13. How Active Transportation is a Climate Solution

This show aired on Friday May 31, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. You can hear the audio afterwards as a podcast. The script is below. Produced by Meenal & Tanya.

Hello and welcome

Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host. I’m joined this week by my long-time friend Tanya Seaman.

With us later in the show will be Randy LoBasso from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Last week we talked about how city zoning and development impacts our climate. Because how we design our city influences how much energy people use, where they shop, and how they get around. Today we’re going to continue our discussion of city planning, with a focus on transportation — specifically active transportation like walking and biking — and we’re going to tell you more about the solutions we’ve assembled into our climate action platform.

Citywide, almost 3% of people bike to work. In Center City and the surrounding neighborhoods cycling rates are much higher, ranging from 5% to over 30%.

First, as a little bit of a refresher, a city such as Philadelphia, with its densely built city center, makes it easy to get around without a car in what is called Greater Center City – the urban core that includes Center City and the surrounding denser neighborhoods that are primarily on flat ground. Due to this flatness and continuous nature of the urban fabric, it is pretty easy to navigate on foot, by bike, and by public transit.

According to Census figures, our rates of commuting by active transportation modes (which is pretty much anything other than a car or motorcycle) are not as high as we might expect. Citywide, almost 3% of people bike to work. In Center City and the surrounding neighborhoods cycling rates are much higher, ranging from 5% to over 30%. Public transit ranges from 12 to 80%, and walking is between 23% and 76%. This is great in the areas where it’s highest, but there’s still a lot of room to increase this number in most parts of Greater Center City, as well as citywide.

Why are the numbers lower than we might expect, given our density and flat terrain? Our public transit system and our bicycling infrastructure have taken a low priority in comparison to driving and parking, given how the city spends our infrastructure dollars. The City makes it easy enough to drive (assuming you like congested streets) and makes it really cheap to park at the curb.

What could persuade people to get out of their cars? More frequent trains and buses, giving buses and trolleys priority on streets so they don’t sit in traffic, and as 5th Square has suggested, offer free transfers between buses, subways, and regional rail.

Currently, folks in a hurry use ride-hailing services, which add to the cars already clogging our streets and slowing down the buses they chose not to take. All of the idling while cars sit in traffic…we know this is bad for our air quality, and our greenhouse gas emissions.

For those who ride bikes as transportation, this poor air quality goes right into our lungs; there’s no air filter on bikes!

About having more frequent bus and rail service: This is possible only with increased ridership: So more passengers means more frequency, which means more ridership.. You get the point.

Other related improvements to ridership numbers could be to have the City provide pre-tax transit passes to its employees, and to charge more for parking. This means that City employees would have no out-of-pocket expenses related to their commute, and with a monthly pass, they could use it for any other trips served by public transit.

We think it would be great if the universities adopted this policy as well. Some offer discounted semester passes, but if their tuition covered the relatively small cost of monthly transit passes, students could explore the city more. They might also choose not to add the expense of a car (and all that that entails) to their cost of getting an education. For the universities, this would translate to less pressure for building more parking.

A note about parking: Parking lots and garages generally are not people-magnets, they usually do not have a pleasant street presence the way shops with apartments above have, and they attract cars rather than human beings. Housing cars takes a lot of space, space that could instead be used for other purposes, especially when we have so many other (and I’d like to say “better”) ways to get around than by car.

Let’s talk about the many benefits of walking and biking.. First, folks who walk or ride to work are generally not stressed-out from their commutes the way drivers are. Physical activity increases endorphins, which make us feel good. Second, exercising as you go places means you don’t need to go to the gym for regular exercise — or feel guilty about yet again not making it to the gym. When exercise is built into your life, it’s easier to do. Third, it also means that it’s something you can do your whole life — from riding to school as a child to riding for your commute, grocery shopping, and social life, and as a senior aging in the place you know and where your friends live. Fourth, getting around the city by our own means also enables us to adapt better to current temperatures, as we are not continually in air-conditioned spaces like cars — and we can avoid getting into a car that’s been out in the hot sun.

Walking has all of these same benefits, though it’s important to note that even if you drive, you are always also a pedestrian in a city, even if only from your car to your destination. So it’s important for everyone to be able to move safely and comfortably around the city. We should also note that wheelchair-users are also considered pedestrians.

I want to share an anecdote about my own cycling life. Up until recently, I had taken a two-year hiatus from riding my bike because I was tired of the treatment I was receiving from drivers. During my break from riding, I walked a lot and took the bus. Though I think I began to take the bus more and more. I was encouraged by a friend to ride, and for the places I was going, biking made much more sense. I decided to ride to the office as a first trip, and although it was only a mile from my house, I was winded and felt this way all day. Within a couple of rides I was back to normal. But it was really clear how riding was very important to my fitness, and to the fitness of everyone who rides. People who aren’t riding because the streets aren’t safe are missing out on an opportunity to exercise as they go about their lives.

We’ve just mentioned the benefits to cyclists and pedestrians for themselves. So how does Philadelphia benefit from active transportation? The carbon footprint of bicycling and walking is very low, as they produce no emissions, need no energy except whatever you’ve eaten, and create no wear-and-tear to our streets and sidewalks. They are not creating potholes that need to be repaved and they are not heating up our city with their engines, heating systems, and air conditioners. (You know how it feels to stand next to a running car on a hot day?) Active transportation also supports dense building development, which inherently has a much smaller carbon footprint than sprawling development with larger, separated homes that demand more energy and require the use of a car for every trip.

51% of people would ride a bike in the city if it felt safe for them to do.

image credit: media.philly.com/../congestion/road-use_medium.png

Bicycles use very little space compared to cars, and the cost of bicycle infrastructure is a pittance in comparison to what is spent for cars. In Philadelphia, free or practically free parking lines almost every street in the city. In-street bike-parking racks fit ten bikes into the same space that would otherwise fit one car.

So, if bicycling and walking are so good for us — and for our city…

How can we make it easier to walk and cycle in our city?

Let’s step back a moment and ask why people drive in this city and in most US cities. Cities are designed for automobiles — with highways that lead to our city streets, with lots of free and inexpensive parking, and with few impediments. Since Americans began prioritizing car ownership in the 1950s, our cities have sought to improve the experience of driving a car, including being able to drive as fast as possible. But it turns out, they aren’t an efficient means for going short distances, and as our city fills up with newcomers with cars, it makes our streets congested. Also, very importantly, death from automobile crashes is the fourth leading cause of death in this country. So perhaps we need a new design for our cities, one that makes it easy to get around in ways other than by car. The neat thing is that once we make it safe for cyclists and pedestrians, it will be safer for drivers as well.

We’ve heard from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia that 51% of people would ride a bike in the city if it felt safe for them to do. Wow! That’s potentially a lot of people on bikes! Considering our current ridership rates, if we made riding feel safe in Philadelphia, we could really increase our numbers.

One of the best ways to make biking safer is to separate bike lanes from cars and trucks with a lane of parking. This ensures that if a driver veers out of their lane, they hit another car, not a cyclist. These bike lanes are designed to make it impossible to park in, preserving the lane for cyclists, and eliminating a frequent conflict over space.

For instance, when there is a car or truck parked in a bike lane, a cyclist must merge in front of a moving car or truck to get around the parked vehicle, and that can be dangerous. It also feels a bit disrespectful not to be able to travel freely in the tiny bit of space devoted to cyclists.

Another important way to ensure that biking is safe is to maintain these rights of way year-round, whether clearing the street of leaves and debris or snow. Trails should also be maintained year-round as they are used both as transportation routes and as a way to leave the concrete grid and get some unencumbered exercise.

Teaching the rules of the road for all users starting at a young age and including it in our state driving manual and test would ensure that everyone understands them the way everyone understands what a stop sign means. We do need better enforcement by police officers, to address both threats and actual harm done by drivers to cyclists and pedestrians. Unfortunately, there are often no legal consequences for crashing into cyclists and pedestrians.

Some easy things we can do are to daylight our intersections. Daylighting means to make crosswalks more visible by keeping cars from parking within 20 feet of a crosswalk. It is currently illegal to do this, but it is generally not enforced. Keeping crosswalks clear makes it easy for pedestrians to see oncoming vehicles of all kinds, and enables drivers and cyclists to see approaching pedestrians. When pedestrians are shorter than cars, they are invisible to approaching traffic until they are already out in the street. Cleared crosswalks effectively also shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians. Some neighborhoods (like Graduate Hospital) are actively pursuing this strategy for traffic-calming, and the City of Philadelphia recently concluded a competitive proposal process seeking requests for Slow Zones in neighborhoods across the city.

Slow Zones are areas within a neighborhood that have been designated to receive traffic-calming treatments, such as daylighting, speed bumps, and speed-limit signs. The City awarded these project requests to neighborhoods that have experienced a high number of crashes, that have a high number of vulnerable users – such as children and seniors, and people living below the poverty line — and that have a number of community spaces such as libraries, health centers, public housing, and schools.

Similar to daylighting are raised crosswalks. These crosswalks become more visible because they are at the same level of the sidewalk, and force cars to slow down more than they otherwise might have. They also enable pedestrians and anyone with wheeled vehicles like strollers, wheelchairs, and hand carts to roll straight across from the sidewalk through the crosswalk without having to deal with a ramp. A few intersections along Broad Street currently have raised intersections, and though the effect is subtle for drivers, it’s inherently easier for pedestrians to navigate.

Finally, an aggressive tree-planting and maintenance program would encourage both walking and cycling. On hot days, trees make it possible and even pleasant to walk through a neighborhood. Unfortunately, we have many shadeless streets. This makes it very uncomfortable to be outside, particularly when neither side of the street is in shade. Trees not only shade, they also transpire water as vapor, so they add coolness that shade from a building does not do.

I’ve been aware of approaching Rittenhouse Square by bike, and half a block away I can tell I am approaching a place that is much cooler than the nearby streets. It is a square the size of one city block filled with trees and lawns, so it is not reflecting much heat, and is mostly offering shade.

To address climate change, it is critical that the City support and encourage cycling and walking, as it benefits everyone’s air quality, levels of noise, and safety, and the costs are minimal compared to what it spends to support driving cars.

Interview — Randy LoBasso

With us on the show is Randy LoBasso from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, where Randy is the policy manager. He is responsible for overseeing policy directives and campaigns to make Philadelphia a better, safer place to ride a bicycle.

  1. What are some of the most impactful ways you think we can increase bicycle ridership?
  2. I think the Bicycle Coalition has said that 51% of Philadelphia residents would ride if they thought they’d be safe doing so. Can you elaborate on this number, and is it throughout Philadelphia?
  3. What do you find to be the most persuasive arguments for adding or improving bicycle infrastructure, when speaking with neighbors & civic groups?
  4. What about with councilmembers?

It’s certainly encouraging to hear how about the upcoming bicycle infrastructure improvements that will help everyone be safer – pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and drivers.

Engage with Our Elected Reps

And now, how do we translate this to Engage on Climate Action?  A few State Representatives have introduced HB 792 to allow protected bike lanes and pedestrian plazas on state roads. Even if you don’t ride a bike, these safety measures will help your friends and family who do ride, and make you feel more certain that you won’t accidentally harm a cyclist.

Learn more on the Engage page at Philly Talks Climate.

Connect with Concerned Others

Meet fellow cyclists on Tuesday June 4th. Because now you can ride over the Ben Franklin Bridge! The ride is from 9:30 till 11:30, from either Collingswood or Old City in Philadelphia. To join the ride, you’ll need to register. Once you’ve registered, you’ll receive instructions on where to meet. At the end of the ride there will be a ribbon- cutting ceremony for the new bike lane connecting Philly and Camden.

Not a cyclist? Then there’s the first Green Blocks Sustainability Fair tomorrow, Saturday, June 1st from 10 till 2 at Kemble Park, across from Central High School in the Logan area of Philadelphia.

Kemble Park is one of Philadelphia Water Department’s most outstanding green water infrastructure projects. This park allows 85 percent of the rain to be captured right into the ground where it falls.

At 1 pm, join the “Bring Your Own Bag” rally and help us kick off a campaign to eliminate single-use plastic checkout bags. Come early for the first-come, first-serve giveaway of reusable check-out bags and recycling bins.  

Details for both events are on the Connect page at Philly Talks Climate.

Thanks for listening to Philly Talks Climate! I’m Meenal and I’m Tanya. Have a climate-friendly week!


Queen: Bicycle Race (I want to ride my bicycle), lyrics here


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