Launching in the ’70s: The Bicycle Coalition’s First Decade

by | June 22, 2022 | News, Biking in Philly | 0 comments

Since 1972, the Bicycle Coalition has been advocating for high quality bicycle infrastructure throughout Greater Philadelphia. We have a promising future continuing to advocate for equitable access to safe mobility, and for federal, state and local investment in climate-conscious multi-modal transportation infrastructure. As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary in 2022, we’ll be covering highlights from each of the five decades of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s existence. This is the first installment in the series about our first decade: the 1970s.

1972: The Beginning of the Bicycle Coalition

The idea to create a bicycling advocacy group was born out of the policy agenda (below) developed by members of the University City Bicycle Club and other community groups. The Bicycle Coalition is still working on some of these same issues today (“comprehensive network of bikeways” “commitment of funds for maintenance”—sounds familiar!)

 

In 1972, John Dowlin, Bob Thomas, Ralph Hirsch and Gihon Jordan began meeting on the second Monday of each month in the back room of J. Mulligan’s Restaurant and Bar at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. All avid cyclists, their conversations mostly focused on how to make Philadelphia a better city for bike riders. Their main goal was more bicyclist access on our streets, trails and bridges.

Policy Priorities of the 70s

Access to the Ben Franklin Bridge Within a year, the newly-formed Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition found their first fight: bicyclists should be allowed on the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway. In the 70s, there was no bike access on the bridge—a ban had been instituted in the 1950s. So the group and other volunteers contacted the Delaware River Port Authority and began talking to them about allowing bikes on the Ben Franklin Bridge. And by 1973, the group made it happen. People on bicycles were allowed on the Ben Franklin Bridge for the first time in 20+ years. It was the first victory of the newly-formed group, but not the last—and, of course, not the last time we had to fight for bike access to the Ben Franklin Bridge either.

Also in 1973, Ralph Hirsch, who was an Associate Professor at Drexel, produced a report for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entitled Facilities and Services Needed to Support Bicycle Commuting into Center City Philadelphia

Bike Access on Chestnut Street! Four years later, it was time to hit the streets. Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street in Center City was a transit-way back then. During the day, only buses were allowed on Chestnut Street—no cars, and no bikes. The Coalition (who would soon change their name to the Bicycle Coalition of the Delaware Valley) fought back against the City of Philadelphia to allow for bikes on Chestnut Street. Eventually, an unofficial policy was agreed upon that the city would not enforce the ban on cyclists who were riding safely on Chestnut Street. At the time, that was a win.

Bike Lanes & Encouraging Bike Commuting in the city  On Monday, May 1, 1972, the newly formed Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition organized a Center City rush-hour race between bikes and cars to prove that bicycling is a valuable and efficient transportation option. And prove it they did—the last cyclist across the finish line beat the first car in by a full ten minutes (in Center City rush hour traffic with no bike infrastructure no less!)

“The race proved that there are clear, practical alternatives—either the motorcycle or the bicycle—to the fume-belching cars that clog our center-city areas,” said Peter Cresswell, a leader of the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, a group that sponsored the race and is asking City Council to set aside “bicycle lanes” on little-used streets.”

Seeking an Alternative: Cycles Beat Cars in Center-City Rush Hour by Douglas Gill for The Evening Bulletin | May 2, 1972

In 1974, the Coalition published their first city bicycle map. Of course, there were no bike lanes on city streets at that point in city history. The Coalition would soon begin that fight, too.

In 1977, bicyclists gathered for a ride around Center City and protest at City Hall asking the City to better encourage and support bicycle commuting in the city (much like we still do today).

Bikers Protest

Singing protesters circa 1977. Image via Temple.edu via The Evening Bulletin archives.

Beyond Better Biking, We Are Advocates and Educators

As the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia celebrates our 50 years of impact, we are calling on our friends old and new to join the movement to make roads safer for bicyclists, runners and all those who use them.

By supporting our inaugural 50th Anniversary Annual Giving campaign, you increase our ability to be advocates for the safety of bicyclists, pedestrians and all road users. With your help, we strive to continue to improve the health, wellness and sustainability of our communities throughout Philadelphia and the eight surrounding PA & NJ counties. Through advocacy and education, we will continue to work to make our communities safe and welcoming for all.

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