road space. Prejudice against those who choose a different mode of transportation have played out in New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., as well as rural counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, Mionske said.

In the cold and recordbreaking snowy months that followed, city planning and transportation officials have hashed out plans to reduce conflicts between cars and bikes, both short- and long-term.

At a standing-room-only forum on urban biking, Katherine Gajewski, head of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, said short-term plans include turning thousands of old parking meter stumps into bike racks, expanding Google-based bicycle maps, and implementing a bicycle sharing system like those popular in dozens of European cities. The city also has made bicycle parking a requirement for any construction projects that receive new zoning permits, she said.

Initiatives like bike sharing will take time and money, but officials hope that the new bike lanes, more bike parking and other incremental changes under way will alleviate some of the clashes that occurred last summer.

“Gradually, we're seeing a shift from an environment where rights aren’t respected, with no logical rules of the road,” Doty said, “to an environment that's giving space to bikes, and looking at how we fit into this network of streets we all share.”

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