Dispatch: From dodging spitballs and trash in the 1970s to riding in bike lanes in 2017, a city biking pioneer reflects on 40 years of urban cycling

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Uphill, Both Ways

essay by Ginger Osborne

It amuses me when I hear young cyclists complain that some car driver yelled at them while they were biking. 

Yelled at them. This upsets them. Being yelled at.

I started riding a bicycle around Philadelphia in the mid 1970s. There were no bike lanes, no “Share the Road” signs (nor even the concept of such things). There were other cyclists riding around—I certainly didn’t get the idea on my own to make a bicycle my primary transportation—but I could ride all over the city all day without seeing a single other cyclist. 

The best of the drivers I encountered were totally unaware that there might be two-wheeled vehicles on the street. The worst of them? They ran me off the road, threw things at me, spit on me and, sometimes, swerved their cars in such a way as to purposefully make me fall. 

This was life for a cyclist in the ’70s. 

It was how I learned to clearly see every little thing that was happening around me and how to fall on hard surfaces without breaking bones. I also learned to hate tinted windows.

As I’ve grown older—and don’t bounce back so easily—I’m delighted with all the amenities afforded to cyclists. I can ride just about anywhere in Center City and rarely need to be on a street without a bike lane. Where there are no lanes, or the bike lane is blocked by a car, drivers are quite courteous about letting me go in front of them. They wave me through four-way stops even when they have the right of way. Pedestrians actually stop to let me go through the green light when they’re crossing against the red. 

To be fair, I know that my white hair affords me a lot more courtesy than a lot of young people. But it’s still amazing. And I love it!

Now, I don’t kid myself that it’s all sunshine and lollipops. There are still a fair number of hostile drivers and pedestrians out there. And on weekends and in the summer, we have to be especially careful of people who rarely drive in the city and aren’t used to bikes. 

There are bike racks and bike parks everywhere—though never quite enough, it seems. And the powers that be are working to make life even easier for us. At the risk of being a cliche, I’ll say that if you had told my 20-something self that this would be my world in my 60s, I would have thought I had a better chance of being able to beam myself up to the moon. 

The first 20 years of riding, people yelling at me was a good day on my bike. Now, well, I guess I do get pretty annoyed when it happens. Maybe I’m entering my second childhood.

Ginger Osborne is a 40-year veteran of biking in Philadelphia, a member of Women Bike PHL and the office manager for the Association for Public Art.