BCGP in the 1990s: A Decade of Increasing Access to Bridges, Park Roads, & Bike Lanes

by | August 22, 2022 | News | 0 comments

The 1990s were a pivotal decade for the Bicycle Coalition. Several critical campaigns and civic actions were waged and won that allowed the Coalition to evolve from a group of passionate volunteers to a group of passionate volunteers supported by professional staff who were making a mark on Greater Philadelphia’s landscape. What’s striking in looking back at the 1990s is that some of the issues remain topical today: safe access to bridges, access to Schuylkill River drives, access to transit, and meaningful commitments from the region for funding for bicycle/pedestrian planning and design.

The following campaigns cemented the Bicycle Coalition as a leading voice for active transportation and safety in the Greater Philadelphia region:

Walnut Street Bridge

The Coalition made a mark on Philadelphia during the decade’s first year. Starting in 1988 or so, the Coalition advocated for a 14′ 3″ bike lane and bike-safe storm sewer grates to be included in the design of the Walnut Street Bridge to PennDOT. But the Coalition members were ahead of their time, because when PennDOT completed the Walnut Street Bridge in October 1990, no bike lane was included in the new design.

PennDOT’s District-6 responses to Bicycle Coalition members’ long letters and postcards asking for a bike lane illustrate PennDOT’s car-centric mindset in the early 1990s. PennDOT argued that 1) a bike lane on the Walnut Street Bridge was not suitable when there weren’t other bike lanes connecting to it; 2) maximum vehicle capacity “must be” maintained because Walnut Street is a major artery between Center City and West Philadelphia and reducing lane width “would decrease roadway capacity”; and 3) that PennDOT’s “prime interest [is] the motorist.”

In response, the Bicycle Coalition staged a die-in on the Walnut Street Bridge during the Bridge ribbon cutting that was documented by all the major media outlets. The infamous ‘Where’s the Bike Lane’ photo taken by Ken Yanoviak (still a Bicycle Coalition member!) was turned into a postcard and has been reproduced countless times.

After the Walnut Street Bridge protest and other successes throughout the decade, the Bicycle Coalition began gaining popularity in the city. Membership soared. We were able to move the office out of then-Executive Director Sue Prant’s apartment into our first office at 11th and Locust Streets. We no longer had to hold meetings at Reading Terminal Market (where heated meetings and at least one physical fight between members made the public location less than ideal), and city agencies began listening to the Bicycle Coalition as an active transportation leader.

Bike Access on SEPTA & PATCO

Bike access to the SEPTA Regional Rail system was an early goal for the nascent Bicycle Coalition. But this goal was not achieved until a sustained campaign begun in 1990 by then-president Noel Weyrich. SEPTA’s new (at the time) policy required passengers to purchase a $5 bike permit to take their bike on the train during off-peak hours. A few years later, in 1997, the Bicycle Coalition convinced SEPTA to drop the permit requirement. The Bicycle Coalition’s bikes-on-trains campaign was then extended to PATCO. Despite initial resistance from the Delaware River Port Authority, DRPA eventually voted to adopt a policy allowing bikes on PATCO trains in 1992.

Betzwood Bridge

In 1993, PennDOT closed the aging Betzwood Bridge, which had allowed bicycle and pedestrian access between the Schuylkill River Trail and Valley Forge National Park. This spurred a Bicycle Coalition protest and a display of civil disobedience display that led to the arrest of then-Coalition President Noel Weyrich and then-Executive Director Sue McNamera Prant (both were arrested for cutting the fence and were released later in the day.) Sue recounts in a recent email that “[I]t was 2 days before my 30th birthday & we spent about 4 hours in a cell. So I can always say I was arrested & held in jail before I was 30. Also I really had to pee and had to do it in the cell. The cops offered us 76ers tickets. When we finally went to court for it in Montgomery County, the very old judge said, “my grandchildren ride bicycles.”

Betzwood Bridge was ultimately determined to be unsound & demolished, thus severing Valley Forge National Park from the Schuylkill River Trail. The Coalition negotiated an access solution: the building of a fenced-in shoulder and railing on the nearby US 422 bridge (called the Catwalk) that reconnected the Trail with the Park. This makeshift connection would remain in place until 2016, when PennDOT finally opened Sullivan’s Bridge as a replacement bridge to provide bicycle/pedestrian access to Valley Forge Park from the SRT.

MLK Jr. Drive

In 1993, the Fairmount Park Commission agreed to close the West River (now MLK) Drive to vehicular traffic on weekends from 7AM-5PM from April to October, creating a 4-mile-long scenic promenade that was ideal for cyclists & pedestrians. In 1995, radio talk show host Mary Mason launched a campaign on her show to end the weekend road closure. Her campaign peaked at racially-charged hearings at the Fairmount Park Greenhouse in February of 1995, where 800 people attended. In the end, the Fairmount Park Commission opted for the partial-closing compromise proposed by then-Mayor Ed Rendell to open the lower 1.2 miles at Sweet Briar Cutoff at 12PM. Those hours remain in effect today.

Bicycle Infrastructure

In 1994, Councilwoman Happy Fernandez introduced a bill requiring parking garages and lots to provide adequate, safe, and secure bike parking facilities. With the bill’s mere existence providing pressure, the PPA and SEPTA voluntarily installed 400 racks throughout the city.

By 1995, funding was finally awarded for serious bike projects in Southeastern Pennsylvania. In fact, $11.5 million in CMAQ funding was awarded for southeastern Pennsylvania bicycle facilities, including $3.7 million for the Philadelphia Citywide Bicycle Network, which was originally proposed by the Bicycle Coalition in 1991. That money would fund, in part, the Cobbs Creek Bikeway, the Chester Valley Trail Extension in Montgomery County, the Plymouth Trail in Montgomery County, the Betzwood Bridge Bike and Pedestrian Trail, and the Westbank Greenway in West Philadelphia.

Two government officials who supported our work would also move into their offices: Tom Branigan became the first Bicycle Coordinator for the Philadelphia Streets Department, and Governor Tom Ridge, a strong proponent of bicycling, would begin his reign in Pennsylvania.

But our biggest year-to-date victory would come in 1996 from our biggest elected supporter to date. Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell set aside $3 million to create a bicycle network in the city. That Network Plan would be implemented in 1997. It included 1,000 bike racks and 2,000 “Share the Road” signs throughout the city. The plan also created a phased-in installation of bike lanes. The bike ban on Chestnut Street—still technically in effect—would be lifted in June 1997.

As with any swift progressive change, a backlash against cyclists began in Philadelphia. Both citizens and representatives would participate in this so-called “Bike-lash.” And in 1998, the City Planning Commission attempted to pull the city’s 20 percent match on Rendell’s $3.7 million project. But at this point the Coalition had an extensive base of support, so we were able to mobilize to save the project. When SEPTA went on strike in 1998, we saw a huge jump in bicycle ridership as well. A year later, Philadelphia made Bicycling Magazine’s Top 10 Biking Cities.

And we’d eventually get those bike lanes on the Walnut Street Bridge, by the way.

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