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Road Rage at Philly Newspapers

Philadelphia Weekly: Road Rage at Philly Newspapers

Why are Ronnie and Stu whipping up fear when cars and trucks pose a bigger threat?

By Brendan Skwire Posted Nov. 29, 2009

It’s hard to find a friend to Philly bicyclists at the city’s daily newspapers these days. Take three opinion pieces that ran in the days following the police department’s crackdown on errant cyclists — amidst proposals in City Council to layer on additional rules and costly licensing for bicyclists.

In the Daily News, Ronnie Polaneczky griped about bike messenger wannabes on "brakeless bikes" careening through the streets "for the sake of looking cool." That prospect, she said, "is reason enough to enforce the state law requiring brakes on all bikes."

The same day, the Inky editorialized that "the Police Department’s welcome crackdown on bike safety was launched after two Philadelphia men died from injuries suffered after cyclists hit them last month. The move shows the city is trying to balance the safety needs of motorists, bikers, and pedestrians."

And Stu Bykofsky offered up another one of his broadsides, slamming bicyclists for their "moral superiority" and lambasting Mayor Nutter for devoting portions of Spruce and Pine streets to bicycle lanes.

"I am for cars sharing the road with bikes," Bykofsky wrote. "Sharing the road equally is insane."

For me, a bicyclist and a driver, this brings up a number of questions:

Rachel Fletcher, a member of the Philadelphia Bicycle Messengers Assn., was on a bike early Wednesday morning when she was struck by a car. Members of the PBMA will demonstrate at 5 pm Monday in Love Park.

Have any of these writers ever ridden a so-called "brakeless bike"?

Do any of these writers regularly ride in Center City period?

Do they have any idea how many pedestrians have been killed or injured by people riding "brakeless bikes" -- they’re properly called "fixed-gear bikes" -- versus how many pedestrians have been killed by reckless motorists who do have brakes? So far as I know a grand total of two people have been killed by bicyclists this year. In 2008, 92 people died in Philadelphia car crashes, and that number was a five-year low.

Of course, cars don’t tend to end up on sidewalks the way bicyclists often do. But the fetish with "staying off the sidewalks" is not only overblown, it ignores the exact reasons why cyclists -- who would generally prefer to stick to the road -- occasionally end up there anyway. Just take a look at how often the city’s few bike lanes have no room for bikes. Have you noticed how many cars are driving or parking in the lane designated for bicycles?

A bicyclist in that situation seems to have three choices: stop, and wait for the dangerous polluting leviathan to get out of the way, a potentially dangerous choice during rush hour; squeeze between two moving vehicles and risk a "Malachi Crunch"; or hop on the sidewalk briefly and go around the deadly machines before returning to the bike lane.

But I guess this is the kind of institutional knowledge that only a bicyclist could have. That’s knowledge apparently missing at Philly’s daily newspapers. As is any sense of why bicycles might be a useful form of transportation in the city.

We are, after all, supposed to be encouraging people to "go green": that’s certainly Polaneczky’s stated aim at Philly.com’s "Earth to Philly" blog. But articles like hers, the Inky’s unsigned editorial, and Stu Bykofsky’s tantrum undermine bicycling as a credible alternative to cars, representing bicyclists as public menaces and supporting efforts to bureaucratize one of the few modes of transportation relatively free of state control -- and easily available to the poor. In fact, much like the freakout over the SEPTA strike, the columns I’ve seen about bikes primarily serve to whip up public anger and fear.

I realize our dailies’ coverage of the SEPTA strike was all about weakening the union, but I’m not sure what the motivation is here, except for one strong suspicion. By making bikers a scapegoat for a variety of Philadelphia’s traffic problems, you soften them up to be tapped for revenue enhancement. All those new licenses proposed by Councilman Fraank DiCicco’s, along with the fines and forfeitures offered by Councilman James Kenney, add up to a pretty penny for a city that’s practically bankrupt. Even better, you don’t have to call it a tax when you wrap yourself in the mantle of public safety.

The disconnect here is rather blatant: cars clearly contribute way more to death and injury in our city, but no one’s talking about jacking their fines. This isn’t about public safety as the Daily News, the Inky, and Councilmen James Kenney and Frank DiCicco claim. It’s about generating revenue for a bankrupt city. Let’s face it, drivers are backed by powerful lobbies like AAA while bikes ... not so much.

If this was about public safety, cars and trucks -- which vastly outnumber, outpace, and outweigh bikes -- would be in the city’s crosshairs. You won’t get that story in Philly’s daily newspapers.