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‘Dangerous’ bicyclists are change agents, building a healthy and sustainable region

September 11, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
No single shift is going to “solve” climate change, but some steps are surprisingly simple. Here’s one: Drive less, bike more.

We know that if Americans cut their driving by just 10%, the annual benefits would be equivalent to taking 28 coal-fired power plants off-line. And of course, bicycling is also great for personal health. Research reveals that commuting by bike reduces the commuter’s risk of heart disease and cancer — and even reduces the risk of premature death of all causes.

So why don’t more people commute by bicycle here in the Philly region?

Here’s video of a dump truck cutting close to local commuter Brian Crispell near one of Philadelphia’s more bike-friendly suburban communities, Media, in Delaware County:


And here are a few of the comments that greeted Crispell after he posted the video in a Media Facebook group:

Why would anyone bike there?

That’s not a safe place to ride a bicycle.

You being on a blind curve made it unsafe for everyone else… stay off the road.

Crispell, a podiatrist who was on his way to perform surgery at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, commutes regularly through the region. This was his first time trying the Knowlton road route.

The bike feature on Google Maps bike suggests the road is bicycle-friendly along the stretch featured in the video. Crispell also received a good deal of support in the comment string. But the number of people opposing him and his presence on Knowlton Road was striking.

Crispell’s actions are not reckless — they are visionary, healthy, and sustainable.

In the five types of social change that a colleague and I have identified, Crispell plays an essential role in being the change we need to see for our region to continue on its journey to embracing healthier and more sustainable roads, trails, and habits. Considering those five types of social change in our region — charity, project, policy advocacy, being the change, and visionary futurism — shows how folks can get involved with people and organizations making our region healthier, more sustainable, and bicycle-friendly.

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Being the change by simply riding also illustrates how single modes of social change may be both vital and insufficient alone. Advocates for a more bike-able region have to show that residents are actually going to bike in order for governments to invest in infrastructure. But many folks are justifiably scared by the lack of bike-friendly roads or trails. Just getting out there — as Crispell does — reminds all of us that bicycling is possible here, even beyond the city.

In Narberth cyclists rally around Kimberley Bezak, an occupational therapist and mom who is a driving force in creating a more bikeable, family-friendly community. Part of Bezak’s work models what we’ve called a project approach — achieving identifiable goals on a clear timeline. No one among us can enact a bikeable region with a snap of our fingers, but we can take steps.

One of the efforts Bezak has advanced is organizing weekly Bike for Groceries rides. Drawing on her training as an occupational therapist, Bezak has taken an all-ages, all-abilities approach, aiming for equity and inclusion. On a given Monday, riders for groceries include middle-aged men and women, kids, and seniors on tricycles. This inclusive approach promises wide-reaching, positive benefits. Excellent bicycling infrastructure, it turns out, has positive results for non-cyclists and for cyclists with mobility impairments. Two-thirds of cyclists with disabilities find cycling easier than walking. And biking for groceries shifts understanding.

In a region where people still have trouble seeing bicyclists as anything other than lycra-wearing road racers, rounding up the kids and neighborhood to get groceries in the next town over gets whole groups to be the change. Participants begin asking a lot more questions about why our roads often don’t feature a number of small fixes that can make pedestrians and bicyclists safer. They also quickly discover it’s not all bad news — many advocates have been working on this issue for years, and they’ve made progress.

Members of the Narberth Cycling Club took nine cars off the road when they biked for their household groceries in Ardmore on Monday. (Photo Courtesy of Kimberley Bezak)

Back in 2012, a coalition of local activists, organizations, and governments got behind a bold vision for our region: building the Circuit Trails. They imagined a 750-mile network of trails across a nine-county region in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, creating conditions where more than 50% of the region’s population will live within a mile of circuit trail access, offering bike mobility throughout Southeast Pennsylvania and beyond.

Developing this plan clearly demonstrates visionary futurism — disrupting  the status quo with the hope of shaping the future. It’s not futuristic in a fantastical way; coalitions of civic groups, governments, and others have added 50 miles of trails since the Circuit’s launch, with many more miles already in the pipeline.Yet many area residents — even many who support biking and healthy communities — remain unaware or uninvolved.

So how can a person get started?

Citizens who want a more bikeable region, but are short on time, can always financially support the activities of organizations like the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit dedicated to making bicycling safe and fun in our area. In this way, a simple act of charity continues to contribute to the BCGP’s cumulative successes of adding more than 200 miles of bicycle trails and lanes while building a movement for bicycling.

Bicycle advocates advance a sustainable and safe regional infrastructure through all five types of social change. (Chart by Eric Hartman)

Part of what BCGP moves forward is opportunities for action and policy advocacy, including urging citizens to sign the circuit petition. They also offer a number of helpful resources, like how-to guidance for proposing a bike lane with PENN-DOT or presentations for groups and organizations. (Full disclosure: I volunteer as a member of the steering committee for Bike Delaware County, a county affiliate of BCGP).

Giving or advocating is great, but getting personally involved with bicycle groups and events is a ton of good fun — and opportunities abound.

On September 28, bicyclists will meet for a social, no-drop arboretum-to-arboretum ride along the border of Montgomery and Delaware Counties. The ride will highlight the beautiful potential our region has for commutes along existing greenways and low-stress routes.

By giving, organizing, advocating, embodying, and imagining — our region’s citizens are creating a healthier and more sustainable Greater Philadelphia.

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