City government knuckleheads, cheered on by the Inquirer’s humorless, anti-car, anti-business, Amsterdam-loving Inga Saffron, have handed our town’s narrow streets over to barbarians on bikes. As a result, the 98 percent of us who are not pedaling have been put at physical risk by the 2 percent who are
By Theodore N. Beitchman
“Soon we’ll be making room on our city streets for scooter and skateboard lanes, Soapbox Derby lanes, pogo-stick lanes, lanes for Radio Flyer wagons (actually more practical than bicycles since you can carry a case of beer — if we’re still allowed to drink beer), stilt lanes, three-legged-race lanes, lanes for skipping while playing the comb and wax paper, hopscotch lanes and Mother-May-I lanes …”
— P. J. O’Rourke in the Wall Street Journal
It is characterized by speed, daring, nimbleness, violence and blood and gore, sort of like pro football. But so far you can’t bet on it.
And its participants possess all the skill, arrogance and sense of daring and entitlement that you would expect in a blood sport, though they do not engage on a field, a court, a rink or a track.
This blood sport is being waged on the streets that William Penn laid out as his Green Country Towne back in 1682, which has given Philly that quaint, cloying feel that we residents claim to love almost as much as the tourists.
Until the 100-year-old wooden sewer lines burst.
When Penn was planning his town there were no automobiles, SUVs, 18-wheel trucks, garbage pick-up vehicles or, dare I say, bicycles. Just lots of horses and maybe buggies which were the transportation of choice for all the WASPs and Quakers who love to keep their heads down as they go about their business.
If Penn were transported back to Philly in 2014, he would be spending a lot of time picking himself up and dusting himself off because the kindly 369-year-old gentleman would undoubtedly be the highest profile casualty of the ongoing war between barbarians on bicycles and the rest of us.
Ever since the invention of the combustion engine more than a century ago, the streets of Philly have been the province of automobiles, trucks and every other method of transportation, including bikes. Sidewalks have been reserved for pedestrians of all ages, which Center City has in great number.
Thanks to the propeller-heads in the Nutter administration who are in the thrall of the Inquirer’s insufferable and self-important Inga Saffron — she thinks Philly should be more like her beloved Amsterdam — more than 200 miles of precious city streets now have bike lanes, which has done two things:
• Emboldened cyclists to ride amuck, on sidewalks, in bike lanes, out of bike lanes, against traffic on one-way streets, with buds in their ears so they can’t hear, with dentist-inspired mirrors extending from their helmets so they can’t see what is in front of them.
• Put motorists and pedestrians in great peril from the cyclists, who, unlike drivers, are not required to have a license or insurance and who weave in and out of traffic like a three-year-old on peyote.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when this blood sport started. But the first spark was lit five years ago when the city government decided to experiment with setting aside for bicycles one entire lane of Spruce Street going west and Pine Street going east.
Why they did this is an official mystery, but, having worked in the Rendell Administration and interfaced with the zealots of the Bicycle Coalition, I would wager that the city simply gave in to the BC demands. Twenty years ago they were seeking closure of entire streets, which the pro-business Rendellians deemed inappropriate.
So West River Drive was closed to traffic on Saturdays during warm weather months. A nice compromise. If you wanted to exercise your right to bike go right ahead. The whole drive was yours.
But the Nutter administration, spearheaded by Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, has simply handed the keys to the city’s streets over to the BC. The Spruce and Pine “experiment” has been codified. Those quaint three-lane streets that dedicate one lane to parking now have only one lane for auto traffic and one lane for bikes.
Which is great for folks on bikes but a nightmare for people on foot or in cars who are hustling to meetings, doing errands and the like. Where before it would typically take 10 minutes to drive west on Spruce from Society Hill to 22nd St., it now takes 20 — and more during rush hour.
Excuse me, but it seems to me that the city’s priorities are out of kilter. Entire street lanes are given over to a smattering of the spokes set while the real traffic, consisting of cars and trucks, is relegated to one lane.
I have not stopped and kept track of how many bikes use these lanes, and I don’t have to. I live in Center City and often walk or drive across town on Spruce and Pine. I have eyes and ears, and the number of bikes that I see is miniscule.
The Bicycle Coalition purports to know that exponentially more cyclists are using these streets since the lanes were set aside. It publishes something called “Mode Shift: Philadelphia’s Two-Wheeled Revolution in Progress” which is replete with claims extolling Philly’s bicycle share as twice that of its nearest competitor, Chicago; trumpeting bikes lanes as contributing to public safety and less riding on sidewalks; the importance of helmets and a spike in female ridership; and, this is the kicker, bike commuting has increased an “astonishing” 151 percent from 2000 to 2009.
What is truly astonishing is that anyone believes this trumped up crap.
Led by Saffron, its humorless car-hating, garage-criticizing scold of a Pulitzer Prize-winning “architecture critic,” the Inky has been promoting expansion of bike lanes all over the city the way it has always opposed gambling in Pennsylvania — often, fervently and with facts-be-damned reporting. Saffron loves Amsterdam, and she would like Philly to be more like the beautiful capitol of the Netherlands, which has half as many residents and half as much geographic size as Philly
In a 2005 interview, Saffron proudly told me:
“Try as I might I couldn’t find a single asphalt clearing in the whole of Amsterdam’s central city … crazy as it sounds they build bike lanes on every street to make people think bicycles are a better way to commute than cars … all Amsterdam needs to do is … raze every other block. Then it too [like Philly] could have easier parking and fewer tourists …”
She went on during that 2005 interview:
“When I came back from Moscow [where she had been posted by the Inquirer in the early 1990s], a place where there was no discussion of aesthetic issues, I was struck by the fact that in Philadelphia there was a similar lack of discussions of aesthetic issues.”
I asked if she really wants to be quoted comparing Moscow and Philadelphia in the context of free speech.
“Absolutely, the level and tone of discourse here reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
Amsterdam was also on the mind of Alex Doty, the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, who claimed in an Inquirer article in September 2012 that there are fewer accidents since the advent of bike lanes:
“We can attract more women, more of the 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds, and that’s the tipping point that makes biking fully accepted … And that’s when Philadelphia can turn into something like the Amsterdam of the U.S.”
I emailed Paul Nussbaum, the Inky transportation reporter whose byline was on that September 2012 story that was as unbelievable as its headline — MORE BICYCLES MEANS FEWER ACCIDENTS, PHILA. FINDS — to find out the documentation for these statistics, and I received no response. So I contacted a young and earnest fellow named Nick Marra, the BC communications coordinator, and asked the same question:
Where is the documentation for your stats, and who conducts the surveys? He emailed promptly:
“Regarding our bike counts, every fall since 2005, we have conducted bike counts at specific intersections and on bridges in the city. These are conducted by staff and volunteers.
“We stake out these spots for 90-minute segments during morning rush hour (7:30-to-9) and evening rush hour (4:30-to-6). We only do them during non-wet weather, and we get each spot four times within a two-week period. We then obtain averages based on those individual counts.
“It’s not statistically bulletproof, but it’s what we’re able to accomplish with our limited resources.”
Not statistically bulletproof?
In other words, the “surveys” are conducted by unpaid volunteers and BC staff, which makes them as reliable as a gambling industry study on the effects of casinos in a neighborhood or an NRA study of the effects of guns on society.
Not to be believed.
The only Philly journalist who dares piss on this parade of bike puffery is Stu Bykofsky, the estimable columnist for the Daily News, who still walks from his condo at Broad and Spruce to the paper’s headquarters at 8th and Market Sts.
Leave it to Byko to infuse the conversation with some balance. You decide:
“More than 80 percent of bike commuters live within 4 miles of City Hall,” he wrote recently. “Heaviest bike use is in areas of Northern Liberties/Fishtown, close-in South Philly, University City – and almost nowhere else.”
Which means commuting by bike is an elitist, Center City endeavor.
And he takes on Saffron, who writes for the DN’s sister:
“As a bike zealot, she betrays a revulsion for cars – their size, their weight, their pollution, their garages. Like city planners, she envisions a Brave Bike World,” he wrote last December.
And he continued, “ ‘The new city code,’ she wrote on Dec. 6, ‘is shaped by a belief in city density. Make things too easy for the car, the thinking goes, and you’ll never reach the level of density needed . . .’ ”
Needed for what? Needed by whom?
He was referring to Saffron’s bizarre rant that included her commentary on raising the price for residential parking stickers:
“City Council just approved the program’s first price hike in 20 years. When the new rates go into effect in January, the base price will remain the same, but the second sticker in a household will cost $50, and the third, $75. Every additional permit will cost $100. And yet the price still isn’t high enough, given motorists’ daily battles to secure curbside real estate.”
So a woman who lives in the city but does not own a car is effectively setting the rules for the government of a city of 1.5 million people that has given in to its worst instincts: Listening to the loudest and shrillest voice, even if it makes no sense. But then, Saffron makes a living making no sense. Just ask the developers whose blueprints she pre-reviews three years before a high rise’s completion, a practice unheard of in the architecture criticism community in this country.
Though perhaps it is de rigueur in the Netherlands.
Due respect to the Pulitzer committee, which doesn’t have to read Saffron’s screeds on a regular basis in real time, she is not an architecture critic. She has no formal education or work experience in the area. Rather, she is a zealous advocate like the legendary Jane Jacobs, who, writing for the Village Voice, literally stopped Robert Moses’ plans for the cross-Greenwich Village expressway in the late 1960s and ended his 44-year career as New York City’s ultimate planner.
Philly, according to Stephen Buckley, director of policy and planning in the mayor’s office of transportation and utilities, “has about 220 miles of bike lanes” and hopes to expand to 300 in a city of 2,850 miles of streets. New York has more than 300 miles spread over 6,000 miles of streets. Manhattan, where most of its bikes lanes have been dedicated, has 1,280 miles.
So Philly will dedicate the same mileage of bike lanes as New York City, which has twice the mileage of streets!
Leave it to Charles Carmalt, the responsive and detail-oriented coordinator of pedestrian and bicycles in the MOTU to point out that “most of our mileage of streets with bike lanes is located on Torresdale and Bartram Avenues, Lehigh and Allegheny Avenues, Aramingo, Woodland, Kingsessing, Springfield, etc.”
Carmalt has broken it down to Center City (river to river and South Street north to Spring Garden), in which there 138 miles of streets and 19 miles of bike lanes.
Bike lanes are workable on Aramingo Avenue or on Torresdale. But in Center City, the central business district, they have become a menace to business and to public safety.
The key statistic in this blood sport is the percentage of Philadelphians who actually commute to work or school by bike. The Bicycle Coalition claims that the number is 2.1 percent, up from 1.6 percent in 2009, when the bike lane experiment began. That makes Philly No. 1 among all American cities. But, of course, that stat is dubious because the BC report is unscientific and, after all, the BC has an investment in higher numbers.
Let’s assume for the moment that the BC stats, and those of the well-respected Center City District, are correct. That means that every woman, man and child who walks or drives has been put at physical risk because of 2.1 percent of the population.
As Gary Taustine wrote in a letter to the New York Times last summer:
“New York City is not the Netherlands. Our streets are too narrow to accommodate separate lanes for cyclists, and our sidewalks are already too cramped to store their bikes.
“Right now, about 1 percent of New York’s population commutes via bicycle, and that alone has resulted in chaos on the streets. Imagine what would happen if that number climbed to 5 percent.
“We’d all love to live in a city free from auto pollution, but as far as I can see, adding bicycle lanes has not reduced the number of cars; it has instead increased gridlock, leaving cars idling in traffic longer, spewing even more pollution.”
Philly is not New York and it is not Amsterdam, much as Saffron wishes it were.
While cities like Philly and New York struggle to get people onto bikes, Amsterdam is trying to keep its hordes of bikes under control. In a city of 800,000, there are 880,000 bicycles, the government estimates, four times the number of cars. In the past two decades, travel by bike has grown by 40 percent so that now about 32 percent of all trips within the city are by bike, compared with 22 percent by car.
Eight hundred thousand people and 880,000 bikes.
Is that the ratio Saffron, Cutler and the Bicycle Coalition foresee for Penn’s Greene Country Towne?
If so, they should get a law passed that licenses cyclists, requiring insurance, and they should also add about 2,000 police for all the tickets that will be written and the violent accidents that will occur.
(Such as when a cyclist rammed my car from behind a few years ago on Walnut St. When I got out to see how he was, he yelled, “Why did you stop so fast?” I was astonished that he thought it was my fault because I stopped for a red light. And, by the way, he left a crease in my bumper.)
If not, the next mayor should take control of this issue and bring some sanity to a situation that is bordering on a nightmare.
Otherwise, the joke that P. J. O’Rourke describes at the top of this article may become a very serious and bloody reality.