(Photo by J. Fusco for GPTMC)
Cool Things Wit Cool People is a monthly column by Akeem Dixon focusing on community development. To ask a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or reach out @akeemdixon.
As cities change, so too do the amenities that its residents desire.
This is certainly the case in Philly and many cities in transition like it. One such amenity going through a host of changes is bike lanes and the policies that not only affect the physical makeup of the streets but also transportation patterns.
In this edition of Dear Akeem, we will switch gears with Randy LoBasso, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s communications manager, and learn about the role his organization plays in many of the bike-themed changes occurring in the city. Here’s what’s transpired recently, how the org has worked to engage communities and why safer streets for cyclists mean safer streets for all.
Akeem Dixon: Let’s start with the training wheels on. Tell us all about the Bicycle Coalition — its origins and the role it plays in the city’s bike culture.
Randy LoBasso: The Bicycle Coalition began in 1972 as part of the environmentalism and Earth Day phenomenon. The idea, at the time, was that bicycling could be an alternative to the motor vehicle and make cities less clogged, less congested and healthier. I think that is still attainable, but the idea of how we do that has changed dramatically. There are still many members of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia who ride their bicycle because they’re doing their part to help the environment, but there is a much larger, more equitable goal of transportation options for everyone, and clean air for everyone.
Our members want a better and safer Philadelphia region for anyone who wants to ride a bike. Reaching that goal involves educating people on bicycling and advocating for safer streets through infrastructure, and all sorts of other cool stuff.
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Why should non-bicyclists care about bike lanes (and everything else BCGP advocates for)?
Bike lanes are not just a way to help organize streets, they’re also a traffic calming tool. Studies and field tests have shown that where bike lanes are installed, crashes amongst all people — bikes and cars, cars and pedestrians, cars and cars — go down. When we make streets safer for cyclists, we make them safer for everyone. It’s basically that simple. Cyclists are less likely to ride on the sidewalk where protected bike lanes are installed, because they feel safer, which is good for pedestrians.
Through our Vision Zero Alliance , we are helping organize many within Philadelphia’s nonprofit community to make streets after and more accessible for the future. One of our campaigns with the Alliance is about legalizing speed cameras at the state level so Philadelphia can utilize this technology, that’s already used all over the United States. We know that the presence of speed cameras can lower injurious crashes by about 20 percent. Philadelphia is, per capita, one of the most dangerous cities for traffic violence in the country.
Break down the Vision Zero Alliance for those folks who only ride a bike during family BBQs and block parties. Why is this so important, what role does it play in the bike phenomenon, and why should it be bookmarked on our computers?
The Vision Zero Alliance is a large group of organizations from around Philadelphia and the state that want bicycling, walking and driving to be safe for anyone who does any of those things. We started what actually became the Vision Zero Alliance during the last mayoral election. We wanted to make sure that safety for all road users was prioritized by the next mayoral administration.
[Editor’s note: “Vision Zero” refers to a goal of zero traffic-related deaths.]
During that time, we met with every candidate — and many candidates for City Council, as well — and laid out a plan we felt would be important to be enacted over the following four years. The plan included creating new, protected bike lanes, for sure, but it also included creating a Vision Zero or Complete Streets office within the administration, hiring a Complete Streets director, and pushing for low-cost infrastructure changes throughout the city that would make all our streets safer, no matter how people choose to get around. All candidates signed onto it, and spoke about it at a forum we held later during the campaign.
The Alliance, since then, has expanded and includes business groups, neighborhood organizations, and even motorist groups like Uber and AAA. We may not agree on all issues, but we’ve decided to come together on things we do agree on — like, say, the installation of speed cameras on Philadelphia’s most dangerous streets, which is good for pedestrians and motorists, which is why they’re all involved. Having motorist groups involved also shows the legislators we can crossover with groups who have different priorities because of how important many of these issues are.
The Coalition has worked in varying capacities with City Council. How has that relationship evolved over the years as the demographics and wants of the communities members they represent have drastically changed?
One thing we’ve learned is that many Councilmembers — especially District Council members — listen almost solely to their constituents and will use that to reject many cyclists’ requests and concerns. We’ve made a point to go out into neighborhoods and listen to what communities want, and how cycling fits into their lives.
But it’s worth knowing what a community believes in and our work fits into their lives before we go demanding any specific piece of infrastructure, or whatever, to a Councilperson. As with any social or social justice advocacy, it’s worthwhile if it comes from the ground up, not the top down.
Ironically, biking has become a characteristic of gentrification even though it’s the cheapest means of transportation other than walking. How has the Coalition been able to represent a diverse ridership group that includes 9-to-5ers headed to work, parents hauling their children in the front basket, and groups of children interrupting traffic.
This is an issue that’s persistent not just in Philadelphia, but throughout the United States. I think, for the most part, bicycling advocacy groups have typically been homogenous and have not done a good job of describing how bicycling is a holistic part of social goods, similar to city services, health care, and other issues that affect all our lives every day.
Bicycling is, in part, a characteristic of gentrification because so many of the people often seen on bicycles are young and white. And when developers are building up a neighborhood, one of the amenities they seek to provide are bicycling infrastructure, whether it be bike lanes, or parking, or whatever.
We often hear two things from people around Philadelphia:
- Why is the city building bike lanes for the new residents? and
- Why weren’t there bike lanes here 10 or 15 years ago?
I think there are serious equity issues in Philadelphia that need to be addressed, and we are working to address the ones relevant to us; but many of the bike lane concerns, I think, also misconceptions. Before the building boom of the last decade, the city had more than 200 miles of bike lanes, more than most cities around the United States. A large portion of those lanes, which began installation in the 1990s, were in neighborhoods outside Center City. In fact, we really didn’t get our first Center City lanes until 2009 — more than a decade after on-street lanes began installation, and several decades after the Schuylkill River Trail broke ground.
That all said, gentrification is a serious issue in Philadelphia. And as neighborhoods change, and bike lanes are upgraded, we intend to work with communities to assure those upgrades are understood by all interested parties, and that communities themselves are part of the process the entire way.
One of the things the Bicycle Coalition and our partners in the Vision Zero Alliance are working on is getting a better understanding of what people in neighborhoods outside Center City want, and how to how to help them get it. That may sound a bit trivial, but there’s a reason the West Chestnut Street bike lane doesn’t extend all the way to Cobbs Creek, and we want to find out why that is.
In some cases, we may find that neighborhoods simply don’t want bike infrastructure. In others, which was the case during a meeting in West Philadelphia last winter, neighbors west of 45th Street asked why the Chestnut Street bike lane was only in the so-called “white” part of West Philly — the “University City” part, so to speak. This is, unfortunately, another example of how bicycle infrastructure can be associated with gentrification.
Additionally, the Bicycle Coalition is part of the Better Bike Share Partnership, along with the City of Philadelphia, People for Bikes and the National Association of City Transportation Officials. The Better Bike Share Partnership seeks to bring bike sharing to diverse audiences and create equity where there typically has not been any. Several of our staff members lead rides and provide education about bike sharing in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Youth, advocating, and education are highlights of the Coalition’s three-year plan. What are some initiatives that you are excited about that touch each key element?
I’m really excited about Bicycle Coalition Youth Cycling. This is a program which teaches the sport of competitive cycling to Philadelphia youth throughout the city. BCYC was previously an independent organization and was adopted by the Bicycle Coalition in 2013. This program fosters leadership and independence through the sport of cycling in Philadelphia.
Additionally, some of the students have gotten involved in advocacy work and I am currently working with one youth to lead a ride of City Councilmembers (their idea) through West Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion and Center City to show them the good, the bad and the ugly of Philadelphia’s street infrastructure.
Bike lingo is often lost when a biker is trying to signal a turn. Where can drivers go to learn about the language that bikers are speaking while riding on cramped streets.
We have a lot of resources on our website — but PennDOT and the City of Philadelphia have information on their sites, too. There are lots of resources online to learn the best ways to drive around cyclists, and know what cyclists mean when they’re using hand signals to turn or stop.
What sort of education programming is in place, or should be in place, to teach Philadelphians — those who drive, especially — about Philly’s bike laws? Also to teach cyclists that ride on the sidewalk or fail to use turning signals.
I think the best education is seeing other people doing the right thing. As far as our education programming goes, the stuff Better Bike Share is doing with [Philadelphia’s bike share program] Indego is, I think, fantastic for our city.
We actually found out, through that initiative, that many people were taught from a young age to ride their bikes against traffic — which is not only wrong, but is actually more dangerous. Our staff members, volunteers and ambassadors are working throughout Philadelphia help teach safe riding and correct form, while understanding that, hey, not everyone was necessarily taught every bike law while they were growing up. And even if you were: Times change, laws change.
I always recommend an Urban Riding Basics course (one of our free classes) for cyclists just starting out, and those who’ve been riding for years.But education is just a piece of the puzzle. Better communication amongst communities and better infrastructure are the keys to success.
There is a robust “Victories” section on the Coalition website. What are a few wins that the group would like to secure in the not so distant future?
Honestly, my main victory goal is a connected network throughout Philadelphia which can connect anyone, in any neighborhood, to any other neighborhood, and especially to Center City, where most Philadelphians work.
In the short term, we have a plan we’ve dubbed Hub and Spoke, which would create protected infrastructure around Center City (the hub) and protected lanes into Center City from each near-neighborhood (the spokes). This would not only create easier, less stressful rides for those who already commute; it would create new commuters, get more cars off the street, ease congestion and make Philadelphia a better place to live.
I hopped on a bike for the first time in two years the other day. I felt exactly the same. I still can’t figure out how to make a bike seat comfortable — which is fitting, as some things associated with bicycles lead to uncomfortable conversation. Potholes included.
A small, niche group, has banded together to make their daily commute, preferred method of transportation and favorite leisure activity much safer and accessible. This includes the addition of bike share stations, protected bike lanes (shoutout to the guy who almost hit me on on JFK Boulevard) as well as brand new white lanes in some of the poorest neighborhoods around the city that never had them before. However, many of the bikers leading the charge don’t look like Meek Mill.
As poverty remains an issue, options to navigate the city are even more essential. We’ve been told, “You’ll never forget how to ride a bike.” In a city with a 25.7 percent poverty rate, it’s hard to collectively forget that riding a bike is one of the cheapest and cleanest forms of transportation.-30-
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