The indignity of biking in South Philadelphia


A woman bikes on 13th Street

People who choose to cycle in American cities are chronically subjected to physical intimidation (purposeful or otherwise) on the part of others driving large, heavy, fast motor vehicles.  Our current legal-spatial-cultural system of city street use transforms what would otherwise be a pleasurable, useful activity into a stressful and dangerous experience.

Reoccurring conflict

Last Friday after crossing the Delaware River by ferry into Philadelphia, I began my 2.2 mile bicycle ride from Spruce Street Harbor Park to a friend’s birthday at Pep Bowl (at the corner of Broad and Federal Street) in South Philadelphia.

Spruce Street, having a buffered bike lane, was fine (notwithstanding potholes).  I was lucky going south on 6th Street.  Then, after turning onto Federal Street, the conflict began.  Riding in the center of the lane – predictably and in full compliance with the “rules of the road” on a narrow street – I felt the presence of a car approaching to my rear.

The driver didn’t honk or break the law, but the way she palpated the engine signaled her impatience with my speed (at my comfortable pace, say 13 mph, I had no obligation to speed up).  My heart rate increased as the sense of joy and freedom of cycling on a summer evening in Philadelphia disappeared.

I could have ended it right away by pulling off the street, but I didn’t because I have a right to cycle on the street as a dignified human being.  I could have also ended it by moving to the right – into the door zone – and letting her pass.

Most cyclists do this – so drivers come to expect it.  But it is extremely unsafe to pass a cyclist with cars parked on both sides of a narrow street (each row having a 3-foot door zone).  And it is illegal (according to Pennsylvania’s 4-foot passing law).

So I held my ground, continuing west on Federal Street as if I wasn’t being tailed by an irritated person, operating a 3,500 lb machine, having the capacity to kill me at any moment.  For seven blocks riding at my normal pace, there was never an occasion to let her pass without going out of my way.  Even if she did pass me, it would have been for naught, since I would have likely caught up to her at the next light (the paradox of “fast” cars using gridded streets).

By the time we reached Broad Street, the two women in the car shouted “fuck you”.

Crowding out choice

The point of this story is not about me, but rather the indignity suffered every day by all the people who cycle in Philadelphia including women, senior citizens, children, parents, and those who bike out of economic necessity.  Regardless of their choice – to hold their ground or pull aside – they lose either way.

They suffer this indignity because of the spatial arrangement of streets, in which the storage of motor vehicles crowds out places for safe, comfortable biking.  They suffer because of a legal regime in which rules for cars are arbitrarily applied to bicycles, and in which drivers are often not held accountable for killing and injuring other people.  And they suffer because of a cultural system wherein those operating motor vehicles are taught to believe they’re entitled to drive fast through city neighborhoods.

The feeling of chronically being in the way of automobiles violates human dignity everywhere.  However, the tragedy is compounded in South Philly where the bicycle – given the district’s scale, density, variety, topography – should be an elegant tool of freedom and economic efficiency.

Instead, the anxious movement and frenzied storage of motor vehicles crowds out most other uses of street space.  As a consequence, South Philadelphians, their visitors, and their customers, are robbed of even the choice of exploiting the bicycle’s sweet spot.

What are we to do? 

Long-term solutions, though politically difficult, are obvious, because they’re already established in cities around the world.  In the short term, we can protect ourselves and others by holding our ground – taking the full lane, staying visible, out of the door zone – and training drivers to expect it.

It may feel uncomfortable to inhibit a car from passing you, but on a narrow one-way street, it is the only safe and dignified response.  Remember the law (cited earlier) is on your side, and in this particular case, it is sensible.

Also remember you are doing no harm – more so the opposite.  There is hardly a reason to drive faster than a bicycle through a compact gridded neighborhood.  Usually doing so won’t get you to a destination any sooner.  Furthermore, to reduce the danger, noise, and pollution created by speeding cars, motorists should drive slow through our communities.

So, South Philadelphians: be confident, ride at your pace in the middle of the lane, and hold on to your dignity.



3 thoughts on “The indignity of biking in South Philadelphia

  1. Pingback: Here’s why I bought a home in Camden, NJ | Rebuilding The Rust Belt

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