It was February 4th, 2020 and I was strapping on my gloves, bike hat, jacket, and headlamp for a ride home, feeling somewhat accomplished. After years of advocacy, Senate Bill 565, which would make it easier to build protected bike lanes and pedestrian plazas on state roads in Pennsylvania, was coming up for a vote the next day in the Senate Transportation Committee in Harrisburg.
The bill had passed the state House twice before — near unanimous votes both times — but this would be the first time the Senate had considered it. The legislation was basically correcting a loophole about where motor vehicles were allowed to park and, in so doing, would allow for better bike lanes and pedestrian plazas throughout the Commonwealth.
It was a loophole PennDOT’s law department took seriously. The loophole had prevented the building of parking-protected bike lanes in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Altoona, Harrisburg, and Lancaster. Finally, it would be overturned.
Or so we thought. As I prepared to head home on my bicycle, we received a message noting an amendment would be considered the following day. The amendment, introduced by a State Senator from Northeast Philadelphia, would require all bike lanes in Philadelphia to get written approval of City Council, State Senators, State Representatives, and registered community organizations, before installation — an extreme, unrealistic bar for standard street engineering not used by any other government on the planet.
What followed, I think, is representative of what my time at the Bicycle Coalition was like over the past seven years. December 10th is my last day at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and I sort of can’t believe it. This job and the people here have meant so much to me and helped define who I am and what I value.
As communications manager then policy director, my tenure has been defined by a series of policy wins and losses, sometimes all at once. So, as I say goodbye to the organization, our supporters, members, and volunteers, I figured the best way to do it would be to tell the story of Senate Bill 565 and what it means.
It helps to keep in mind that only a few hours separated the amendment being introduced and the vote. Those hours mostly coincided when people would be asleep. Any attempt to speak with the Senator before the vote wasn’t possible until the morning. BCGP Executive Director Sarah Clark Stuart, former Systems Administrator Megan Hummell, and I met to figure out the next steps.
Megan quickly got to work on an email campaign that our supporters could use to send messages to the Senate Transportation Committee, demanding they block the amendment. Sarah and I bought tickets to Harrisburg for the following morning and helped Megan write the email to our supporters.
We had something ready to go early that evening. At that point, I reached out to several advocates at local urbanist PAC 5th Square and asked if they could help amplify the message to their supporters. They were eager to do so. Other organizations around the state got to action, too.
Then we called Laura and Richard Fredricks. Laura and Richard are co-founders of Families for Safe Streets Greater Philadelphia. They’d been fierce, strong advocates for safe streets since losing their daughter, Emily, to traffic violence in 2017.
The Fredricks’ were happy to meet us at the Pennsylvania state Capitol in the morning to do everything we could to block this amendment.
By dawn, more than 1,500 people, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, had sent messages to every member of the Senate Transportation Committee. It was incredible.
Sarah and I sat across from each other on the Amtrak to the Capitol, like we had so many times before, not knowing what was awaiting us in Harrisburg. If we failed, we knew, we were letting a lot of people down. Future road users, whether they knew it or not, were counting on us to keep them safe.
The Capitol building felt weird that day. We actually heard conversations in passing about us. And you. Mostly complaints. How annoying we all were. What’s with all the emails? For a bike thing? My phone wouldn’t stop ringing all night!
Sarah even got a message from a senate staffer saying they heard the message loud and clear, please stop the emails, their inbox was completely full.
Thing is, this legislation was supported by mayors and Councils all over the Commonwealth. Advocacy groups and private citizens alike. It was unanimously supported in the state House. No one we spoke to could understand why it hadn’t become law yet.
After speaking with Sen. Farnese, the sponsor and an advocate for the bill, we went down a series of steps and parked ourselves outside the Northeast Philadelphia Senator’s office. He invited us in and we sat down to speak about the legislation.
We explained ourselves. He said he was worried about the City of Philadelphia installing bike lanes on Roosevelt Boulevard. (There is no plan to stripe bike lanes on the Boulevard, of course, but perception is at least half of the battle.) But, having heard us out (and gotten your emails the night before), he agreed to withdraw the amendment.
The four of us — me, Sarah, Laura, and Richard — left the office and without saying anything, came together for a group hug.
Next, we headed to the Senate Transportation Committee where the legislation was supposed to be discussed. After some conversation between the Senators (and more grumbling about emails), the amendment was officially withdrawn. The clean legislation passed unanimously and went to the full Senate.
Happy story, right? That part of it was. But the road to getting legislation passed and infrastructure built, like Philadelphia’s streets, is rarely clean.
By the spring, COVID-19 had delayed what was considered “non-essential” legislation (though we continued to argue, successfully, this was essential).
In the last days of the Senate’s legislative session before summer recess, with Sen. Farnese’s help, the bill made it onto the Senate calendar. It needed just one more vote in the full Senate to make it to the governor’s desk. We figured: this was it; our work over the past two years was about to pay off.
Unfortunately, at the last minute, another amendment was floated which would have written registered community organization approval into state law for any bike lane getting built in Philadelphia — passing veto power and engineering expertise onto citizens who did not ask for it, and writing that power into state law. This amendment would have actually been harmful to RCOs, creating new liability. It had no public support.
I actually wrote about it for WHYY last fall, too. In all, 17 Philly RCOs came out against the amendment publicly; four Northeast Philly RCOs wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Northeast Times condemning the amendment.
Today, as I get ready to leave the Bicycle Coalition, that work is still incomplete. The legislation remains stalled. We have continued working with organizations like Bike Pittsburgh and Families for Safe Streets Greater Philadelphia to get it passed, and I believe it will happen early next year.
The thing about bike advocacy is, no project is ever really complete. A Complete Street in every sense of the word is a street that is safe and works for everyone. And as long as we give outsize power to motor vehicle drivers and count on non-engineers to make engineering decisions, streets won’t be safe.
Complete Streets in our city means everyone has safe, equitable, access to get around however they want. That’s not true today. It won’t be true until we are willing to solve the problems we know exist.
As my friend Liz Cornish, who formerly headed Bikemore in Baltimore, Maryland, recently noted, “People want traffic to move slower, but then reject solutions to calm traffic. This leads to inaction. No one wants to be accused of not listening to the community. But solving problems IS listening to the community. Allowing citizens to become traffic engineers is negligence.”
And the 2020 and 2021 traffic statistics will tell you how far we still have to go on this front. Over the past two years, traffic deaths have been creeping up once again.
Why this has happened is obvious. With few exceptions, the City has given drivers free reign over where they can drive, where they can park, and whether any other form of transportation is welcome on the street. This is a remnant of a bygone era — one that, unfortunately, many in power have sought to keep on life support.
It was easy for city planners to bulldoze entire neighborhoods and build highways to divide up and sprawl out major cities in the 50s and 60s. Undoing that harm, however, requires years of advocacy, thousands of hours of work, people taking time out of their regular, often busy, schedules to make costly trips to government buildings and advocate on behalf of folks who are no longer around to advocate for themselves.
And still, often, that isn’t enough.
That’s why I’ve worked here for the past seven years, and it’s why I’ll continue supporting the Bicycle Coalition for years to come: The people here do such necessary work.
My boss Sarah Clark Stuart and co-worker John Boyle are, respectively, the hardest worker and the most persistent advocate I’ve ever met. The region is lucky to have them. The members of Families for Safe Streets Greater Philadelphia, they’re some of the strongest people I’ll ever know. The City of Philadelphia’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Jeannette Brugger (not part of BCGP, of course) is an incredible planner and advocate and Philadelphians by and large are fortunate she’s working for the City.
The realities this organization has helped create just during my own tenure — the city’s first protected bike lanes, Indego bike share, a Vision Zero policy, black box software and crash reconstruction technology, Complete Streets policy, speed cameras on Roosevelt Boulevard, red light camera extension, free loading zones for businesses on streets with bike lanes, PPA bike officers, bikes on subways, the expanding Circuit trail system, the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway, e-bike access on bridges, MLK Drive closures, to name some — has made Philadelphia a better place to live and be. There’s a lot of frustration in this work, but a lot of happiness to go around, too.
Over the past few years, I’ve often found myself on my bike, usually trying to unwind from the day, just thinking about how great my life is that I get to work for such a great cause with such great people — staff and volunteers alike — who care so much. And on top of it, I get to ride my bike!
Being able to ride a bicycle objectively makes places better and I want everyone to be able to experience it without fear. That’s a big goal. But because of organizations like the Bicycle Coalition, it will be reached.