Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Lessons of Spruce Street

I’m posting this in connection with the video I shot of a ride on Spruce Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, already embedded in an earlier post. Spruce Street is a one-way street with parallel parking on the left side, and a bike lane on the right side except for a couple blocks where there is parallel parking on the right side also. Here’s the video. You may click on it to enlarge it. It is a high-definition video, best viewed full-screen.

Now, I’ve quite often been accused at times of being a militant vehicular cyclist.

Militant vehicular cyclists are stereotyped as disparaging all bike lanes, always preferring mixing with motor traffic.

In fact, in my ride on Spruce Street, I was being pragmatic: using the bike lane when it worked for me, leaving the bike lane when the general travel lane worked better. The bike lane worked quite well for me when I chose to use it. It safely allowed faster motorists to overtake me, and me to overtake slower motorists, between intersections.

But now, a Philadelphia cyclist, K.K. (I’ll just use initials) has turned the vehicular cycling complaint on its head, accusing me of being subservient to motorists, because I did not always stay in the bike lane on Spruce Street in Philadelphia. I’m going to try to probe the rationale for this.

What would explain K.K.’s complaint? She doesn’t say. I can only speculate. So, I’ll do that.

I spent a bit more time waiting than if I’d always ridden up to the intersection in the bike lane, but I don’t think that is the point. Assertiveness, for K.K., amounts to territoriality, as in: “the bike lane is my part of the street, and by not using it 100% of the time to get ahead, you are failing to stand up for cyclists’ rights.”

It also appears to me that K.K. thinks that militant use of the bike lane sends a message that will lead to improvements in motorists’ behavior so they respect bicyclists more, and safety will improve — the “safety in numbers” argument. Perhaps. But don’t count on it to save your life.

And it also appears that she thinks it is actually safer to stay in the bike lane, which is a sad situation, because people are getting killed by riding in the bike lane up to the coffin corner before intersections. Large trucks have been turning right from the next lane, knocking bicyclists down and running over them.

Topping off the irony, the remedy to the coffin-corner crashes now being proposed by the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition is to force bicyclists into the coffin corner by placing a barrier between the bike lane and the general travel lane, creating what is ironically called a “protected bike lane.”

If you would like to see the specifics of K.K.’s complaint, and my responses, they are here. Yes, I know that a logical dialog doesn’t work with people whose minds are closed. But it may be useful for others to get a taste of how such minds work.

Spruce Street, Philadelphia

Bicyclist Emily Fredericks was killed, crushed by a right-turning garbage truck, on Spruce Street in Philadelphia on November 29. Another bicyclist, Becca Refford, was similarly right hooked a block away on Pine Street on December 8 and suffered serious injuries. I happened to have video of a ride I took on Spruce Street, including the crash location. I put editing of this video onto the fast track, adding narration about how to ride safely on this street, in the interest of preventing future such tragic and avoidable crashes. Please share with friends in Philadelphia.

This is high-definition video and is best viewed in YouTube at 1080-line resolution, or the highest resolution your monitor will support, if less than that. Click on the video to bring up the link to the version on YouTube.

Alleycat racers

A British cyclist who goes by the online name gaz545 on YouTube has posted a version of one of Lucas Brunelle’s “alleycat race” videos, with voice-over commentary. Bravo gaz545!

Lucas Brunelle is, or was, a bicycle courier, but he distinguishes himself by shooting videos of the alleycat races — anything-goes races through cities, in urban traffic. The racers are mostly from the bicycle courier community. A Brunelle video is now making the rounds of 40 cities in a bicycle film festival.

Brunelle’s colleague Kevin Porter, who appears in some of his videos, served with me on the massbiek Board for a ocuple of years, something of an attempt to draw the courier community into mainstream advocacy.

Allow me to describe the fundamental difference between alleycat racing and responsible, sane cycling (or responsible, sane driving a car, for that matter — it’s the same idea).

The rules of the road establish who may go and who must yield right of way, so road users know what to expect of each other — but also, beyond that, in every situation where it is possible, both the road user who may go and the one who must yield are in full view of each other and able to avoid a collision if the other makes a mistake. Where sight lines are obstructed, traffic signs and signals direct road users to slow or stop, and allow them to take turns where flows of traffic cross.

Alleycat racers flout all this. They rely on their wits, and on guessing what other road users will do. They ride as if they were invisible. Much of the time, they are invisible, hidden behind sight obstructions where they can only guess what is around the corner. They ride opposite the direction of traffic, between lanes, where one driver’s slight change of direction will result in a head-on collision. They ride in extremely close quarters with vehicles which, if the driver doesn’t do as the alleycat has guessed, will sideswipe them, collide with them or run them over.

Alleycat racing is an extreme sport: a sport that involves a serious risk of severe injury or death — but more than that. Most so-called extreme sports, for example motorcycle jumping, involve only self-imposed risks. Participants in extreme fighting sports impose serious risks on their opponents, but by consent. Alleycat racers, on the other hand, impose serious risks on other people without obtaining consent and without warning. There’s an expression to describe this: breaking the social contract.

Brunelle’s videos are of high technical quality. Also, I’ll admit to some admiration for the skill of the alleycat racers. It is a level and type of skill normally required of a soldier in combat, a police officer confronted with an armed and violent offender, a cyclist or motorist facing an imminent threat of a collision. Skill is good. Any cyclist, any driver will face emergency situations occasionally. I’d think that perhaps the most skillful cyclist imaginable would be a reformed alleycat racer, if such a character exists.

Tamer motorists and cyclists can learn anticipation of hazards, braking, swerving — through training, and practice in the controlled environment of the skid pad or empty parking lot. My Bicycling Street Smarts turorial is one of a number of resources that teach these skills. But to put these skills intentionally to the test in the public streets is to court unnecessary risks, and to put other people at risk as well. The crash types and crash rate described in the Dennerlein-Meeker study of Boston bicycle couriers reveal the risks that couriers take — and the couriers aren’t even riding at nearly the extreme level seen in alleycat races.

Gaz545 doesn’t know of any injury that occurred during the London alleycat race, though I saw a number of very close calls in his video. However, in an alleycat race in Philadelphia which passed through the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a participant came racing down off an overpass on a campus walkway — going from right to left here —


View Larger Map

(The break in the image of the overpass is due to the boundary between photos used in the satellite view)

The alleycat racer collided with a pedestrian — a student’s mother who was visiting the campus — knocked her down, injuring her seriously, and raced off. Other racers witnessed the incident. Police interrogated several but were unable to obtain identification of the hit-and-run racer from any of them.

Let’s describe the alleycat racers for what they are: outlaws who pump each other up to ever more extreme conduct in traffic, endangering others, not only themselves, and then when that danger results in injury to an innocent bystander, they adhere to a code of silence.

The pedestrian in the Philadelphia incident filed a lawsuit against the University for allowing the race to take place on its property, though the University had no idea that there would be a race. Suing the University was the only way that she could hope for any recourse.

It isn’t too far-fetched also to ask whether police might infiltrate the alleycat community to find out where a race is scheduled and perform an effective sweep-up. Alleycat racers are not “silly cyclists” (gaz545’s term, describing the cyclists in his other videos) making dumb mistakes in traffic because they don’t know any better. Alleycat racers act in wanton disregard for public safety. They do serious damage to the reputation of other cyclists as well, and I have very little sympathy for them.

(And here’s a link to Lucas Brunelle’s Web site, now that you have read what I have to say about it. There is no mention on it of the Philadelphia race, for whatever reason.)