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A Q&A with Sarah Clark Stuart, Philly’s biggest bicycling advocate

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The Bicycle Coalition’s executive director dishes on all things biking-related in Philly

“Philadelphia has terrific bones for to be a very bike-friendly city,” says Sarah Clark Stuart of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
Photo by M. Fischetti for VISIT PHILADELPHIA

A discussion about biking in Philly doesn’t go without a mention of Sarah Clark Stuart. She’s been at the helm of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia as executive director since November 2015; but she’s been a part of the coalition in one way or another since 2009.

In Stuart’s role, she’s tasked with being arguably the biggest bike advocate in Philly and the surrounding region. The coalition’s mission is to make bicycling in Philly a fun—and safe—way to get around the city and metro, which includes four suburban counties in Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

At a time when tensions are high in this city among drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, we took some time to check in with Stuart to talk shop on everything from future bike lanes to awesome trails to biking advice for beginners.

When someone asks you how bike-friendly Philly is, what’s is your typical response?

I say that Philadelphia has terrific bones to be a very bike-friendly city. It has a central commercial core with dense residential neighborhoods right around it, and it’s relatively flat and a tight grid of city streets. All of that creates an environment where motor vehicle traffic is traveling at a fairly low speed and where lots of destinations are not far from each other. All of those conditions are very good for traveling and using a bicycle for transportation to and from daily destinations.

What is on the top of your wish list for Philly's bike infrastructure system?

The Bicycle Coalition is in its 45th year of existence, and we’ve worked very hard to ensure that the city develops plans for a bike lane network. That happened in 2010 and 2012, and since then, we have been working very diligently to encourage the implementation of that network as fast as possible.

It’s definitely been difficult because the city just does not have the resources that it needs to 1) implement the network as quickly as we would like and 2) also just maintain its streets. So we have learned that we need to support and encourage more funding for paving of streets in order to get bike lanes that we want.

All of that has been a lot of getting to understand the the factors that contribute to building out that network and encouraging and lobbying factors to line up in the right way. We need political support, the city to get the resources it needs and then work on ensuring that there is public support at the community level.

Sarah Clark Stuart is the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Sarah Clark Stuart

It sounds like a long process that you just went through to get the city’s first one-way protected bike lane installed.

Yeah, we started around 2012 to work on the [Chestnut Street] bike lane. We visited Councilwoman Blackwell’s office to ask, “Who should we talk to?” and with that list we talked to a lot of individuals, a number of groups, institutions, and RCO’s (Registered Community Organizations). We rallied and got support letters.

We then had to encourage the city to carry out a traffic study in order to justify removing a lane and substituting it for a bike lane—that took two years. Then, we had the city had to apply for funding to do it. It took several months to apply and maybe a year for state to issue the grant. Then, we had to go back and start having discussions with community members again because it had been several years since we first started talking about. All along it took five to six years to actually have that thing come to fruition.

And it’s not entirely finished yet, right?

The connection from 33rd Street to Center City is baked into the project already, but PennDOT redoing the Chestnut Street Bridge, so the part from 33rd to Center city will be done according to that schedule. What PennDOT has told me is that the bridge will be done 2020.

The part from 45th Street back west to 63rd street will require another effort to demonstrate public support at neighborhood level and convince them and Councilwoman Blackwell that the bike lane should be extended.

Mayor Jim Kenney pledged during his campaign to install 30 miles of protected bike lanes in his tenure. That’s one of the coalition’s big efforts, so where does that currently stand?

There will be several that open in 2018, but I can’t tell you which ones exactly. The rolling out of these protected bike lanes depend upon choices that OTIS (Office of Transportation Infrastructure and Streets) make. And it can change from month to month depending upon success that they have at the community level and councilperson.

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Is there an area that you think needs a protected bike lane the most?

The protected bike lanes that we think have the greatest potential for success are along JFK Boulevard and Market on the west side of Center City. But it’s more than just bike lanes—it’s really spectrum transportation project.

These two streets have lower volumes and a higher number of crashes than Walnut and Chestnut. We just had a fatality on JFK in June of a very lovely man, Peter Javsicas, a senior citizen who was just walking along the street.

The streets are essentially two big highways built smack dab in the middle of Center City. There’s much more capacity on those roadways than there are cars, so there is room to turn one of the lanes into a bike lane that will help calm traffic and will also give pedestrians more a shorter crossing distance.

What is the easiest piece of advice you can give to Philly folks who want to start biking in Philly?

I would encourage you to try out Urban Riding Basics class that we offer occasionally, so you can get to know the rules of the road and what you’re rights and responsibilities are. There’s nothing like getting into a situation and you’re not sure, if you’re supposed to go behind this car or in front. Getting to know those rules will help you understand, “This is where I belong.”

Then, what I encourage people to do is try something new once and try it over and over again. So if you think, “I’m going to take my bike to Trader Joe’s this week, then next week again.” You set yourself small, doable goals that get you on your bike maybe once a week. Start small and work your way up and the more you become accustomed to it, the more confident you’ll become. Then, you’ll be able to feel stronger and feel more confident as you tackle new streets.

Final question: How can Philly drivers, pedestrians, and bike-friendly get along better?

It’s a great question. I think first, try to think of that other driver or pedestrian or cyclist as a person. They are people like you trying to get somewhere and they are mothers and fathers and children and they have lives.

Secondly, courtesy goes a long way. Just take a few seconds to slow down, stop, let the person go in front of you. Courtesy can help diffuse tensions and diffuse conflict.

Third, just be aware of your presence and what you are doing, a lot of conflict does come when people are startled and surprise, because they didn’t see you or just weren’t aware or were distracted. So be visible!