My near-death experience this summer must have been caused by a combination of the sun rising in the east and the fact that I struggle to keep my eyes open in the mornings. It was 8 a.m. on a muggy July day. People were sitting in their air-conditioned cars, tapping impatiently on their steering wheels as traffic moved at a crawl. My daily commute to class in the summer proved to be extremely painful — literally.
The blazing sun in my eyes blinded me and I could barely pedal my bike; my morning lethargy doesn’t wear off until about 7 p.m. Basically, I was asleep while riding my bike in a major metropolitan area. Suddenly, I heard breaks screeching and wheels skidding. No, this wasn’t the sound of a ghastly car accident on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – it turned out to be another bicyclist slamming on his breaks to avoid colliding with me. I swerved quickly to avoid hitting him (he was coming from my left) and he screamed a colorful mix of obscenities at me. Luckily, I left the scene unscathed. It was the sun’s fault.
All right, maybe I didn’t almost die, but it sure left me a little shaky. Things like that happen to me all the time, as I’m sure it does with other bicyclists. There’s a constant battle for sidewalk and road space between bikers, pedestrians and motorists. Sometimes no matter where I ride, people become irate that I’m in their way. Motorists honk and shake their fists at me when I’m on the road, and people swear at me when I’m on the sidewalk. In fact, I have been told by many people that riding on the sidewalk is actually illegal in Philadelphia.
I’m pro-sidewalk, that is, I prefer riding on the sidewalk, but I’m not anti-road. I’m just fearful of motorists plowing into me while laughing maniacally. It feels somewhat safer to ride on the sidewalk since there usually isn’t a huge SEPTA bus traveling 2 feet behind me. But you can never be sure about those nutty pedestrians.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, it is illegal to ride a ‘pedalcycle’ (legal jargon for bike) on sidewalks in business areas of the city. If caught, you could be fined an outrageous $10. This makes sense since there are always throngs of people on streets like Market, Walnut and South. But in all other areas it is allowed, as long as the bicyclist yields to pedestrians. If there was a law applied to riding on every sidewalk in the city, it would be like jaywalking or stealing-it’s illegal and everyone does it, but nobody cares. A huge clash of pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists happens regularly on South Street. It’s impossible to ride a bike on that street; don’t even attempt unless you’re some sort of daredevil.
For much more in-depth information on ‘pedalcycle’ laws, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Web site at www.dot.state.pa.us and click on “Special Interest Areas.” The Web site has a list of bike routes and even offers instructions on how to ride a bike on the road.
Ellen Minsavage can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.