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October 02, 2015

Let's (occasionally) make Philly a car-free oasis

Philly reclaimed its streets, if only for a couple days last weekend. We should do it again.

Opinion Government
Pope bike Advanced Sports International/Contributed Art

Mayor Michael Nutter presents Archbishop Charles Chaput with a customized bike for Pope Francis.

Pope Francis wouldn’t arrive in Philadelphia for another three days, but it was time for last-minute preparations at the East Falls homestead. Namely, the clock struck “put together the Schwinn Lakeshore Cruiser that’s been sitting unassembled in the basement for two or three years" o'clock.

This wasn’t the belated acknowledgment of an exercise-more New Year’s resolution; it was pure necessity.

I would be covering the papal visit on Saturday and Sunday. Pre-emptively stashing the bicycle beyond the Secret Service’s eyes and magnetometers down in the danger-red Independence Mall security zone was the only way to get to, and from, my journalistic staging point.

So, there the assembled bike sat maybe 25 feet from where Pope Francis’ Fiat cruised the wrong way down one-way Seventh Street.

Yeah, it was pretty damn cool seeing him go down a block where I stood with just a couple dozen folks waving, cheering and angling for a papal blessing on Saturday afternoon. Strike that. It was more than pretty damn cool. It’ll be a lifelong memory.

What I didn’t realize during those giddy moments was that the papal drive-by would soon be usurped by a series of shining moments in time. And that it was all thanks to that bike.

After cracking my back after a night of floor sleeping – fine, a co-worker’s yoga mat offered marginal comfort – I led my transportation aide out onto the empty, unguarded street where the Fiat rode just 27 hours earlier.

I headed up to Independence Mall to get a clear look at the pope’s stage from the previous afternoon. Then, a middle-of-the-empty-street ride took me to the Lightning Bolt statue at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge.

The big blue bridge was vehicle-free but welcoming to foot and bicycle traffic, so I pedaled up to the middle and snapped a few photos, blissfully basking in a biblically rare opportunity. What I saw were things I'd driven by hundreds of times before without even noticing.

From there, that path through Center City to the Francis Festival Grounds (or whatever that PR-spun name for the security zone was) became a land of freedom and opportunity the likes of which I’d never before seen.

Part of that could stem from the fact that this was the first time I’d ridden a bicycle in Philadelphia proper, at a time of unusual streetscape serenity. But having seen the widespread reaction to those freedoms from old-head pedal aficionados, it was more than just that.

By closing Center City streets off to vehicles, Philadelphia morphed into a recreational paradise; it kind of felt like one’s eyes readjusting to a whole new world when walking out of a movie theater after catching an afternoon matinee.

The streets were the same, but they were different. The same could be said for the views of places, people and things you barely notice when driving past at 30 miles per hour. Born unto the Philadelphia earth was more connectivity between objects moveable and irresistible; the Founding Fathers, I thought, would have totally loved what I saw.

In other words, this newbie bicyclist – after riding home to East Falls under the darkness of night once Pope Francis’ plane took off from Philly International – never wanted to go back to the way things were.

Imagine my delight when I saw the PhillyVoice article that indicated:

a.) In one day, a couple thousand people signed an online petition seeking to ban vehicles from Center City streets a couple weekends next summer,

b.) A PhillyVoice poll drew an 86 percent approval rate for such a move, and

c.) Outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter “has already asked his senior team to gather data and conduct the detailed analysis necessary to see if we could implement such a program this year.”

And imagine how hard I shook when I saw Daily News columnist, and noted bicyclist hater, Stu Bykofsky’s “Cyclists are never satisfied” post, which indicated:

a.) “Bikeheads are not even a minority of Philadelphians, they are a minority of a minority and deserve no special rights just because they want to have 'fun' – at someone else’s expense.”

b.) “I was out and about during the weekend and saw a lot of ‘extra’ bikes, which felt free to ride the wrong way on one-way streets.”

Now, I like Stu, and not just because he twice visited me in the hospital after I was on the nearly-fatal losing end of a pedestrian vs. automobile collision (though I sure wish a bike had hit me instead).

I respect writers who argue for their beliefs in the face of overwhelming opposition and – sorry, Stu – logic.

By opening up a couple of Center City streets to recreational activities – like, say, bicycling, pushing strollers, throwing a pigskin around – Philadelphia could regularly tap into a font of energy like that which had me beaming ear-to-ear last weekend.

Rather than worrying about whether speeding cars would kill their toddlers, parents and children alike could share an urban oasis that a car-closed MLK Drive can’t fully afford them.

With the proper legwork, the city could reduce the impact on local businesses because – real talk – the papal visit was the type of event for which no definitive, logistical playbook existed at Broad and Market.

This newly inspired bicyclist wants to relive those awe-inspiring open-road sensations that materialized seemingly out of nowhere thanks to – but not because of – extraordinary security measures enacted to protect a religious leader from evil acts.

So, no, this isn’t about giving a part of the city “special rights” or change for change's sake. It’s about providing a chance for residents of America’s birthplace to reconnect with the urban environment that they prefer to the seclusion of the suburbs.

If you can’t be for that, you probably hate kittens and happiness, too.