Speak Easy: How to be hated on any city street in Philadelphia

I’ve used just about every mode of transportation that the city of Philadelphia has to offer. I’ve walked, run, driven cars, ridden motorcycles, and taken SEPTA, PATCO, taxis, the ferry, and pretty much anything else that got me from point A to point B. Heck, I’ve even driven a tractor trailer down Market Street when I used to drive a truck. (If there’s ever an “Escape from New York” type of situation, you probably want to be with me. I’m transportation-prepared.)

Oh, and I’ve also bicycled.

And from my experience, of all the various modes of transportation in Philadelphia, the most ill-treated, most unnecessarily dangerous, most universally despised … is the bicycle.

On a bicycle in Philly, I’ve been spit on, cussed at, honked at, clipped by rearview mirrors, and told to do things to myself that can’t be written in any respectable publication. More times than I can count, I’ve had vehicles clearly try to make a point by speeding by me way too closely … only to be stopped at a red light half a block away. And all for riding my bike in a legal, responsible way.

My simply being on a bicycle in Philly is a personal affront to many drivers. If cars are slowed behind a bus or trash truck, they simply wait or maybe turn down another street. The same cannot be said for cars following cyclists. Drivers in these situations are often induced into fits of rage usually reserved for Comcast and the PPA.

Many drivers seem to think that bikes aren’t even supposed to be in the street. I know this because they’ll often crack their windows to yell, “Get the out of the way! Bikes aren’t even supposed to be in the street!”

Of course, the safest — and only legal — place for bicycles is in the street.

But what about all those scofflaw bikers, blowing through stop signs and weaving through traffic with their devil-may-care attitudes? Bikers just don’t follow the rules of the road!

Well yes, a minority of bicyclists do ignore some traffic rules.

But, I’ve also got some top-secret info: Cars in Philly break traffic laws, too. In fact, you might think that sliding through a stop sign perfectly, pulling a fast U-turn on Broad Street, driving down a one-way street the wrong way, and texting while driving, steering with your knees, are all on the PennDOT driving test. (Swerving around potholes and deciphering parking signs is probably on there too.) Because we’ve all seen cars do these things, and more, in Philly. All the time.

And the fact is, when drivers do these things surrounded by two tons of steel, it’s a whole lot more dangerous for everyone on the street and sidewalks than when a bicyclist does the same with a 20-pound bike.

Recently, City Council President Darrell Clarke said, “This is Philadelphia. People drive to the corner store. This is what we do.”


“This is what we do,” sounds a whole lot like “This is the way we’ve always done things.” And “this is the way we’ve always done things” has got to be the laziest, worst excuse for doing anything ever.

What his statement really showed was a lack of political will to do the hard work of leadership. And when one of our top leaders in the city espouses such entitlement about driving in the city, is it any wonder that some of its citizens do too?

Just about anyone can maintain the status quo, but a real leader will do what’s best for the people they serve. And here’s the status quo when it comes to bicycles and Philadelphia: Nine cyclists were killed in the city last year and over half of all bicycle accidents in the state of Pennsylvania occurred in Philadelphia.

Those are appalling statistics. Philly’s got a problem. And it has to do with cars hitting bicyclists.

What’s best for the city is not the status quo. What’s best is more protected bike lanes, real progress toward Mayor Kenney’s commitment to Vision Zero, and more access to modes of transportation other than private vehicles.

Because when I hop in my car to go to work, ride my bike to pick up my daughter from daycare, or walk to the corner store (yes walk, not drive, Mr. Clarke), the only thing I should really be entitled to is being safe.

And not being spit on. That would be nice too.


This essay originally appeard on NewsWorks’ Speak Easy section. Speak Easy is a blog for thoughtful essays, commentaries and opinions on current events, ideas and life in the Philadelphia region. The blog is powered by your submissions. Every essay published is an invitation to a public discussion.

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