Women Bike PHL
In the Advocacy Trenches
Sarah Clark Stuart
Sarah Clark Stuart has worked at the Bicycle Coalition since 2008, and has served as its Executive Director since 2015.
How did you learn to ride a bike? What is your history with bicycling?
I learned by being let go down a hill by one of my cousins. I was between five and ten. I grew up in many places; Europe and in Washington DC, but I would spend summertime with relatives in Southeastern Connecticut, right on the water, and that’s where I learned to bike. I recall smashing into a mailbox when I didn’t have a proper light when I was a teenager.
I went to Pomona College in California, and I had to have a bike to get around the big footprint of the Claremont Colleges. I lived off-campus and biked to and fro. After college, I always had a bike, but after grad school I moved to New York City and I never for a second thought of biking there, because not very many people biked in Manhattan in the mid-eighties. Once my husband and I moved down to Philadelphia in 1993, he bought me a bike and it seemed a lot more doable to bike around. Gradually I got used to riding in traffic, which was not where I was accustomed to riding before. But I didn’t really consider myself a bicyclist; to me, bicyclists were either messengers or were people who did road cycling on weekends, and I was neither. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but for me, riding a bike was utilitarian. I was more interested in riding around to run errands and get back and forth between places, because I’m chronically behind schedule, and walking takes too long. Philadelphia is so easy to bike in.
Can you tell me how you got involved in the Schuylkill campaign? It was an epic fight that just concluded now with the building of the bridge.
Yes, the connector bridge opened in October 2012. When we moved to Philly in 1993 and bought our house in the Logan Square neighborhood, we were told by our realtor that a park would be built down by the Schuylkill River, a few blocks away. Until the park was built in 2003, I crossed over the tracks with my dog and my babies on my back and walked around the scrubby and unlandscaped riverfront. I got interested in the issue when construction finally began because it was clear that no one had a good answer of how we were going to be able to get into the park once it was built. The first thing that was done on the construction site was the installation of a fence. A group of us who were neighbors in the Logan Square neighborhood started meeting and getting to know people in the Fitler Square neighborhood, and together we went to meet with the Streets Department, the Law department and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation to find out how to keep the crossings open at Race and Locust Streets. It was clear that we were going to have to take this on, because CSX was not interested in permitting pedestrian crossings over its freight lines.
We knew we had to wage a citizen action campaign, so we formed a campaign called Free Schuylkill River Park. This was 2004, and we created a blog, and my husband was able to set us up with a fairly new thing called an e-mail action service. We started to link from the blog to where you could send an e-mail, and we put the e-mail address for the head of CSX, the Mayor, City Council, anyone who we needed to convince to keep the crossings open. We also created an online petition and went down to the path to ask people to sign the petition. That helped us build up an email list.
It took two years but the City and CSX finally came to an agreement, which was that CSX would allow the two “at grade” crossings to remain open with gates and fencing, and the city would build a bridge in the vicinity of Locust Street to provide an “above grade” crossing. That was signed in 2007, and it took till 2012 to get the two crossings and bridge all done.
It must have been a pretty great day when that bridge opened!
It was a great day. I was very gratified, and pretty humbled too. It’s awesome to have been part of making such an appealing piece of infrastructure possible.
I want to talk about Women Bike PHL, and how it fits into the greater narrative of bicycling advocacy. How does the advocacy that you do tie into making cycling more attractive to women?
I work both on getting trails connected and building out the trail network, The Circuit, and I also work on building the city’s bike network. I think the more the city and region builds longer, connected, on-road and off-road networks that make people, especially women, feel safe, the more both men and women will want to use them. The safer the roads and trails appear to be, the more women will want to bike on them.
Do you think it goes both ways? In having more infrastructure you get more women to bike, but in having more women biking you have an image of a more diverse population of cyclists, which in turn might help convince the people that hold the purse strings that this is something that is not just for a select group.
Definitely. I think the more decision-makers realize that it’s a diverse community that wants these kind of facilities, the easier it is for them to agree to build them. The more women are bicycling, the more people of color are bicycling, the more children are bicycling, that helps reassure decision-makers that they are reaching the full spectrum of their electorate and their constituents and they can’t be accused of making one small group happy. I think women do kind of lead the way in that sense; all the things you said are very true. But the more women who are older, or are wearing high heels, dress clothes, that helps diversify the image of who bicyclists are and break down the stereotypes. When it feels like you can really bike from one destination to another, not just down the street, you’re going to get people who are less fearless more inclined to try it out.
One of the things that got talked about a lot during the National Bike Summit in DC this year was a trend in funding from cycling getting “its fair share” to a multi-modal, working-together approach to transportation and funding. How is the Bicycle Coalition and Philly in general working towards that?
One way is we’re always looking to make better connections between bicycling facilities and transit…to make a more seamless transition between modes. In my view there’s no reason why a 400 car garage can’t make room for six or ten bikes. And if that makes a difference for someone who commutes but is worried about leaving their bike on the street, well, that helps everyone and you’ve now made a multi-modal commuter out of someone who might not have done it before. We’ve worked to get a bike parking ordinance passed that now requires parking garages to have parking spaces for bikes. If you build a new residence with more than 12 residencies you have to provide bike parking. If you build a new building you have to provide bike parking. Before 2010 those requirements were not part of the City’s Code. It’s incremental.
I think incrementalism is actually felt very deeply. People may not notice it at first, but I think it’s those little steps that will eventually inch people over to commuting. It’s the bridge on the Schuylkill banks being in place that makes it so I don’t have to wait for the train, or having a light between the trail and the bridge to West River drive which means I won’t get run over trying to get to work.
People forget what it used to be like, or never knew. If you stop people on the Schuylkill banks now and say, imagine if we didn’t have these crossings? They can hardly believe it. But that was a real danger, a real possibility. It was in serious jeopardy, but no one can imagine it now. That was one of the things about the Fairmount bike lanes, people kept coming up to me and saying, “Of course we want bike lanes on Fairmount, it’s a no brainer!” But you can’t just snap your fingers and it happens. It takes work. But, afterwards, they become part of the landscape, and people can’t imagine them not being there.
What do you think is the next big thing for Philadelphia biking, other than the multi-modal transportation?
I think bike share will change things dramatically. I’m hoping that we can get more resources towards repaving our roads and bridges and making them safer for bicycling. The City’s roads are in terrible, terrible shape. The city’s budget hasn’t been able to keep up with the need. The city used to be able to repave roads every 10 years, now it’s every 20 years. When roads are in terrible condition no one wants to drive on them, much less bike on them. The bike network is planned, now we have to build it. There are sections of The Circuit opening and there are a lot more that need to open. I’m hopeful that we can maintain the momentum of designing and construction trails. When you slow down you get further and further behind.
What other projects is the Bicycle Coalition working on now that we can expect to see soon?
We’re working on a project now in South Philly to do a neighborhood bikeway pilot on 13th and 15th streets between South Street and Oregon Avenue. When talking about innovative facilities in most cities, most people are referring to buffered bike lanes or separated bike lanes like you have in New York. But they need a lot of space, and Philadelphia has a lot of streets but not a lot of space. We think we have a pretty good solution of creating what we call neighborhood bikeways. The idea is to draw cyclists away from Broad Street and hopefully get the cars to get drawn more to Broad Street. What happens now is that a lot of people on Broad Street just ride their bikes on the sidewalk, because it feels safer. Riding on 13th and 15th is nerve-wracking because you’re squeezed and you have a car behind you honking for you to get out of the way. This project would help solve that issue and make those streets feel better for cyclists but also better for car drivers. That’s the challenge for Philadelphia; it has harder problems to solve.
During the 1990’s, 200 miles of bike lanes were painted, but they were painted where it was easy to do so, and now there are lots of gaps, and lots of streets where people want to bike but its not easy to do so. South Philadelphia has some of the highest biking rates in the country, it’s in the top 25%. So the demand is just going to keep increasing, and it would be great to make the street accommodate the usage better.
I’m curious how working with the Bicycle Coalition has changed your own personal cycling in the city, if at all.
I have gotten a bit bolder. I do own a car and I drive when I need to; I have children and a dog. I don’t think it’s mandatory to own a car. I think about biking before I think about driving, and I certainly never want my bike to be out of commission, ever, because I depend so much on it.
If people want to be more involved in bicycle advocacy, other than supporting specific projects and contacting their state legislators, what else can they do?
It would really help to join the Coalition! In addition, coming to meetings and showing your support. People came to the Fairmount civic association meetings and that really helped demonstrate that there’s a lot of public support. Keeping up to date is important; if you’re a member, read our blog posts and stay on top of our calls to action. Talking to elected officials when you have the chance to meet them, and thank them for what they’ve done. For example, thanking Councilman Squilla for passing the complete streets bill, thanking Mayor Nutter for prioritizing bike lanes, that goes a long, long way. Raising the issue whenever possible with elected officials is a huge help.
I think a lot of people see things like the Spruce/Pine bike lanes going in, they see the bike corrals, they see The Circuit, but they don’t necessarily realize the amount of work that goes into it.
Even with a very supportive mayor, you need to do a little coaxing and develop strong partnerships. City agencies are pretty strapped, they have a lot demanding their time and attention. No one entity can do anything by themselves. Collaboration and partnership is critical. We’ve had a great working relationship with the city, and are building relationships at the counties. Helping to make the region better for bicycling in turn helps the region become a stronger and better place for everyone to live.
Interview by Claudia Setubal