- Historic Sites
The Environment: Notes On The Continuing Battle
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
The internal-combustion engine causes more than 60 per cent of all air pollution in our cities. Ride a bicycle to work instead of driving a car and you help make a cleaner, quieter, more pleasant city to live in. One champion of the bicycle as the urban commuter’s best friend is the twenty-five-year-old son of a Detroit automobile executive, Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas R. Reid III. The U.S. Navy set the wheels of revolution in motion when they plucked Mr. Reid from his teaching post (Greek) at Johns Hopkins University and put him behind a desk in downtown Washington four miles from where he found a place to live. Reid quickly discovered that the fastest, cheapest, “most fun way” to get to work—rain or shine—was on his bike. In order to prove this to a skeptical world, he staged a race last fall from his home to the District Building, where he works. He pitted himself and his two-wheeler against a driver in a Porsche sports car and a commuter on a city bus. Mr. Reid won hands down: the driver arrived three minutes behind the cyclist and even then had to park illegally before dashing across the finish line; the bus rider trailed by fourteen minutes.
The ivory-tower theorist behind Reid’s fancy footwork is Dr. Wilcomb Washburn, head of the Division of American Studies at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Washburn has long proposed the establishment of commuter bicycle routes, and last summer his department produced a comprehensive plan for Washington. Reid’s unique race was part of an effort to convince the city that the plan deserved serious consideration. Since then Washington has seen these changes on behalf of the cyclist:
- • The city council has implemented the first stage of the Smithsonian plan by establishing three well-marked bicycle routes into the Federal Triangle in downtown Washington, where 70 per cent of the government’s employees work.
- • The General Services Administration is supplying bicycle racks for twentyfive government buildings.
- • The Washington police promise to put up posters warning drivers to watch out for cyclists. The traffic commission will mark a bike lane on designated routes with a serrated red line to show cyclists where they can and should go.
- • Fifteen miles of four-lane highway through Rock Creek Park in the heart of the city are now closed to Sunday automobile traffic, and a path for bike commuters will be built through the park.
Reid and his activist associates, lawyer Donald Green and Clay Grubic, an ex-C.I.A. man who now runs a bike shop, are urging the District to expand its use of the Smithsonian plan. They want the District to designate more routes for bike commuters and for tourists, to allow adult cyclists on sidewalks in such highly dangerous areas as bridges, and to build more special bike paths along particularly busy roads.
South Street, as old as Philadelphia itself, is the southernmost rung of William Penn’s ladder of streets spanning the land between the Delaware and the Schuylkill rivers. It is the commercial heart of one of this country’s oldest black communities, made famous by Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1897 sociological study of the Philadelphia Negro for the University of Pennsylvania. The street is a ribbon of small shops and houses that ties together a whole neighborhood and keeps the community viable. It is a street of beautiful nineteenth-century storefronts, “unique, urbanistically eloquent in their relation to sidewalk and street,” in the words of city planner Denise Venturi.
South Street has been slated for demolition for fifteen years. The city plans eight lanes of concrete cross-town expressway along its length, a flowing moat of automobiles between the blacks of South Philadelphia and the middleclass whites of Society Hill and Rittenhouse Square. A community can’t hold its breath for fifteen years while a city sorts out its problems, and one third of South Street rots as it waits. But the community that remains has a loud and effective voice: a citizens’ committee led by Mrs, Alice Lipscomb, who has been joined by the civic-minded and the concerned of the white community—the Society Hill Civic Association, a lawyer named Robert Sugarman, the planning firm of Venturi and Rauch, and many more. Together they hope to convince Mayor James Tate, the Chamber of Commerce, and the last of several study groups to kill once and for all the crosstown expressway and let South Street renew itself.