By SJ Punderson
A chalkboard was mounted to the dining room wall in the home of Jeannette Brugger and her husband, Jamie Ford, both 37. The couple’s daughter had a few to-do’s, it seemed. On the black slate, there were several check boxes: learn German, explore the world, etc… Typical goals for a three-year old.
But this was no ordinary family, new to the northwest neighborhood of Mount Airy as of August, and fresh out of South Philly.
Brugger has worked as the Pedestrian and Bicycle Coordinator at the Office of Transportation & Infrastructure Systems (oTIS) since 2015. She’s originally from Amherst, Ohio, a suburb just off Lake Erie.
“I grew up on a hobby farm in Ohio,” Brugger said. “As a kid, I biked around the property, through the neighborhood. It was a typical suburban childhood.”
College brought Brugger to New York City, where she hopped on a bike for the first time in years. Unfortunately, “in 2002, bike commuting in New York was terrifying,” she remembers. “I took the subway to Central Park, Prospect Park, and used my bike there. I was too scared to ride in the streets.”
Brugger then attended graduate school at Penn where her husband, Jamie, currently works. Unlike her experience in New York, biking in Philadelphia seemed to be the easiest way to get from her Logan Square neighborhood to the university, in spite of Philly’s public transit infrastructure.
Over the years, bike commuting has continued to be a good, dependable alternative for Brugger—both as a personal and professional form of transportation that she cares about. Whether in South Philadelphia or Mount Airy, she rides a brown-grey Kona when she commutes, or a Babboe City cargo bike when her daughter needs a lift.
“It’s not that other forms of transportation aren’t as fast or convenient, but being on a bike is just what I prefer,” she said.
Brugger rides 2-3 times a week to work. She may take her daughter to daycare on the cargo bike, lock up there and then take the train or bus into Center City, where she works in the Municipal Services Building.
Other days, Ford will take care of the drop off, and Brugger will ride her Kona all the way to 15th and JFK.
“My ride takes me down Forbidden Drive, along the Wissahickon Trail, the Schuylkill River Trail, onto Kelly Drive and down the Parkway to Center City,” she said.
On her first bike commute since relocating to Mount Airy, Brugger watched a bald eagle eat a fish in the Wissahickon Creek.
“That’s when I knew we had made the right decision (to move),” she said.
Given her midwestern roots, Brugger admitted that she likes to say good morning to people when she rides to work.
“Most people in Philly are really unsettled by it,” she said. “But there’s a gentleman who walks along Forbidden Drive who tips his hat to me and says good morning darling, it’s really sweet.”
Racking up over 10 miles each way on her commute, Brugger says the hardest part of her ride can be the final mile home.
“I really enjoy biking with my daughter,” she said. “But if I don’t go fast enough, she pats my back and tells me to go faster. If we ride up a big hill like on Kitchens Lane or Mt. Airy Ave., I tell her if you cheer for me, I’ll go faster.”
Luckily, Brugger hasn’t had any flats or mechanical issues on her new route. Her Kona has disc brakes, so those tires may prove to be more of a hassle to change if she does hit something, like a sharp piece of gravel on Forbidden Drive.
“I’m not sure I could change a flat on this bike, she said. “I took a class at Trophy Bicycles a while back, but now I think I’d just lock it up and take a cab.”
Philadelphia isn’t the only place that Brugger and Ford use two wheels. They have like-minded friends in Portland, Oregon, where Ford went to college, whom they visit with a few times a year.
“They all have cargo bikes, so we ride with the kids out there,” Brugger said. “I’ve also used bike shares in Seattle, Amsterdam, Paris, and Montreal.”
She’s even taken her bike on the Chinatown bus to New York City.
“It doesn’t cost extra,” she said.
I joined Brugger, Ford, and their daughter for a ride on a chilly October morning. At a leisurely pace, we discussed protected bike lanes, tossed around “infrastructure” liberally, and plotted how pedestrians and cyclists could work together.
Downtown, Brugger spends her days biking to meetings, writing grants, finding creative ways to fund new infrastructure, engaging neighbors on how to make their streets safer and responding to complaints on social media. Potholes, dangerous intersections, what to do when vehicles are constantly parked in bike lanes, to all of these issues, Brugger usually repeats the same advice:
“Report it to 3-1-1, and let me know the exact location,” she said.
She tries her best to stay on top of it all. For Brugger, professional and personal life really do overlap when it comes to bicycles.
“Thankfully, it’s still fun,” she said. “But check in with me in the winter, I might be taking the bus a whole lot more.”