In a feature story from Issue Four, SPOKE looks back on Mayor Nutter’s efforts, both concrete and policy-wise, toward making Philadelphia a more bike-friendly city. Here, Nutter muses on the last eight years of bicycle planning from the point of view of the mayor’s office.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
When did cycling become a part of your agenda? Was it part and parcel to your larger goal of making the city more sustainable, or was it something that came separately?
Really more the former. When I was in City Council, I represented the 4th District, which has about 60 percent of the Fairmount Park system within it. So cycling has always been important to me. But it’s really a part of a larger sustainability effort. It’s quality of life. It’s certainly something that young people and kids really do enjoy, and it just makes the city that much more lively.
Was there a particular moment before getting elected mayor that you realized cycling would be a part of your agenda?
We talked about a lot of things during the campaign. I’m sure I talked about it. But there’s talking about something and then there’s actually having plans. In conversations with the Streets Department, the discussion was always, how do we get more bike lanes all across the city of Philadelphia, and how do we help ensure safety for cyclists, pedestrians, motorists? I’ve been driving my folks crazy the past few years on the issue of bike share. Quite honestly, the recession disrupted some of that, but it’s something that I’ve been particularly focused on for a long time.
In your view, what had your predecessors done to advance cycling in Philadelphia?
I want to be really clear: I did not bring bike lanes to Philadelphia. Previous administrations had started that. I always viewed my part of this as to expand on what’s happened in the past, to support not only bike lanes but also trails and other cycling opportunities, whether it’s Kelly Drive, Martin Luther King Drive, the [Schuylkill River Trail], and certainly areas of Fairmount Park.
How did those in City Hall view cycling when you first took office? Have you noticed a change in their attitudes over your eight years as mayor?
When you say City Hall, that’s obviously kind of a big place. But I think there has clearly been a change in attitudes and the recognition that cycling is a significant component of a broader, multimodal transportation network. This is not a fad. This is going to be here and it’s going to grow well into the future.
Now look, we have many, many streets in Philadelphia where parking is on both sides of the street. That’s a challenge for cyclists. If you’re in that scenario, and if you’re going to try and create space, then it really means you’re probably taking away a parking lane. The first obvious, legitimate question is, where are all those cars going? That’s real. They’re not just going up in the air. They’re going somewhere. So the parking of cars is sometimes a greater challenge than securing lanes for cyclists. One just takes up a whole lot less space than the other.
How has City Council’s attitude in particular changed toward cycling? You were there not so long ago yourself.
Many of the [councilmembers] certainly recognize that cycling is here and here to stay. Cycling has really infused itself into many areas of our common, everyday experience, and I think a number of members of City Council understand that. I think we also have some more education to be provided.
How do you make the case for a cycling investment, whether it’s to City Council or to the general public?
It really does take getting out onto the streets. Whether it’s a councilmember, staffer or any high-ranking official, they really need to have their own cycling experience to at least have a better appreciation for what the rest of the general public is dealing with out there. Then, as public servants, our duty and responsibility is — once you know there is an issue — to do our best to address it in ways that help ensure safety.
It’s safe to say, though, that not everyone is going to do that. So how do you make the intellectual or moral case for investing in cycling?
On a day-to-day basis, I probably get more calls and expressions of concern about overall public safety or educating children or jobs. But increasingly, the cycling community as a constituency needs to be in touch with us. They should be talking to their elected officials, in the context of, “I know there are a lot of pressing issues and challenges and problems. This one you can actually do something about. I’m not asking you, elected official, personally to put asphalt in all the potholes. What I’m asking you to do is demonstrate a level of understanding and awareness and at least publicly express that this is a priority.”
“It is always appropriate to devote resources to public safety.”
Was it intentional that much of your administration’s early efforts focused on bringing bike lanes to Center City?
We want bike lanes all over the city, not just concentrated in Center City. We know there is a significant amount of usage in Center City. Part of that is, if there are a lot of people riding bikes, and they happen to be in Center City because they’re coming to work, you’ll see a lot of that activity here. But there are bike lanes out in West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia, and a variety of places about town. The Streets Department is always looking for bike lane opportunities for any of the streets that we repave, and we repave streets all over the city.
What areas of the city are the most underserved?
There is no neighborhood in the city where people are not riding bikes, to some extent. Some may be used more heavily than others, but frankly one thing can lead to another. When people see that there are lanes and that it’s safer to use them, they will use them. In some instances, we may be inadvertently not providing enough incentive for people to be out on bikes because we haven’t helped to create a safety network that promotes bike use. I want to see an increasingly expansive bike lane network, where appropriate, where safe, where it’s easier to do.
In many cases, the city has foregone building bike lanes and opted for sharrows. Do you view sharrows as a permanent part of Philadelphia’s streets, or are they a precursor to better infrastructure?
As the real estate people often say, our real estate is our real estate. We’re not making any more of it. Our streets were designed in a certain way. So I think sharrows are a part of the overall built environment in the city, but even with that mind, we’re trying to figure out some different ways to use them in a more creative fashion. From my perspective, what we really want are full-fledged bike lanes wherever you can have them, and sharrows are part of a solution where you have a more challenging built environment.
What will you be leaving unfinished? And what advice do you have for your successor?
I’m sure we have nowhere near as many bike lanes as I would like, but we’ve increased the amount. Protected bike lanes are critical to the future, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see at least one or two installed while I’m still in office. The Complete Streets program needs continued support, as well as many, many elements, if not the overall program, known as Vision Zero. There also needs to be a particular focus on public education, safety, and all the rules of the road. We’ve created a pretty decent platform on which the next mayor and his administration can build, but there’s still much more work to be done.
What’s at stake if the investments made during your administration are not followed up or continued?
First and foremost, I go back to public safety, which is really at its heart and soul what this is all about. Cycling is great. Walking is great. Driving a car is fantastic. But much of what we’re talking about here is the safety and security of people out on the roads, whatever their mode of transportation. You asked earlier about the moral case. It is always appropriate to devote resources to public safety. The fact that somebody might be on a bike or walking or running is secondary. If the platform that we’ve created is not built upon and enhanced by the next administration, then we run the risk of losing a certain level of the quality of life for which we are increasingly becoming known.
Photo by Saleem Ahmed