When Dena Driscoll got pregnant with her first child, she knew she wanted to be the kind of mom who bikes with her kids around the city.
The South Philly resident vividly remembers traveling to the Netherlands on a delayed honeymoon with her husband and watching in awe as parents biked through Amsterdam with their children. She recalls watching one mom bike while bottle feeding her baby and thinking, “when we have kids, I want to do that,” she says.
“She just made it look so simple, like it was just a part of her life,” Driscoll says. “So when I did get pregnant with my son, I remember thinking I want to ride a bike with him—that was the main thought I had.”
But biking with her son in Philly wasn’t glamorous or fun. Now that she was riding with her son, Driscoll became more attuned to all of the different things—a lack of protected bike lanes, distracted drivers, unclear street line painting—that put her and her child at risk.
So like many of us, she took to Twitter with her complaints. At first, she tweeted at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, before she realized that they were an advocacy group who shared many of her concerns and not the people within city government who had the power to affect change.
“I didn’t know there was a whole department in the city who handled bike lane painting,” she says. “I think one of the really neat things about Twitter is that it’s really a form of community education. And that’s how I treat my Twitter … it is for me to learn, for me to help share information or teach. We’re all learning together.”
“I always joke that I just really wanted to ride a bike in my neighborhood with my son. And now I’m here complaining about trash cans, and SEPTA, and parks, and the PPA,” says Driscoll.
Once she found the right city officials and departments to tweet at, Driscoll’s advocacy quickly grew. Though she now tweets to her more than 7,000 followers about issues ranging from problems with the city’s public schools to issues with SEPTA, her Twitter handle, @bikemamadelphia, still gestures toward the issue that got her into activism in the first place. Now, her 11-year-old son doesn’t just bike around the city with her; he attends protests to encourage city officials to make streets safer for kids.
“It instantly grew from biking very quickly, because I realized there are lots of problems that were happening in the city that I had always been interested in but didn’t know that I had the power to try to push,” Driscoll says. “I always joke that I just really wanted to ride a bike in my neighborhood with my son. And now I’m here complaining about trash cans, and SEPTA, and parks, and the PPA.”
Driscoll’s tweets, in conjunction with her grassroots, boots-on-the-ground activism, are effective at actually getting city officials to make changes to city policy. Her commitment to staying in the city and making it a better place to live for people “from age 8 to 80,” as she says, is part of what makes her one of The Citizen’s Generation Change Philly cohort, a partnership with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.
A Twitter advocate is born
Driscoll grew up in Union County, New Jersey, and came to the Philadelphia area for college in 2002. Back then, biking was just a cheap form of transportation to her. She didn’t think much about whether there were bike lanes on the roads where she was riding and oftentimes didn’t even wear a helmet. She’d never heard of urban planning, much less considered it as a form of activism. She was studying American history at La Salle University and later museum education at the University of the Arts, with the goal of working on historic sites in Philly.
But even though she wasn’t actively thinking about bike infrastructure at this point in her life, she still remembers how much safer she felt the first time she used the bike lane on Girard Avenue as a college student in the early 2000s.
“I just remember thinking this is really nice and I kept that thought in the back of my mind in a way, I suppose,” she says.
As a college student, Driscoll joined Twitter for the sense of community it fostered. She remembers tweeting through Phillies games and feeling like everyone was watching together. Tweeting about her struggles biking with her kids allowed her to commiserate with people not just locally, but also those who were living in different countries, and she began to learn about what other parents had done to make their streets safer.
Soon, a community of parents who were interested in biking with their kids in Philly began following her and her advocacy grew beyond the internet. In 2012, she started Kidical Mass, a bike group for parents in the city that organizes group outings and helps them find the equipment they need to ride safely with children.
Along the way, she became known as someone who knew how to get things done in Philly. She tweeted about a mural-retouching project that blocked sidewalks in her neighborhood in 2014, and Mural Arts sent a project manager to help find a way to create safe street crossings; in 2015, she tweeted about how there was no temporary stripping to mark crosswalks during a Ridge Avenue repaving, and an engineer from outside the city contacted her to show her laws she could take to PennDOT that proved it was illegal for the city to forgo the short-term labels.
One of her biggest wins, she says, came when she tweeted at the Parks and Recreation Department in 2018 about outdated, gender-specific swim times at public pools and it led to a policy change within 24 hours.
In the tweet, embedded below, Driscoll questioned why the policies were in place and how they might pose problems for parents and cause inequality for trans and nonbinary people after she was told she couldn’t swim with her son because of the rule.
.@PhilaParkandRec can you explain your gendered pool rules to me? Why do some of your pools gender the days? What about those who don't identify with a gender or are trans?
— Dena Driscoll (@bikemamadelphia) June 26, 2018
In 2014, she was invited to join 5th Square, the city’s urbanist political action committee, as a founding board member and since 2018 she’s served as chair. In that role, she advocated for SEPTA to allow children under 12 to ride for free, a change the transit system made in 2020.
Her full-time job is the director of development and communications for the Public Interest Law Center, a nonprofit that uses legal strategies to fight for the civil, social and economic rights of communities in Philadelphia. The organization is currently leading a lawsuit against the state that seeks to change how public schools are funded.
And of course, she’s still taking her activism to Twitter. When she’s not tweeting about the Public Interest Law Center’s suit against the state, she’s been vocal about what she’d like to see in the Washington Avenue redesign, an issue that hits particularly close to home since her children cross the thoroughfare every day to get to their after school care program.
Hard to say what happened at this point. @PhillyOTIS has a public story they are peddling & a private one to advocacy groups & a different one to elects!
Most people want a safer Washington Ave. Some people don’t. Ultimately Otis eliminated the most popular and safest plan.
— Dena Driscoll (@bikemamadelphia) February 8, 2022
That’s 👆 a tweet she sent in February, after the city announced they were stepping away from the three-lane design plan.
“I know you don’t want to hear it anymore but Washington Ave is just another way our city fails our children. Asks them to be resilient and gritty instead of children. Toughen up, look both ways, don’t get hit by a car…” she tweeted later in the month
Driscoll is one of many people who advocated for the three-lane plan, which was named the final design option in 2020, before being abandoned by the city in favor of a hybrid option which includes sections with three, four and five lanes, WHYY reported.
“We really want to see it become a safer street that is no longer dividing neighborhoods, but helps join neighborhoods back together,” Driscoll says.
She may dabble in many issues, but at the center of her advocacy is making Philly a better place for residents of all ages. Becoming a mother made her realize just how many aspects of the city weren’t designed with vulnerable residents, like children and the elderly in mind.
These issues cause many Philadelphians to flee to the suburbs once they have children, but Driscoll didn’t want to do that. She cites SEPTA’s access to world-class museums, the liveliness of her local pool in the summers and their older neighbor, a life-long South Philadelphian who is always quick to offer treats to kids in the neighborhood as part of what makes growing up in a city wonderful.
“I love Philadelphia so much. I am glad to raise my family in such a wonderful city and I think there is no better place for a family to live and through my work, I want to make sure everyone has access to living in such a wonderful place,” she says.
Driscoll’s advocacy helped South Philly resident and 5th Square-endorsed Leigh Goldenberg know that she could raise a family in Philly. Like many people, Goldenberg knew Driscoll from her social media channels before they met in person. An avid biker, Goldenberg joined Kidical Mass and attended one of their Family Biking Fair events when she was pregnant with her first child. At the fair, people who owned different family and cargo bikes for kids met in a parking lot, allowing other parents to test out their bikes, so they could see what options worked best for them.
“Whether we [advocate] on Twitter, or in community meetings or by going to City Hall meetings, we have to do it,” Driscoll says. “Just making Philadelphia live up to its potential is really what I have tried to do.”
“Dena helped me feel safe and enthusiastic about navigating our city that way with my family,” Goldenberg says. “I knew that I could be out riding a bike with my family because that’s something that she was doing.”
In Goldenberg’s view, part of what makes Driscoll’s activism so effective is that she doesn’t just shrug off issues like most Philadelphians. Instead, she tries to find out the systemic cause behind the problems she sees in the city.
“She takes it to the next level to figure out what’s the systemic reason behind this and how can I actually affect that change?” Goldenberg says. “She’s constantly connecting the dots, for all the things that could be better about living in the city, especially as a person committed to raising a family here.”
A lot of people ask Driscoll if she has political ambitions, but she doesn’t think she needs to be a politician to affect change. In fact, she thinks the city needs more people like her: Civic influencers who are out there attending community meetings, attending protests, and yes, complaining on Twitter until they see the change they know Philly needs.
“Whether we [advocate] on Twitter, or in community meetings or by going to City Hall meetings, we have to do it,” she says. “Just making Philadelphia live up to its potential is really what I have tried to do.”
The Philadelphia Citizen is partnering with the nonprofit Keepers of the Commons on the “Generation Change Philly” series to provide educational and networking opportunities to the city’s most dynamic change-makers.