In a flash, his life changed

Bikes vs. pedestrians on the Schuylkill Trail

5 minute read
America's most popular urban trail: An accident waiting to happen.
America's most popular urban trail: An accident waiting to happen.

“For the first time in history,” Tom Purdom wrote in BSR last November, “millions of people are living into their 60s and 70s — even their 80s — and discovering they are still living satisfying lives.” This thought occurred to Tom, he said, “around the time I turned 70 and realized I was still living the kind of life I had lived through most of my adulthood. Most of the 70-year-olds I knew, furthermore, seemed to be having the same experience.” (Click here.)

You may know Tom as the author of five acclaimed science fiction novels as well as novelettes that appear in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. More likely you know him as the peripatetic and prolific chronicler of Philadelphia’s diverse classical music groups, whose scene he has covered for this and other publications since 1988. Tom’s relentless curiosity has also blessed BSR readers with thoughtful explorations of countless other topics, from arms control to religion to professional soccer to the growing appeal of older women in his senior years. As the paragraph above suggests, even at 79, Tom retains a youthful appetite for the cultural rewards of urban life and an eagerness to go public with his enthusiasms.

Hit from behind

At least that was the case until last month. Tom’s byline hasn’t appeared in BSR or anywhere else since August 11. Nor is he now living a life that anyone would describe as satisfying. Instead, Tom has spent the past seven weeks in a hospital bed, most of that time with his head held aloft by a neck brace, his arms and body connected to tubes, his lungs fed oxygen from a tank. Therein lies an outrageous tale as well as a cautionary lesson in a subject ironically dear to Tom’s heart: urban planning.

On August 5, Tom was enjoying his daily three-mile stroll along Philadelphia’s new Schuylkill River Trail. Behind him on bicycles, unknown to Tom, were a grown woman, a schoolteacher, and her elderly father. The woman, noticing one of her students walking the trail, waved happily and called to her father to share her discovery. The father turned his head and, in his distraction, crashed into Tom from behind.

In an instant, the active life Tom had savored for decades was shut down, at least temporarily. The blow to his back caused spinal injuries; his fall to the pavement caused a concussion, an enormous bump on his forehead, and two black eyes. His diaphragm was paralyzed.

He was taken to Pennsylvania Hospital for stitching, then for spinal surgery and a tracheotomy. After weeks in intensive care, he was shuttled to Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, then back to Pennsylvania for a stomach tap. So far he's spent two months in a hospital bed, hooked up to machinery. Now he's back again at Magee. He'll need perhaps two more months in therapy, learning to live with his injuries before he can resume something approaching his normal lifestyle.

Bedside concerts

The only silver lining is that since the collision Tom has been accorded a level of appreciation that most of us receive only at our funerals. Upon learning of his accident, Gwyn Roberts, director of the baroque orchestra Tempesta di Mare, issued a Facebook call to all the grateful little musical groups that Tom has celebrated for decades while the Inquirer largely ignored them. Before long, Tom’s room was hosting world-class performances by visiting virtuosos like the flutist Mimi Stillman of Dolce Suono or the mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis of LyricFest. These concerts for an audience of one in turn attracted the Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky, who devoted a column to Tom’s predicament. In that column, Stillman described Tom as “a brilliant and fascinating thinker” and added: “He has to get out of the hospital soon, because a concert isn’t the same without him there.”

That brilliant mind had recovered much of its incisiveness when I last visited Tom two weekends ago. But for a writer accustomed to recording and circulating his thoughts, that’s a major frustration as well. Tom’s preferred activities, like writing or even reading, are out of the question for the moment.

Obsolete expressway

When I visited Tom at Magee, he suggested what he would write about his ordeal if he could. Characteristically, he focused not on the recklessness of his assailant but on the larger urban policy implications. So let me function here as Tom’s amanuensis.

Philadelphia’s ten-mile section of the Schuylkill River Trail — which runs along the riverbank from Center City to the Art Museum and then along Kelly Drive and through Manayunk — has proven immensely popular since it opened last year. It was recently voted America’s best urban trail in a reader poll conducted by USA Today. But its immense popularity has been its undoing (much like the Schuylkill Expressway, which was obsolete from its opening day in November 1958 because it induced so many Philadelphia commuters to switch from mass transit to automobiles). Pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists, and skateboarders crowd the narrow trail without lanes to separate them. College cross-country teams use the trail for workouts. High-speed bike commuters jostle with slow-moving bike sightseers. Teenage jerks who used to harass tourists on South Street now congregate on the Schuylkill Trail, harrassing women or attempting to steal their bikes.

Thinking like Copenhagen

“They’ve created an unsafe facility,” Tom suggests. “The city made the trail very attractive, but it didn’t really take the details seriously. Americans take automobiles seriously, but we don’t take bicycle culture seriously, the way the Scandinavians do.”

The trail is a work in progress, of course. The Ninth Police District has agreed to increase patrols there. The Schuylkill River Development Corporation, which manages the trail between Locust Street and the Fairmount Water Works, has posted messages on its website and social media accounts, urging victims and witnesses of incidents to contact police. More important, the arrival this year of easily accessible bike rental stations, in tandem with the rise of Philadelphia’s bike-friendly millennial population, is likely to force city officials to start thinking more like city officials in Copenhagen or Oslo. Maybe they’ll create separate paths for bikers and joggers, or install a gravel path just for pedestrians.

With luck, when that day arrives, Tom will be sufficiently mobile to commemorate it. The good news, as this veteran science fiction author would surely remind us, is that we live at the beginning of history, not the end.

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