Four Mayors on Why They’re Building Out Their Cities’ Bike Networks

Mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, AC Wharton of Memphis, Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, and Jennifer Selin of Morgantown, WV, kicked off the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference today.

A growing number of mayors want to make big strides on bike policy, and they need smart advocates to help them do it.

Mayors Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, Jennifer Selin of Morgantown, and A.C. Wharton of Memphis addressed the opening session at the 2014 Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference, now underway in Pittsburgh. The mayors highlighted their own cities’ efforts to create safer conditions for biking and walking, and shared their thoughts about how their cities have overcome key obstacles and how advocates can make an impact.

In all four cities, mayors called investment in walking and cycling infrastructure a smart long-term policy with numerous community benefits. “It’s healthy, it’s good for the economy, and our citizens,” said Philadelphia’s Nutter. They each cited constructive partnerships with advocates, and intensive listening to community concerns, as keys to advancement. Selin of Morgantown said, “I enjoy bicycling, but I can’t put it forth as my own agenda. It has to come from the community.”

Each mayor also highlighted how their bike networks will bridge social divides within their cities, and they pointed out that city mayors, unlike legislators, are obliged to make things work: “We’re the government of last resort,” said Memphis’s Wharton. “We can’t pass our responsibilities down to anyone else.”

Martha Roskowski from PeopleForBikes led off by introducing Isabella, a fictional 12-year-old girl. She urged planners and advocates in the audience to design bikeways that people like Isabella would enjoy — and highlighted how protected bike lanes have multiplied across the country. Yet in city after city, advocates alone can’t build new bike networks. “The single determinant” that best ensures success, Roskowski said, “is a really great mayor.”

Mayor Selin cited progress underway in Morgantown, a college town of 30,000 residents about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh in West Virginia. In mountainous areas like West Virginia, she said, “we need all the connections,” namely “a pedestrian bridge across a creek, so that two neighborhoods can feed into our 50-mile rail-trail system” and into downtown. Morgantown will also begin construction soon on its first protected bicycle climbing lane, another critical infrastructure link in the mountains.

Mayor Wharton said that in Memphis, “the miracle is not how much we’ve done, but the fact that we’ve done it at all.” One impetus for investing in bicycling in Memphis, he continued, was that “quite frankly, we had a chip on our shoulder. Every table that came along: worst, worst, worst.” Bike infrastructure presented itself as a “healthy, socially liberating” solution that would be “good for our cities, good for our folks — that’s all we need to know,” he said.

Wharton offered examples of how bike facilities intentionally bridge divides in his city. He said that “we wanted to make sure that this was for everybody. When we did the longest stretches of lanes, they were in predominantly black neighborhoods. We wanted to send that message: ‘This was for everybody, in every neighborhood. When you do get ready to bike, it’ll be there.'”

He also urged a reform of how the federal and state governments approach funding for bike infrastructure. “We should not have to engage in this fiction” about making bicycle and pedestrian improvements in order to improve air quality, he said. “Can’t we simply have funding for bike lanes because they’re a doggone good thing to do?”

In Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter’s street safety policies are “starting to drive down both vehicle and pedestrian crashes, as well as cycling crashes,” he said. While “there was some resistance at the beginning about bike lanes, we said ‘We’re resurfacing the streets and we’re just putting a few extra stripes down.'” A network is emerging from that method. He pointed out that in Philadelphia, “if you have a bike-share program, it can’t just be a downtown program,” and said that in a national first, “you will not have to have a credit card to use the bike-share system in Philadelphia.”

Nutter added that, even though he took office as the economy fell into recession, he wanted to address bicycling as part of a suite of policies to invest in the city’s long-term future: “bike lanes, recycling, sustainability, new plans for the city — all are part of what helped us recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression.” In particular, he says that bike facilities are “addressing the needs of a group of constituents who are here now, and others to come,” particularly the Millennial residents who have flocked to Philadelphia.

Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto promised that his city, after sitting on the sidelines for years, will “leapfrog” others in the bike-friendliest rankings. To tie together the city’s extensive riverfront trails, he promises “a superhighway system so you can get between them safely,” including the city’s newly-inaugurated protected bike lanes. The most visible of those lanes is right downtown, where the “crazy grid system was last updated in the 1950s, when the primary mode was the automobile. Now, imagine doing anything the same way you did things in the 1950s.” Instead, Peduto said, cities have to adapt to a new era “when people have the ability to live and work wherever they want,” and where “you have to provide the necessities in order to be able to keep them” — necessities like safe bikeways.

Peduto cited the emerging consensus about how to design great bikeways, but said, “The trade-offs aren’t about the infrastructure. It comes to how far can we push it before people start going in the streets with pitchforks and torches… It was like ripping that bandage off quick. We wanted to show it off and let people see it, so that we could continue to build it.”

The mayors all agreed that their job requires a thick skin. Nutter said that “if you want people to love you every day, this is the wrong business. You should go work in a pet shop.” After Peduto pointed out that “the most love and hate Twitter feeds I have received have been in this past week,” as the city’s first protected bike lanes were installed, Nutter offered some advice for Peduto’s staff. “Have the mayor reading less of the Twitter comments, because he will go insane,” he said.

Instead, the mayors urged advocates to take on more of the front-line responses to win the public-relations war on behalf of better cycling and walking — and to engage constructively to help make city officials’ jobs easier.

Selin had some advice about how advocates should try to get things done. “The person who has a solution, a suggestion, a grant you can apply for — those people get what they want.” She also urged follow-through after the first wave of progress on infrastructure. “If there isn’t some sort of push from the community, these improvements kind of fall by the wayside,” she said. “We can have great plans, but to get them into place we need to have people pushing constantly.”

Nutter defined a great advocate as someone “who engages and elevates the discussion so that it’s hard for people to say no. The changes you’re talking about are transformational.” And Peduto urged advocates to get involved early in the political process, saying “you need to know who your candidates are before they are in office, not change their minds once they’re in office.”

10 thoughts on Four Mayors on Why They’re Building Out Their Cities’ Bike Networks

  1. I rode in Philadelphia for the first time last week. And I can say that I was very impressed with the bike-lane network there, of which I experienced only a fraction. Particularly impressive is the fact that bike lanes can be found all over the city, including in outlying areas such as Northeast. By comparison, the comparable part of New York City, which would be Queens, is badly lacking bike lanes.

    Because I rode to Philadelphia and back home to New York, this left me with only one day to take in the city, as I needed full days to get there and to get home. Maybe next year, if Amtrak has its roll-on bike service up and running on Northeast Corridor trains, I can go down on the train and enjoy riding for several days down there.

  2. Hey Ferdinand, just curious what route you took between Philadelphia and New York? I’ve had a great time staying east of the I-95 corridor, by taking the ferry from Manhattan to Belford Harbor, biking south through Freehold and the New Jersey pine barrens, then at Egg Harbor meeting up with the NJ Transit line between Philly and AC. But I’ve only biked east to AC (which involved a dangerous shoulderless bridge) or rolled on the NJ Transit at Egg Harbor. It’s a fun trip anyway…. some hills at the start, then nearly all flat. Worth checking out, maybe, if you make the trip again.

    And totally agree – can’t wait till Amtrak is more bike-friendly.

  3. To get to Philadelphia from New York, I started out by going over the George Washington Bridge. I then went down through Bergen and Hudson Counties to Jersey City, then over to Newark using the bridge on Communipaw Ave.

    From Newark I took NJ 27 south until it hit NJ 35; then 35 over the bridge to South Amboy. Soon after that I got on County Road 535, which goes all the way through Middlesex and Mercer Counties to Trenton.

    I then went over the Calhoun Street Bridge into Pennsylvania, and took Trenton Ave. / Trenton Rd. to New Rodgers Rd. (also called Veterans Hwy.). Then south on that street to Bristol Pike; then west into Philadelphia, where Bristol Pike becomes Frankford Ave.

    It was notable that there were almost no hills on the entire trip. The only major climbs were onto the bridges, the George Washington and the bridge between Perth Amboy and South Amboy.

    Here are the maps showing the details of the ride in each direction between my home in Queens in New York City and my hotel in Northeast Philadelphia.

    to Philadelphia:

    coming home:

  4. As a resident of Philadelphia, I have a different take on the “wonderful” world of bikes and cycling.
    Apart from the fact that the mayor has ignored a lot of our city’s other problems in order to make this a cycling oasis, there is a real problem with cyclists themselves.
    None of them obey the law.
    I walk a lot through center city, Philly’s central business district, and I see plenty of cyclists who make this place a nightmare for those on foot or driving cars.
    Cyclists regularly run red lights, drive against traffic, and speed on the sidewalks totally disregarding pedestrians. They disobey every traffic law you can imagine and get away with it. All of these things are against the law here in Philly — but those laws never get enforced.
    I’m not against bikes, but I do think that pedestrians come first.
    Bikers should have to be licensed, just like operators of other vehicles.
    Bikes should have to be equipped with something that makes noise (it’s very frightening crossing streets in the darkened city and having bicycles silently running red lights and hitting you as you cross on a Green light.
    Most bike riders here have neither bells (inadequate anyway) or lights or any other safety accessories.
    When pedestrians comes first and cyclists obey the traffic laws, then I’ll be more inclined to support them.
    But I think Michael “My Greatest Achievement In Two Terms Is Bicycle Lanes” Nutter is an utter failure as a mayor and the network of lanes doesn’t add up to much as the rest of the city crumbles.

  5. I am very sad to have to acknowledge that most of your comments are valid. When bicyclists break the law, this makes a terrible impression on the rest of society. One effect is that it alienates those people who should be our natural allies: pedestrians. Even worse, it gives free ammunition to people who already hate bicyclists, spurring these people to complain to police, to elected officials, and to the outlets of the idiot media.

    When I ride, I stop at all red lights; also, I never go the wrong way on streets or ride on the sidewalks. I insist that other bicyclists do likewise, and denounce those who don’t. This leads to plenty of arguments — both out on the street and here on Streetsblog — with other bicylists, people who spout self-serving rationalisations about why they shouldn’t have to follow the law.

    They claim that they couldn’t get anywhere if they stopped at every red light. I, having ridden 5800 miles last year and being on pace for more this year, and having just ridden from New York to Philadelphia and back, all while stopping at every red light, have no patience at all for that kind of nonsensical statement.

    They point out that drivers don’t follow the law, either. And this is true. (Though, from my two days of experience riding in Philadelphia, I get the impression that it is less true there than in New York.) I am a daily bike commuter; and every day I see drivers ignoring stop signs and blowing red lights. However, if we want to criticise these people, who, unlike us, are creating deadly conditions by means of their law-breaking, then we have the obligation to act within the law so as not to surrender our moral standing to make that criticism.

    These excuse-makers often say that the law requiring bicyclists to stop at red lights is absurd. And this, too, is true. Red lights are designed to manage automobile traffic; they are poorly suited to bicycles. Idaho has a law that allows bicyclists to proceed after a stop at a red light. This obviously should be the law everywhere. But the fact is that it is currently *not* the law everywhere. We need to follow the existing laws (even the stupid ones), as we lobby our legislators for better laws.

    These apologists for scofflaw bicycling don’t accept the fact that their illegal acts are also unethical acts which demonstrate poor citizenship. If we want to claim that we are a legitimate part of society and are therefore entitled to public accommodations, then we have the responsibility to behave like a legitimate part of society by using bicycle-specific accommodations and all public roads in the proper way. When a bicyclist uses the accommodation of a bike lane but then runs a red light, that bicycilst is showing an arrogance that is infurating to any observer. Someone seeing this behaviour will likely conclude, not unreasonably, that bicycle infrastructure is not a good thing.

    Any individual bicyclist’s biggest enemies are drivers, the overwhelming majority of whom are incompetent and negligent, and many of whom are hostile and downright murderous. But bicyclists’ collective worst enemies are bicyclists ourselves, too many of whom believe that the law doesn’t apply to us. And far too many of us are willing to display this belief to the world.

    Where your comments are badly mistaken is in your assertion that bicyclists should be licenced. A licence is justified for motor vehicles only on the grounds of the great harm that these vehicles do. Bicycles simply cannot be that destructive; deaths and serious injuries to pedestrians resulting from collissions with bicycles are statistically invisible when compared to those deaths and injuries which occur as a result of being hit by cars. As you can see from the previous paragraphs, in no way do I condone irresponsible and illegal bike riding. But please do not exaggerate; from the point of view of pedestrians, this constitutes an annoyance, not a life-threatening menace.

    Furthermore, the establishment of bicycle lanes is a fine legacy for any mayor, and makes up for a lot of faults. When Bloomberg was elected in New York, I was very unhappy. And there is plenty of legitimate criticism that one can make about his tenure, particularly regarding the treatment of black and Latin kids by our terrifying and terrorising police force. But, despite this serious flaw, Bloomberg has to be considered a great mayor for his having given us hundreds of miles of bike lanes.

    Bike lanes calm traffic; and this benefits everyone. The benefit to bicyclists and pedestrians of slower automobile speeds is obvious. What might be less obvious is that this benefits drivers as well, as collissions become fewer and less serious, thereby causing fewer injuries and costing car owners less in repairs and insurance premiums.

    A city which promotes bicycling with the creation of bicycle infrastructure is to some extent de-incentivising driving. Bike lanes lure more and more people to take up bicycling; and some will inevitably be people who begin using their bicycles for trips that they formerly took in their cars. Doing so becomes easier and easier as the bike-lane network becomes more and more extensive, and as bicycling becomes normalised in the culture. This has a positive impact on public health, both by spurring exercise and by slowing the increase in pollution.

    So bicyclists’ interests are actually identical with the general interest; and promoting bicycling amounts to promoting the common good.

  6. Your comments about bicyclists and pedestrian injuries are insensitive and wrongheaded.
    One reason I am in favor of licensing cyclists is that I was run down — yes run down — by a cyclist who ran a red light. I had to go to the hospital and in addition to other injuries, I had tire marks running from my legs nearly to my neck.
    And what did she say after picking herself up and taking her bike off me as I lay in the street? She placed her helmet back on, hopped on her bike and said, “I guess I didn’t see you.”
    When I replied, “I guess you didn’t.” She hurled epithets at me ( something like f** you! and more.) then rode away. No apology, no seeing if I needed assistance, no nothing. And there was no way to track her down because she had no license.
    If you want to be a part of civilized society, you need to submit to the law. You need to be accountable to the public. Having a license is a start in that direction.
    Cyclists are quite arrogant and very self-satisfied in thinking that they are better than others because they ride a bike instead of driving. That is an attitude which is reprehensible and which leads to their thuggish behavior.
    Bikes are just as dangerous as cars for the pedestrian. There is little you can say that will convince me otherwise.
    Until bikes are licensed and until laws are enforced making cyclists responsible for their behavior, I can’t support any concessions to cyclists.
    And as for the legacy of a mayor — I think that improving a city for those who are in need, improving a city’s economy, and seeing to it that corruption and fraud and waste are rooted out is a much better though more difficult one to have. Making bicycle lanes is something any idiot can do — improving people’s lives and managing a city so it has a future is what politicians are elected to do. Our mayor has failed on those counts — but he sure made lots of bicycle lanes which cyclists ignore and which have made being a pedestrian more dicey.

  7. I have twice been hit and knocked to the ground by wrong-way cyclists — and this was while I was riding my bike. It’s only by luck that I was not seriously hurt.

    I have no sympathy and no tolerance for bicyclists who ride in an unsafe and reckless manner. The arrogance with which this sort of bicyclist behaves is infuriating. Not only are such people dangerous to others, but they also do great harm to the cause of bicycling by giving us all a bad name, and by making enemies out of people who are our natural allies — pedestrians.

    I do not deny your suffering (as I mentioned, I could very easily have experienced a similar fate in the frightening incidents to which I alluded above); and you are right to be angry. Your story makes me angry, too.

    But my near-miss, your actual injury, and even the recent death in New York do not change the fact that bicycles in the aggregate are beneficial for the quality of life of a city. Whereas cars are a terrible scourge and a menace. It’s absurd to speak of the two in the same breath.

    Driving a car is an inherently dangerous, filthy, and anti-social act. This cannot be cured; it can at best be only partly mitigated. Unfortunately, the best tool for mitigation, namely, meaningful standards for licensure, has never been implemented.

    The test to get a driver’s licence should be one which only a small fraction of people can pass. But, because society has decided to give out licences essentially for the asking, we’re stuck with a situation in which the overwhelming majority of people operating these deadly machines are spectacularly incompetent. This is a sickness in society; and bicycle infrastructure is part of the cure.

    Yes, reckless bicyclists are dangerous; but the claim that they are “just as dangerous as cars for the pedestrian” is objectively false and is wildly irresponsible. It is no defence of law-breaking bicyclists to point out that law-breaking on the part of drivers is a problem orders of magnitude more serious. Indeed, a car operated perfectly legally is more hazardous for pedestrians than is a bicycle operated illegally.

    Finally, the creation of bicycle lanes helps people in need by making low-cost transportation easier. And the promotion of bicycling is good public-health policy; this benefits low-income people, who disproportionately suffer from diseases related to lifestyle.

    Bicycle infrastructure represents something more basic and more visceral: the reclamation of our public space — of our land — for use by the common people.

    Despite any legitimate criticism that Bloomberg, Nutter, or another mayor may warrant, any mayor who promotes bicycling as vigourously as these mayors have done deserves a great deal of praise for having improved his/her city.

  8. So the bench mark is a system that would make a 12 year old girl feel safe. Don’t count on more than a few miles of that, maximum.

  9. True. That’s because they believe they have no protection from the law. Have you ever seen a motorist in Philadelphia signal for a right hand turn? Me neither. In a situation like that, you take care of yourself.

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