On Bikes and the Right to the City
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody – only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane Jacobs
"The revolution has to be urban, in the broadest sense of that term, or nothing at all." Henry Lefebre
"The right to the city is far more than the indivual liberty to access urban resources — it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city." David Harvey
"A sustainable future has to be an urban future...a world in which resources are shared equitably." Matt Hern
While bike riding is not in and of itself a revolutionary activity, recent conflicts in Philadelphia between bike, pedestrian and car culture and the intrusion of city government as a "regulator" force questions about the future of our city, the kind of city we want, who is allowed to use or navigate the city in ways they want and who gets to decide. City government responses to two recent pedestrian (allegedly biker perpetrated) deaths focused on punishing and regulating bikers, many of whom rely on bikes for livelihood, not on the problematics of road/sidewalk use in general. In the debates over safety and the growing use of bicycles, what is truly at stake is a different kind of city where more people from across the class spectrum can navigate urban space freely. For a variety of reasons, public health, environmental, economic and social, many cities are moving away from a space dominant, costly and unhealthy car culture, instead promoting urban transit, cycleways and pedestrianization. Philadelphia, whose purported goal is to become one of the U.S.’s most sustainable cities, should follow suit.
Most urban theorists agree that a key feature of a vibrant city is density. If there isn’t density, it’s not a city, the argument goes. Within such density, however, space is needed for public activity that promotes overall health and movement, for everyone.
Consider the bustle of dusk when the city’s 9-5 workers stream onto the sidewalks. Those on foot or bike can enjoy the release, feel the night air, shop-window gaze, pick up food, drop in a pub or bookstore, run into acquaintances, chat with the newspaper seller; like healthy arteries there is a life flow. Cars impede such activity, because they dominate the city’s center. Everything rides on the turn of the traffic light. Car traffic blocks arteries, chokes the air, and encourages road rage and feelings of helplessness. Instead of enjoying the city and each other, drivers often feel trapped and angry. Parking in a city is difficult and expensive. Some city car-owners rarely even use their cars because they don’t want to lose a valued parking space, thus the car is basically just taking up space. Cars are costly in numerous ways. One study calculated that, in just one year, riding a bike versus owning and driving a car will save an individual $8, 000. It’s easy to accumulate tickets as meters and kiosks have to be fed constantly, parking signs are often intentionally confusing, and time and convenience are valued when one needs to get to work, class, an emergency or appointment. In his essay "Energy and Equity," Ivan Illich calculates the average driver only really moves an average of 3 miles per hour of time spent maintaining and working to afford an automobile.
Cars take up a lot of room and are the largest contributor to pollution in most cities across the globe, seriously impacting respiratory health. Poor health caused by car pollution contributes to lost work and school time. In New York City the leading cause of death for children aged 5-14 is pedestrian auto accidents. Walking Manhattan you may notice "Ghost Bikes" painted entirely white and chained to fences with R.I.P. s for cyclists killed by motorists. Another recent memorial was for a child killed by an auto while crossing West River Drive to get on a bike path.
Oil is running out and wars fought over it have caused untold deaths, devastation and suffering. Why we continue on such an unhealthy and unsustainable path must be questioned. Cities around the globe are doing just that.
"Our city is a city for people, not for cars," declared then mayor and urban planner, Jaime Lerner in the late 1980’s promoting changes which lead to Curitiba, Brasil’s standing as one of the worlds most sustainable cities: 70% of trash is recycled, they have a cheap and accessible public transit system and numerous cycleways and pedestrianized areas.
In Bogota, Colombia, according to a report on the Social Earth website, ex-mayor (1998-2001) Enrique Penalosa "severely limited car use, expanded pedestrian walkways and bikepaths, and designed an aggressive, sleek public bus system...the city’s crime rate dropped by 70% of over the course of 10 years." "So many of Colombia’s people live in poverty," Penalosa says, "Why should we invest in people who have cars? People need to walk. People need to move about to be happy."
In Vancouver, a relatively new city, resident Matt Hern reports in Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future (AK Press 2010) how "the idea is to radically encourage downtown density by [encouraging] pedestrian and bike access over automobiles." (Hern also has some very particular critiques of Vancouver related to gentrification, city services, etc.).
57% of the inhabitants of Groningen, Netherlands consider bikes their main source of transportation. A mostly left-wing government decided in the late 1970’s that planning for the bicycle in the city is much cheaper than planning for the car and replaced a 6-lane motorway with greenery, pedestrianization, cycleways and bus lanes. According to Wikipedia "the city is very much adapted to the wishes of those who want to get around without a car", and was voted the best city centre in the country. Stress reduction and a friendly population attest to the respectful coexistence of pedestrians and cyclists, and accidents are few.
Lyon, France dramatically reduced car use by improving public transit, creating cycleways and providing thousands of bike shares (rental bikes) accessed with swipe cards and available for pickup all over the city.
Last year, Vauban, Germany instituted a personal car ban, reflecting the growing trend to separate urban life from car use and create communities independent of vehicular transportation. Children play safely in streets. Stores are interspersed with energy-efficient apartment buildings (as opposed to space/energy usurping single family dwellings). City dwellers express greater happiness and experience less stress.
In the U.S., cities like Portland, which has 164 miles of bike lanes and Chicago are vying for top position in biker-friendliness. Even Philly made it to the number 10 spot of bikeable cities. Since 2005 bike use in Philly has more than doubled, and there is a big Bike Network Plan to create bike lanes for 300 miles of city streets. The more bike lanes the more bikers, the less traffic congestion. On February 17 it was announced that 23 million in federal stimulus funds will go towards a regional bike trail network in Philadelphia and Camden making biking "accessible to a much larger and more diverse segment of our population." According to stats on the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, a bike advocacy group, "Bicycling is faster than driving, walking or taking the bus across Center City." A car can actually impede mobility, and bikers, like pedestrians, feel a stronger sense of connection to the city and its people. Illich posits that "People are born almost equally mobile. Their natural ability speaks for the personal liberty of each one to go wherever he or she wants to go. Citizens of a society founded on the notion of equity will demand the protection of this right against any abridgement."
When car use diminishes there is also a decline in respiratory and other pollution related illnesses and diseases, whereas biking actually improves health.
Despite claims from crack-pots like the Daily News’ Stu Bykofsky that increased cycling has created a "bike-abused public" and an insistence that "bikes will never be a substantial method for commuting in America" alongside the ire of car enthusiasts who can’t fathom giving up road dominance, car culture, especially in cities, has proven unsustainable, unhealthy and dangerous.
Instead of looking for ways to demonize or create greater hardships for bicyclists, as City Council members Frank DiCicco and James Kenney sought to do, or supporting the rights of motorists who aggressively challenge (and sometimes threaten) cyclists, we need to push towards the kind of city bike use sets the path for. A city is an urban ecosystem; whatever promotes greater social, economic, mental and physical health for all is what warrants the public’s support.
Editors Note: In case you missed it, last November two fatal incidents allegedly involving cyclists striking pedestrians led to a wave of hysteria over the dangers posed by lawless cyclists. City Councilmen Frank DiCicco and James Kenney proposed legislation that would mandate bicycle registration requiring fees, increase fines heavily for various violations, and allow police to confiscate “brakeless” bikes. The city council bills were met with overwhelmingly negative responses and are currently "on hold."?
For couriers, food delivery workers, students, low-income workers, and working immigrants, bicycles are the primary means of transportation. Their rights must be defended.