05/30/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Cycle Mania in the City

Racing around the city like rabbits on speed, the contemporary urban American bicyclist can be a danger to himself and everybody around him. How many times have you seen a cyclist weaving in and out of traffic through rush hour, or detouring on the sidewalk while zigzagging through pedestrians, just missing them by a hair?

Bicycle traffic is better in the neighborhoods, but in Center City Philadelphia it has become a nightmare. A couple of years ago, a paralegal from a Center City law firm was struck and killed by a cyclist at 16th and Locust Streets. KYW News radio reported that Andre Steed, 40, was hit by a cyclist and left bleeding on the street. The incident finally prompted City Council to spring into action. A bill was then introduced in City Council that required cyclists to register their bikes so that in the event of a hit-and-run accident, the culprit could be tracked down.

Sometimes it takes a horrible accident to initiate change, but something had to give. The fact is, the bicycle situation has been getting worse in downtown Philly for several years now. When I lived in the center of the city I found that as a pedestrian I was always dodging bicycles. One day after food shopping at a nearby market, I was run over by a speeding cyclist as I crossed the street. The cyclist, who was traveling against traffic, slammed into my left side and sent my groceries flying into the air. I experienced a few more near-hits after that (it was always a case of a cyclist traveling against traffic). As anyone who's ever been hit by a bicycle knows, the 'thump/slam' against your body is a truly shocking jolt.

Philadelphia's been far too lax for too long a time with its bandit cyclists, letting them go wherever they want, from sidewalk to street and then back again in a suicidal rush that sometimes even gets the cyclist killed. Through the years cyclists in Center City have been killed by Septa buses and automobiles. Some of these accidents have been caused by careless drivers while other accidents have been the fault of the cyclist. These tragedies could have been prevented with a little more attention to the road. Unfortunately, among many city cyclists there still exists this "speed at all costs" Lance Armstrong mentality. These cyclists seem to think that because they ride in the city everyday, they have a handle on traffic patterns and can take certain liberties. Far too many cyclists believe that, unlike cars, they are exempt from the laws of the road.

No doubt these are the same cycle bandits who remove the breaks on their bikes just because it's the latest trend. Driving without breaks is up there with driving a car with a blindfold on. (Live fast and die young -- Yes, Virginia, that's certainly one way to beat the infirmities of old age!)

As one who's witnessed the chic bicycle culture in Copenhagen, I can tell you that the thousands of bicycles on the streets in that city more often than not form orderly lines of traffic in specific bicycle lanes. Danish cyclists would never weave onto pedestrian sidewalks in an attempt to be cute or get somewhere faster. Cyclists in Copenhagen do not, unlike their American counterpart, try to race buses or automobiles during rush hour traffic.

Until that tragedy on Locust Street, bicycle culture in Philadelphia for too long a time was very much like 1890s laissez faire capitalism: no rules, no constraints, every man or woman was free to make his or her own rules! Tracing the roots of that Ayn Rand culture, we see that it began innocently enough: The preponderance of bike shops, then the adoption of uniforms for casual riders who wanted to impress -- the bicycle racing skinsuit (or BRS); special bicycle shoes, stylish helmets of different shapes and colors, cycle wrist watches, and finally cycle knapsacks for bottled water. Bicycles became big business. With bicycle fashion in full bloom, casual riders began to feel a little self conscious riding around in ordinary street clothes, since fashion dictated that you had to spend hundreds of dollars for the right look. In Copenhagen, of course, nobody rides around looking like professional cyclists in a race: you see grandmothers in big hats, college professors in suits and ties, not grown men who shave their legs because they imagine that hairless legs will enable them to win the next bike race.