Boat People filmers evaluate bike-lane shortage


Inanimate objects have enabled George Lam to alter his attitude toward Philadelphia. A resident of Seventh Street and Oregon Avenue, the 18-year-old had grown so tired of the area that a move after time at Drexel University seemed set. 

The last six weeks, however, have given the Central High School graduate a flair for fighting for his city, as he and nine other learners have participated in the Summer Youth Bicycle and Environmental Program at Boat People SOS, 600 Washington Ave.

The bicycle he recently learned to pilot and film equipment have led Lam to become a social justice crusader bent on convincing authorities that South Philadelphia needs more bike lanes. 

“I had had interests in causes before, but this is the first time I have been involved in bringing change,” he said Monday from Jefferson Square Park, 400 Washington Ave., where he and six team members filmed parts of their documentary and distributed fliers and surveys. 

Since July 5, they have received guidance from many voices, with the main tones coming from Minh Nguyen, BPSOS’s Asian Youth Empowerment Project organizer. A Temple University student and North Philadelphia resident, he crafted the program to breed an understanding of fund allocation to communities through an analysis of bicycling opportunities. 

“I am not much of a rider, so it’s funny I would be the one to design the curriculum,” Nguyen said from the park.

A trek along the Schuylkill River Trail with last summer’s interns caused the and Vietnam native to test how willing teenagers would be to speak up for their communities’ infrastructural and environmental identity. Bicycling became the topic because of its importance to local immigrants.

“People think bicycling is just for recreation, but, for immigrants, it is a necessity, a part of their livelihood,” Nguyen said. 

He noted that more affluent neighborhoods have impressive bike lanes, singling out Center City’s offerings on Pine and Spruce streets, and that South Philadelphia’s are lackluster. 

“The lines on Washington Avenue are broken down, and Oregon Avenue’s are just adequate,” he said.

Citing immigrants’ lack of a political voice, he partnered with West Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Bike Works and Center City’s The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Youth Network to ensure that trips around the city and work at Boat People would help to make a compelling case to higher-ups.

An application process landed the participants, who took titles on the film project. Their tutelage began with looks at environmental justice, land use and urban planning, concepts that made Lam question the local government’s concern for everyone. 

“Travel can be trying,” the production manager said. “The first week started to open my eyes to becoming more aware.” 

The second week really opened his orbs and his lungs, as the members upped their knowledge of bicycle safety and enjoyment by venturing to major areas such as the Delaware River Trail, Grays Ferry Crescent, The Navy Yard and the Schuylkill River Trail. Their travels resulted in three videos about the spaces’ vibrances and other areas’ potential to be likewise stunning. The coalition, whose May study determined South Philly ranked 16th nationwide with a 5.2 percent bike commuter share, organized the journeys, which gave Lam and the other cycling novices more passion to roam and to understand the figurative power of their vehicles. 

“I no longer have a negative view of the city,” he said. “We have so much to do.” 

Philadelphia contains more than 200 miles of bike lanes, according to the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. With such an expanse, the students already have abundant options as they near their project’s conclusion. To become as skilled at understanding their wheeled wonders as they are at steering them, they learned maintenance and logistics tips during the third week through Neighborhood Bike Works. The busy fourth and fifth weeks involved multimedia and post-production lessons so they could make a documentary that features interviews with immigrants, including bike lovers. 

“It is clear that other locations have earned the city’s attention with respect to infrastructure,” Nguyen said. “The documentary will act as our means of advocating for South Philadelphia to receive its due.” 

The leader never wavers from accepting the “We have the power to make change” mantra that adorns a banner at Boat People. His charges have created a website,, that tabs themselves as keys to making South Philadelphia a biking haven. Eight students are immigrants, so their ancestry has allowed their message to permeate their immigrant-heavy communities. 

Informing others remains the mission, so the last days have gone toward completing interviews and planning distribution. The youths took to Eighth and Christian streets to video record passers-by to gauge satisfaction with the area’s bicycling options Aug. 4. They followed that with a Saturday session and Monday’s Jefferson Square stop. 

At the final location, they gathered opinions from two of Boat People’s 20 participants in the Summer Youth Career Exploration Program. The career program attendees regularly meet with their counterparts Fridays for professional development workshops. Their mingling gives Nguyen evidence that teenagers and young adults have the gusto to be forthright pursuers of evolution.

“Mobilizing youth is important in convincing officials that injustices occur. Being involved in these sorts of advocacy presents novelty to most of the participants, but they are excelling,” Nguyen, who is eager to have the documentary aired on public television and through the School District of Philadelphia, said.

The10 budding activists and filmmakers receive compensation for their efforts, but their figurative pay matters more. 

“I noticed inequities along the rides,” Nancy Trinh, of Seventh Street and Oregon Avenue, said. “Realizing we can eliminate them gives us all a boost.” 

Trinh, the script supervisor and writer, is a Central High School alumnus and a relatively new rider, as she confessed her parents do not trust the area. With her advocacy for the introduction of new spaces, she hopes to earn her elders’ approval, especially when she mentions she can save money by not having to buy SEPTA tokens. 

Trinh and her cohorts will unite at noon Saturday for graduation, which will feature speeches; the unveiling of their mission statement, city proposal and survey results; a bike rodeo and repair workshop and more at Mifflin Square Park, Sixth and Ritner streets. If successful, their work could make their wish for lanes on Fifth and Sixth streets along Wharton and Federal streets more tangible.

I have a new sense of confidence as a rider and as a leader from working with this group,” Nguyen said. “We are eager to show our commitment.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.