This open letter to Michael Nutter from cyclist moms Dena Driscoll and Marni Duffy asking him to appoint a family biking advocate to the new Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board provides an interesting introduction to the idea of the “design user.”
When politicians, planners, and transportation engineers think about the design of our streets, and how the public right-of-way should be apportioned between different users, who are they thinking about? What mental picture do they have of the typical person who is riding in our bike lanes?
Is it a fearless athlete who bicycles competitively? Is it a relatively brave adult commuter, with years of experience biking in the city? Is it a parent biking her daughter to pre-school? Or is it a pre-teen just starting to navigate the neighborhood on her own or with her friends?
While applauding Nutter’s creation of the Bicycle Advocacy Board as a meaningful overture to Philadelphia’s growing cycling constituency, Driscoll and Duffy’s letter expresses disappointment in what they see as a lack of representation for bicycle commuters, and especially the least experienced of those commuters.
The composition of Nutter’s appointments to the board, drawn overwhelmingly from the world of competitive and recreational cycling, suggests one of its five goals – attracting national and international cycling competitions, and fundraising for the annual Philly Bicycling Classic – will receive outsized attention even as the other four official goals involve brainstorming recommendations for policy change to make bicycling safer and more accessible for cyclists of all ability levels.
There is a term in the world of group cycling called a “no-drop” ride, meaning a ride where the group moves at a pace comfortable for the slowest rider, so as not to “drop” anyone from the pack.
West Philly activist and committeeman Brian Villa cleverly reappropriated the term in a Facebook forum discussion of Driscoll and Duffy’s letter arguing that the Mayor will need to appoint a “no-drop board” that takes into account the perspectives of the most vulnerable groups of riders as well.
The coinage is even versatile enough to apply to the streets themselves. This fall, the advocacy group People For Bikes introduced a character named Isabella – a fictional 12-year old girl who could enjoy some more independence if only her neighborhood streets were designed with cyclists like her in mind – no-drop streets, in other words.
“Isabella…is 12. She likes cartwheels, Instagram photos with her best friend, and ice cream cones. Sometimes she even likes school. But without someone to drive her around, she can’t enjoy those things, because of the way her neighborhood’s busier streets are built.
The ultimate goal of the Green Lane Project — and, we’d argue, of all modern bicycle infrastructure — is to get Isabella where she wants to go.”
What would it mean to design a no-drop street? Driscoll, who helps organize family rides with the group Kidical Mass, has some specific items on her wishlist.
“Moving parked cars away from the bike lane is number one,” she says, “Having a child in the door zone is scary because they’re falling under the radar. Even if someone looks, they’re probably too small to see. Better infrastructure gets more children out on the street. Lower speed limit, calmer drivers, all the very typical things.”
Family biking advocates like Driscoll, Duffy, and Travis Skidmore of the advocacy blog Philly Pedals have specifically been critical of plans like the so-called Neighborhood Bikeway on 13th and 15th Streets in South Philly which, with its two lanes of parked cars and zero bike lanes, is derided as a symbol of City Hall fecklessness and half-hearted commitment to winning physically protected bike infrastructure.
Back in October I attended an ABCs of Family Biking event Kidical Mass hosted in the parking lot by Fleischer Art Memorial and spoke with committed family bikers as well as some new and expecting parents looking into the various options for biking with children in the city.
The sentiment among many of the new parents who attended was that, while they enjoyed bike commuting prior to having children, they’re nervous about picking up the habit again for fear of getting hit with a baby on board.