How to make Philadelphia a safer place to ride your bike

Josa Lazas stands for a portrait with his bicycle outside the Dolphin Tavern along Broad Street on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017.

Philadelphia is a bikeable city. The streets are flat and the traffic lights are timed to slow down cars and trucks. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia reports that bicycle ridership is increasing each year. Infrastructure that supports cyclists has been crucial to this increase, and the Bicycle Coalition, working with neighborhood associations and the city, has led the addition of bike lanes and bike racks throughout the city. The city’s rollout of the Indego Bike Share program has been another way to help people get healthy and exercise through cycling. And yet, despite its growing popularity for commuting to work and running errands around town, cycling remains surprisingly controversial. And, unfortunately, often more dangerous than is necessary.

Echoing an October editorial in the Inquirer, we call upon the city to repaint and maintain existing bike lanes. Similar to crosswalks, clearly painted bicycle lanes provide a visual cue to drivers, reminding them to look and pay attention. They also help direct cyclists to particular roads, helping to manage the flow of cyclists in the city. Finally, they provide cyclists with a dedicated lane so that they can commute to work and other activities. Increasing ridership is reliant on cyclists’ perceptions that it is safe to ride and bike lanes send that signal.

Although infrastructure is key to supporting cycling, there are two other areas with room for improvement. First, we need to teach (and reteach) drivers to look for cyclists. Public service announcements that remind us to look over our shoulders before opening a car door are a good example of this.  Share the road campaigns are another. Intersections are particularly dangerous for cyclists. Just like drivers should look for pedestrians, drivers need to look over their shoulders before executing a turn. As deliveries increase due to online shopping, truck drivers should be trained in the rules of sharing the road with cyclists.

These behavior changes, in addition to changes to the built environment, are crucial to support cyclists. Another key practice involves better law enforcement.

Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have policies that prescribe how bicycles and vehicles should interact, and which party is responsible in particular accidents. For example, Pennsylvania Statute 75 Pa.C.S. § 3331 (e) states “no turn by a driver of a motor vehicle shall interfere with a pedalcycle proceeding straight while operating in accordance with Chapter 35.” In this scenario, bicyclists have the right of way as long as they are following Pennsylvania’s rules of the road.  Philadelphia bicycle policies says that vehicle drivers and passengers must check before opening their vehicles’ doors. Other laws that could support safer cycling is ticketing drivers who park in bike lanes. But, how, and if, these laws are applied is another story.

Why ride a bike? There are many benefits. Cycling adds exercise to people’s daily routines. For short trips around town, cycling is often the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B.

Cycling also helps create better air quality, and Philadelphia needs help in this regard. In the 2016 State of the Air report, Philadelphia County received low marks for air quality, and has for many years. And, let’s face it, there is not enough space for everyone to drive or park cars in the city. Nor will there ever be.

Get on your bikes, Philadelphians. We are leading American big cities in cycling, and we can continue to do so more safely.

Kelly Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and science, technology and society at Drexel University. Christian Hunold, Ph.D., is an associate professor of politics at Drexel.