By Randy Lobasso
When South Philadelphia resident Kate Mundie left a Passyunk Square Civic Association public meeting last month, her 9-year-old son was crying. He thought the people were going to try to kill him because earlier in the night, a woman said at the meeting she had considered killing a cyclist with her car.
Here’s the scene: The Passyunk Square Civic Association invited the Philadelphia Office of Infrastructure, Transportation and Sustainability to announce the creation of a new project designed to increase visibility of bikers at intersections and create a bike lane on 11th Street, which would require the sacrifice of about 20 parking spaces.
Within a few minutes of the presentation, some residents, who were informed of the project months ago, became enraged about the parking spaces the city had sacrificed. And though they represented a small minority of residents at the meeting, they were the loudest.
One man, who arrived at the meeting about 15 minutes late, cut through the crowd to get to the center of the room. Once there, he screamed at the city Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Jeannette Brugger and Deputy Managing Director of Transportation Michael Carroll about parking and his problems with bicyclists in general.
He was escorted out of the room by Councilperson Mark Squilla.
The goal of naysayers seemed to be to prevent the opposing view from getting a word in.
“I saw kids covering ears and crying,” said Eugene Desyatnik, a South Philadelphia resident in favor of the bike lane. “It was horrible. I tried to point that out to the folks yelling and cursing.”
Several people with children left the meeting when adults began screaming threats.
“I’m not going to subject him to that,” a man with his young son said to me as they left the meeting. One member of the loose coalition of opposition said if adults didn’t want their children to hear the threats, they shouldn’t be at a public meeting.
“Not one person there opposing the change was there in good faith,” said Amy Cherowitz, a Center City bike courier, after the meeting. “No matter how clear and reasonable the answers were, they didn’t listen.”
Many of the arguments made by those opposed to the ongoing construction were about the loss of parking, but they often devolved into anti-bike speech: Bicyclists run red lights and stop signs, they “don’t pay taxes,” and so on.
One man actually ranted about a cyclist who was killed in 2017, publicly saying she was killed because she was wearing headphones and watching a movie on her phone while cycling, but actually the driver who hit her has been charged with reckless driving for wearing earbuds and not looking at the road.
Though cyclists in the audience stayed quiet most of the time, one man, toward the end of the meeting, said he liked the new bike lanes. As explained by Bill West on his blog, West Words Philly:
The bicyclist then did something unusual. He asked for a round of applause for the city and the Passyunk Square Civic. And there was a tremendous amount of clapping. Many, possibly most, of the people in the room were actually in favor of the redesign. They’d been sitting quietly through all the histrionics of the opposition; now it was their turn, and they used it well.
While it’s understandable why some South Philly residents don’t want to lose any parking spaces, the change to 11th Street’s infrastructure is actually pretty tame, and it will improve safety for everyone, including pedestrians and motorists.
The city went above and beyond to keep as much parking as possible, opting to move the bike lane to another part of the street and “daylight” the intersections, which means improving visibility. Much more has been done for far fewer cyclists and, according to the U.S. Census report, in Southeast Philly, 8.1% of people use biking as their means of transportation to work.
Was this project worth all the outrage that spilled out at this meeting? Probably not.
But Philadelphia’s cycling community is ready for change: We will attend these meetings, we will voice our concerns and we will earn our right to ride safely throughout the city.