The Beauty and Mechanics of a Human Bike Lane

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Twenty-four hours after Emily Fredricks was right hooked and fatally crushed by a garbage truck in Philadelphia, citizens took action by forming a people-protected bike lane along two blocks of Spruce Street.  The purpose of the action: to elevate public awareness of established solutions to motor vehicle violence, to call out Philadelphia City Council and the Washington Square West Civic Association for blocking safety upgrades, and for a moment, to remedy a lethal safety hazard.

How effective was this tactic?  How did it work out logistically?  How did bicyclists and motorists respond?  How did the police respond?  What can we learn from the experience?  Below are my anecdotes.

Logistics

As 50 to 75 people took position in the painted buffer zone along Spruce between 11th and 13th Streets, a wood barricade was placed in-line with the buffer just east of 11th Street, but we moved it farther east so as not to block the right-hand turn lane (so as to preserve normal traffic patterns).   At first, two people stood in front of the barricade and welcomed bikers into the safe lane.  That’s when the Philadelphia Police parked a cruiser in the bike lane in a genuine but misdirected effort to protect us from approaching motorists.  Eventually we abandoned everything east of 11th Street, convincing the cops to vacate the bike lane, simplifying the operation.

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Behavior of Bicyclists

During the hour, all kinds of different people biked through the demonstration.  Many were briefly confused but quickly caught on, especially when welcomed verbally (“today there’s a protected bike lane for you”).  They otherwise smiled, expressed gratitude, and continued on their merry way.  The greatest source of confusion for bicyclists, of course, was the well-intentioned actions of the police.

Behavior of the Police

The irony of parking a patrol car in the bike lane – thereby forcing bikers to swerve into traffic – was lost on the police.   In failing to recognize the safety effect of drivers coming upon the unexpected, and in underestimating the degree of automatic communication between drivers and human bollards, the officers displayed a misunderstanding of commonsense human behavior.  On the other hand, police officers were gracious in working with demonstrators and upholding First Amendment rights.  Eventually the police blocked only motor vehicle traffic on Spruce.  (Defeats the purpose, but I’ll take it.)

Behavior of Motorists

Before police blocked the vehicular lane on Spruce, rear-view mirrors passed mere inches from demonstrators backs.  Because of the drivers’ psychological reaction to people in the street, traffic moved at a slow, humane pace; and the perception of danger was absent.  I stood with my shoulder at the edge of the buffer zone, leaving ~ 10 feet clear to parked cars across the street.  School buses and other wide vehicles passed easily – and slowly.  If this is an indication of how a permanent (non-human) barrier would function, residents of Spruce Street will enjoy slower, safer, quieter traffic when permanent bollards or concrete curbs are installed.

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Organizing 

Emily was tragically overtaken by the truck at approximately 7:25 AM Tuesday, according to a barista at Greenstreet Coffee. From a partaker’s perspective, the action 24 hours later was a well-supported, well-publicized demonstration.  Not having heard the terrible news, I learned of the planned action Tuesday evening in an email blast from 5th Square (Philly’s urbanism political action committee).  Many other human bollards were alerted, presumably, through social media and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.  I was 2nd to arrive at 7:23 AM.  By 7:30 AM, the two-block long human wall was forming, then it promptly dispersed at 8:30 AM.  Numerous media outlets filmed and interviewed throughout.

The action’s organizational success owes partly to the sheer simplicity of the Human Bike Lane idea, and to the outrage generated, unfortunately, by Emily’s death.  We hope future people-protected bike lanes will not benefit from that energy, but will instead lead to the prevention of more violence.

Overall Effectiveness

Renowned American linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky has emphasized that effective direct actions are ones that actually help the victims of injustice in concrete ways.

The Human Bike Lane – in lieu of actual concrete – granted physical protection to men, women, children, and elderly people.   It accomplished this without obstructing anyone, without stoking tensions, and without arrests.  In providing a tangible (if brief) remedy to a glaring safety injustice, the Human Bike Lane was indeed effective.

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Equally as important is the extent to which the tactic elevated public consciousness of a well-established solution to the threat of fast-moving vehicles: protected bike lanes.  Whether using plastic bollards, parked cars, heavy planters, or low curbs to separate motorized and non-motorized traffic, protected bike lanes exist in almost every major US city – but hardly at all in Philadelphia.  (Reportedly, a means of physical separation is already funded and planned for installation within the existing buffer zones along Spruce and Pine; the project is currently stalled by a minority of change-phobic citizens and their choke hold on weak City Council members and the Washington Square West Civic Association.)

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As I perceive, Wednesday’s deployment of the Human Bike Lane was effective in spreading the solution message on social and other media.  The visceral demonstration not only highlighted the outrage of a senseless and *preventable death, it showed that people care deeply, and it educated the wider public on a practical solution, and thus hacked the political problem of making Philadelphia more humane.  (The engineering / logistical problems are easily and have long been worked out.)

{*Technically, a “protected intersection” as well as legal issues (e.g. strict liability – see the Netherlands) and education of motorists are more particular solutions to preventing the right hook suffered by Emily.}

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Most vital (to me, at least) is the consciousness-raising effect the Human Bike Lane had on participants and passers by (especially those on bikes).  Despite the tragic impetus for assembling, the action produced positive, beautiful energy.

In forming the Human Bike Lane, we learned that we have the power to act when politicians and institutions fail.  We learned that we have the ability to get on television and talk about protected bike lanes and the human rights violations we witness and experience every day.  And we learned the Human Bike Lane is a tactic that works and should be replicated.  We must ensure that Emily won’t have died in vain.

4 thoughts on “The Beauty and Mechanics of a Human Bike Lane

  1. Pingback: Philadelphia Cyclists Demand Safer Bike Lanes — Now – Streetsblog USA

  2. Pingback: Philadelphia Cyclists Demand Safer Bike Lanes — Now – Streetsblog USA ⋆ New York city blog

  3. Pingback: Philadelphia Cyclists Demand Safer Bike Lanes — Now | Restaurants in New York City

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