One Thursday evening in March, a crowd of between 150 and 200 people filed into the Race Street Room at the Friends Center, a Quaker meeting house not far from City Hall. At the front of the room was everyone running for the position Mayor Nutter will soon vacate. (Well, almost everyone. State Sen. Anthony Williams sent his policy director, Omar Woodard, in his stead.) What had drawn the crowd, and the attention of the 2015 mayoral candidates, was a debate over the state of public mobility in Philadelphia: biking, walking, public transit, and the relative ease, efficiency and safety of each.
Hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the Better Mobility Mayoral Forum was certainly filled with the kind of talk typical of candidates more keen on offering platitudes than particulars. Still, at times, candidates’ answers on the question of improving multimodal transportation in Philadelphia, and cycling specifically, were incisive. It came as a happy change for the transit-minded set who, as a bloc of residents, tend to see their concerns pushed aside in city elections.
Democratic candidate and former city councilmember Jim Kenney equated the growth of cycling with the growth of the city itself, saying, “Young people will come if we give them a less expensive way to live in Philly, which means bikes.” Candidate Melissa Murray Bailey, when asked about installing a protected bike lane along John F. Kennedy Boulevard from 15th Street to 30th Street Station, voiced her support — and she’s a small-government Republican. In fact, all the candidates affirmed their belief in some form of Vision Zero, the concept that the high rate of cycling and pedestrian deaths due to automobile crashes can be reduced to zero.
As forum moderator and Philadelphia magazine deputy editor Patrick Kerkstra wrote the morning after the event, the forum was an indication that “the political calculus has changed, and City Hall will likely be forced to reckon more seriously with question of pedestrian and cyclist safety in the future.” Cycling, in other words, has become a political question in Philadelphia.
“At this point in 2015, it’s just power in numbers,” says Andrew Susser, a manager at the Northern Liberties bicycle shop Trophy Bikes. “I’ve definitely noticed an increase in cyclists in all the neighborhoods… City Hall has to react to what’s happening in the city.” A veteran cyclist, Susser has been pedaling on Philadelphia streets since 2005, and commuted from Elkins Park to classes every day during his four years at Temple University.
Numbers are part of the reason cycling has managed to worm its way into the consciousness of mayoral candidates. (It’s also, ahem, the reason why this magazine was founded.) As Philadelphia cyclists increased in number, a parallel — if not always unified — political movement slowly formed in order to advance their concerns.
Next Great City, a local coalition of more than 100 community, business and union organizations, has included access to trails and bike lanes as one of its six policy recommendations for 2015. Among the group’s main concerns under the rubric of cycling: improving connections from neighborhoods to bike lanes already laid down, in tandem with installing signage indicating to cyclists where lanes are in the city.
“It is going to be a voting issue and we are going to make it a voting issue,” says Geoff Kees Thompson, chair and cofounder of The 5th Square, a new political action committee that launched in January. His PAC aims to promote a progressive agenda centered on transportation, urban planning and livability issues, chiefly by supporting political candidates who do the same. (Its name references Centre Square, the space where City Hall now sits and originally intended as the “fifth square” to complement the four others — Rittenhouse, Washington, Logan and Franklin — around which William Penn based Philadelphia’s street grid.)
For Thompson and his fellow advocates, that means not only promoting Vision Zero as a hard political idea, but also grading candidates on their adherence to pushing for and pursuing initiatives that benefit cyclists. These include enforcing existing traffic laws, narrowing city streets, installing infrastructure on arterials like Washington Avenue, and implementing the recommendations and violations passed in the city’s Complete Streets bill in 2012.
That bill itself marked a watershed moment for bicycling, in that it codified into law the rules that drivers, cyclists and pedestrians must follow when sharing the road. Among other things, it introduced fines for cars parked in the bike lane and made it a violation to open a door into traffic unless the coast is clear. Proper enforcement of Complete Streets, however, continues to give headaches to advocates and ordinary riders alike. I mean, how many times have you seen a car parked in a bike lane and not receive a ticket?
It’s also worth remembering the distance that can emerge between what candidates promise voters and the policies or projects that elected politicians end up supporting. Of the major contenders in the Democratic primary field, few have a proven record on cycling infrastructure. Outside of a few designated forums, mentions of the topic have been sparse.
Meanwhile, specific bike-oriented projects, whether real or hypothetical, have generally failed to earn hard-and-fast support from the candidates. At the Better Mobility forum, for instance, former district attorney Lynne Abraham balked at the idea of installing a bike lane on JFK Boulevard out of concern for the safety of seniors living the the area. At a debate hosted by Next Great City earlier in March, Sen. Williams neglected to voice his support for expanding bike lanes due to equity concerns — a fair point, if a little muddled. Even during conversations explicitly about transportation, candidates don’t hesitate to remind voters that they have other, greater priorities.
So, has cycling arrived? Sort of. Susser keeps his optimism in check by reminding himself that any improvements in cycling infrastructure happen slowly, and that achievements continue to meet setbacks. The buffered bike lanes on Pine and Spruce streets were a big win on the part of the Bicycle Coalition during Nutter’s first term. Several years later, however, Bill Greenlee managed to push a bill through City Council that gave him and his fellow council members veto power over the installation of new bike lanes.
These conundrums, Thompson says, motivate the creation of something like The 5th Square. After all, building bike lanes and enforcing laws are proven to attract more cyclists to city streets.
“I just don’t think we have the political leadership in Philadelphia that understands that,” he says.
Illustration by Mary Peltz