Not long after his son was born 15 years ago, Alex Doty found himself volunteering at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. The then-scrappy organization had just one full-time employee, with Doty, a relative newcomer to urban bicycling, eventually joining part-time. Since then, the Coalition has grown into a considerably influential advocacy group, with about 20 employees working out of its 11th-floor Walnut Street office. Doty, meanwhile, became acting executive director in 2004 and subsequently led the Coalition until his last day on October 30 of this year.
Doty, 47, now leads the League of American Bicyclists, for which he spends three days a week in Washington, D.C. (though he plans to continue living in Philadelphia). Here, he reflects on his time as the city’s highest-profile cycling advocate and the shape that his advocacy might take in the future.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did the conversation around cycling change, politically, in your 15 years here?
The recognition of how many more people are biking. What the politicians have done is try to keep up with what Philadelphians are doing. In other cities, you need to build the infrastructure in order to get people to bike. In Philadelphia, it’s been easier in some respects because it’s clear that we’re just trying to accommodate something that people are already doing.
Philadelphia’s city government has many entrenched interests fighting to maintain the status quo. In this climate, how did you get cycling on the agenda? How did you make sure it stayed on the agenda?
We’re interested in trying to get particular infrastructure, but we’re even more interested in trying to build relationships with the decision makers and implementers. We’ve reached a point now where we can have exploratory conversations with Streets Department engineers about what’s possible. We also have spent a lot of time and effort to understand the obstacles and challenges that engineers and planners face on the City’s side of the table. Sometimes, you get to a point where you have confrontation. But more often, we can navigate things that we want by trying to problem-solve. There’s enough trust on the part of the engineers and planners that they’re willing to entertain different scenarios knowing that if they don’t work out, we won’t throw people under the bus.
What’s one achievement of the Coalition that you would like to see expanded in the future?
There is tremendous potential in the Cadence Youth Cycling program that we merged into the Bicycle Coalition two years ago. What I’m most excited about, with kids cycling, is that we are thinking about the bicycle as a tool — not the biggest tool, but still a tool — to address some of the most profound challenges that our city faces.
What do you think the Coalition will look like in the future? Will its role change as cycling becomes more popular and politically attractive?
Because the strengths and weaknesses of the next executive director will be different from mine, I think that will lead to a stronger organization. There is still a lot of room for growth. It’s not just the number of bicyclists that has changed over the years; it’s also whom you see out there biking. You see a much broader spectrum. It’s much less the “aggressive young male” — that’s what I was 15 years ago. Hopefully we’ll continue to see bicyclists in the city look more and more like a cross section of the city’s population.
Now that the Coalition has a seat at the table, have you found it challenging to stay on message and accommodate various different interests?
As the diversity of bicyclists expands, you have a more diverse set of demands or needs. But, actually, it’s pretty clear what bicyclists want. They want to feel safer on the street. There are a lot of bicyclists who have great dreams about what a car-free Center City would look like, or what a South Philly street could look like if you take away parking. The job of the Bicycle Coalition is sometimes to be the reality check about what’s possible. As much as we love how bicyclists have become a larger population, even in the most bicycled neighborhoods it’s still only 5-10 percent of people in that zip code. So you need to figure out how to coexist, how to make all of this work together.
In recent years, the Coalition has faced criticism for embracing certain projects that some say don’t go far enough to protect cyclists. How would you respond to critics who say that the Coalition hasn’t pushed hard enough on these projects?
To go out and demand things that can’t be done is, for us, to be abdicating our responsibility to bicyclists to get the best product that we can on the street. And I appreciate the fact that people would like more. I would like more. But our job, day in and day out, is to assess the range of what’s possible and to push for the thing that’s at the highest end of that range. And I think we’ve done that.
“Sometimes, the Bicycle Coalition’s role is to be the responsible adult in the room.”
Now, do I feel like Philadelphia should have been the last major city to get a physically protected bike lane? No. But, the City of Philadelphia also did the best job of launching bike share and making it available to low-income communities of any big city so far in the United States. Sometimes, the Bicycle Coalition’s role is to be the responsible adult in the room. And I think that it’s important to have dreamers out there putting out great concepts. That helps the Bicycle Coalition, because we need people who are further out than we are in order to get our work done.
On those issues where compromise is necessary, is there a time in the near future where you think cycling advocates, and the Coalition in particular, can reignite the push? Specifically, I wonder about fighting to remove parking lanes.
On Spruce and Pine streets, we found there was not enough demand on both of those travel lanes, so taking it down to one lane made sense from a traffic engineer’s perspective. I don’t think bicyclists are going to win by saying, “you should take out parking in order to get a bike facility.” The way you can win is to get community buy-in to the idea that you don’t need this much parking, and that there are benefits to people other than bicyclists in taking out parking. That’s a long conversation, and something that requires bicyclists to build coalitions and collaborations with neighborhood groups.
You’re headed to the League of American Bicyclists. What do you expect will change about your advocacy work at the national level?
At the Bicycle Coalition, I have the hammer in my hand. At the League, I’m the one in charge of the toolbox, and I’m trying to figure out the different tools that we need for urban advocacy in a city like Philadelphia, what we need for a city like Harrisburg, [and] what we need for suburbs. Those are things I’ve thought about here in Pennsylvania, but now I’m charged with thinking about not just one state but 50 different states. I’m trying to get the League to do a better job of connecting with local advocates and advocacy groups like the Bicycle Coalition, and trying to do more to understand the needs of those groups. The League has done really good work to produce tools that, with some modifications, can become more useful and more powerful to local advocates.
Photo by Rachel Lincoln