By Sandy Bauers
Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
Inside the Academy of Natural Sciences, weighty topics were being hashed out – the design of cities, how we get around them, and how they make us feel.
Outside, David Bevacqua and Sean Betts were parking bikes. A lot of them.
In their free “valet” bike-parking area, a project of the Neighborhood Bike Works, about 50 sets of wheels were propped in racks.
On the street, every parking meter, every tree, every upright of every sort had a bike or two attached to it.
The event this month was one of the academy’s popular urban sustainability forums. The topic was bike transportation. The house was full, partly because David Byrne, Talking Heads guitarist and avid cyclist, came.
A touchy subject in Philadelphia, bikes.
Discussions often dissolve into accusations over who is more rude – car drivers who shout obscenities and veer too close or cyclists who dart through red lights and up onto sidewalks. Either way, cyclists – and pedestrians – are at risk of serious injury.
Clearly, we have to learn to coexist, because bikes aren’t going anywhere. Rather, they seem to be going everywhere.
Byrne simply thinks it’s fun, as well as a great way to see a city. When on tour, he spends off hours exploring the city by bike.
That recent night at the academy – which had piles of autographied copies of his new book, Bicycle Diaries, for sale – he shared images of cycling routes, good and bad, around the world.
Highways and parking lots create “dead zones,” he said. Pedestrian and cycle corridors are on a human scale and make a city more attractive, more lively.
Bikes are a great way to get exercise. And, of course, they’re totally green.
More bikes means fewer cars. To be sure, some of the city’s cyclists would otherwise just walk or take public transportation. But when you have nearly 10,000 Philadelphians commuting to work by bike, according to a U.S. Census survey – a higher percentage than in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or D.C. – we’re surely getting a significant number of cars off the road.
Fewer cars translates into less congestion and fewer emissions. Cleaner air.
Back in the academy, Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, showed slides of a mass laydown of cyclists in 1990 on the Walnut Street Bridge, protesting the lack of a bike lane.
They got it. Today, the city has 205 miles of lanes. More than 1,400 bike parking spots have been added in the last few years. Now, as the city removes the tops of parking meters – substituting kiosks – workers are converting the stems to bike racks.
Last week’s announcement of a $23 million infusion of federal funds to complete more pedestrian and bike paths in Philadelphia and Camden couldn’t come at a better time, apparently.
Out in Mount Airy, a guy who sells only electric bicycles says business is great.
Afshin Kaighobady, owner of Philly Electric Wheels, got the idea for the store when his wife, Meenal Raval, had to travel to stores in two states to investigate different models. He has 22 on the floor.
These decisively bring the bike into the realm of commuter transportation. Kaighobady says a typical customer is someone going the 10 or so miles to Center City. The electric assist – you still have to pedal, but you can choose how much of a boost you want, sort of like switching gears – reduces the sweat factor and sure helps on the uphill trip home.
This week, the results of a study on bike-sharing are expected. If deemed feasible, the plan would put bike kiosks on corners. Pick one up at Second and Market, say, and drop it off at 18th and Locust.
And how many cities have valet bike parking? The nonprofit Bike Works – whose main gig is a program teaching kids to fix up bikes and then giving them one – started the service at the X Games in 2001.
Executive director Andy Dyson thinks we could make even more use of the racks – welded from recycled bikes and futon frames – especially at outdoor events.
But, ah yes, back out on the road, that tension quotient.
“I’ve certainly been accused of being anti-car, which I am not, and that I have a secret plan to rid Center City of all vehicles. I have no such plan,” says the mayor’s transportation maven, Rina Cutler, who has shepherded city cycling initiatives.
She thinks it’s all about choices and making the city’s corridors friendly for all.
Maybe it’s not that drivers are spoiled and irate, as Doty only half-jokingly ventured. “These are frustrated and angry people,” he said as the audience laughed. He thought sympathy for them, not antipathy, might help.
Perhaps we drivers – I’m one, although I’d prefer otherwise – are just jealous.
We’re stuck in traffic. They’re having fun.
Considering that they’re also lessening congestion and pollution, we should probably roll down the window and shout a thanks.