Gritty, old Philadelphia is the most bike-riding big city in America. According to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, biking in Philadelphia has exploded since 2000, when the rate was just .86 percent, nearly doubling between 2005 and 2008 alone.
This city has more bike commuters per capita (2.16 percent) than Chicago (1.15 percent) and New York (.61 percent). While that’s still behind Portland (5.81 percent) and San Francisco (2.98 percent), we’re ninth out of the 70 biggest cities. Some Philly neighborhoods (South, Center City and West) have biking rates that rival anywhere.
Andrew Stober, chief of staff to the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, credits Philly’s grid system, narrow streets (“If you think about New York, all of the numbered avenues are wider than Broad Street!”), flat terrain and the fact that many people live within a cozy three-mile bike to work.
The city and its bike advocates have a plan in the works to make Philadelphia into a bicycle utopia, from what the Bicycle Coalition calls an “excellent big city for biking” into a “world class-bicycling city.” We’re talking Portland, Montreal, Amsterdam style biking.
I’m cruising around town on a Friday afternoon with Nicholas Mirra, communications coordinator at the Bicycle Coalition, to discuss how great Philly biking is and how it will get better. First, Mirra guided me down the next jewels set to be added to the city’s be-spoked crown: north-south bike lanes down 10th and 13th streets, between (give or take a few blocks) Spring Garden and South streets. The east-west bike lanes on Pine and Spruce streets installed in 2009 have transformed Center City biking, and the new bike lanes will make your trip from Center City and South Philly to Northern Liberties, Kensington, Fishtown or points beyond a whole lot easier.
The northbound bike lane will head down 13th Street, passing through the Gayborhood and the Marcie Turney-Valerie Safran restaurant empire, across Market and through the northern tip of Chinatown just above Reading Terminal Market, discontinuing up past the Standard Tap on Second Street.
The southbound route begins at Spring Garden right by the Spaghetti Warehouse’s colossal and now empty shell, and then down 10th Street. The path will traverse the neighborhood’s various post-industrial mysteries, into the heart of Chinatown, past the Gallery mall and Jefferson Hospital, ending at Lombard, where you can make your own way through South Philly’s maze-like streets.
According to the Bicycle Coalition, the Pine/Walnut lanes were the “first innovative bikeway design installed in Philadelphia”—which means it was the first time that real-deal anything had been done for bike infrastructure in this city. The lanes are a hit: Bikers have flocked to the buffered lanes and cleared out of car-dominant streets. And it’s only the beginning. Imagine a protected bike track on Washington, or peaceful bicycle boulevards through small South Philly residential streets.
“I think we’re making a lot of progress,” says Stober. “But when it comes to building out a regional trail network, the primary obstacle is funding.”
But the time to bike is now, so PW assembled a list of five of the city’s best, and worst, places to bike. There was heavy competition on both sides: the numerous horrible places to bike like Lindbergh Avenue, Roosevelt Boulevard, along the generally nightmarish Delaware waterfront, and Columbus and Delaware avenues. And then there are great places like Pennypack Park.
1) The Schuylkill River Trail, which hugs the east riverside from Center City to East Falls, is clearly amazing. West River Drive has a somewhat bumpy trail on the river’s west side, but on weekends, the road is shut down, and you can rocket back to the Art Museum after crossing over the ancient and beautiful East Falls Bridge. “I love West River Drive when it’s closed to cars,” says Mirra. “Five minutes out from Spring Garden, I feel very far removed from the cars-and-concrete vibe of most of Philadelphia.”
There is a campaign to “Complete the Schuylkill River Trail,” making it possible to bicycle all the way to Valley Forge, which currently breaks up twice near Manhunt.
New trails will also ease the route to Forbidden Drive, the spectacular car-free road through the Wissahickon Valley.
“It’s cooler, especially on less humid evenings, than the surrounding neighborhoods and the ambiance feels more like a glen in the Poconos than a city park,” says John Boyle, advocacy director at the Bicycle Coalition.
And a new trail will connect the Schuylkill to Southwest Philly’s scandalously underutilized Bartram’s Gardens, and then up to a trail that will run down 58th Street, through West Philly’s Cobb’s Creek Trail. A boardwalk connecting the end of trail at locust to South Street Bridge will be ready next summer.
2) Cobbs Creek Trail: Though Cobbs Creek Park is making a comeback, almost no one uses the fantastic bike path stretching from 63rd and Market streets to 70th and Cobbs Creek. The trail cuts alongside and through the large forest park that separates West Philly from the Delaware County suburbs. There are places where the trail dips completely into the woods, and all that can be heard are birds, crickets and, God willing, a cool breeze rustling the leaves. Once the Schuylkill River Trail is completed, you will be able to bike Cobbs Creek to Bartram’s Garden, and then all the way to Center City and Valley Forge.
3) Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Alex Doty’s “favorite place hardly anyone bikes” is Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park. It takes a little huffing and puffing to get to the top of the hill, but you will be glad that you made it. A huge grass field extends down the hill, with a nice picnic spot well shaded by a tree. The view of Philly’s skyline is spectacular.
4) I cannot believe that I had never biked through the Navy Yard. The 1,200-acre property at Broad Street’s southern tip was shut down by the Navy in 1995 and is now home to the Urban Outfitters office park, a breathtaking and highway-free shoreline along the Delaware River, rusting battleships and an entire abandoned neighborhood. The doors of the empty rowhomes are plastered with “No Trespassing” signs, and the place is eerie in a post-nuclear apocalypse sort of way. There’s a forlorn basketball hoop off the sidewalk, and a bedraggled set of Christmas lights limply strung from a porch. There’s an empty motel, too.
There is no direct or really straightforward route, but taking 21st Street (and then 20th) through Point Breeze allows you to pass through FDR Park, where skateboarders hit the vast ramps under I-95, tennis players play and one old solitary and shirtless man in a beach chair takes in the sun over his leathery and tattooed skin.
5) Spruce and Pine streets Center City bike lanes and the new South Street Bridge revolutionized cross-town travel. “If I hit those green lights, I can get up my speed and move from Rittenhouse to Washington Square in a matter of minutes,” writes the Bicycle Coalition’s Megan Rosenbach. “A traffic buffer on my left and no car doors to worry about on my right create a very enjoyable ride!” West Philly to Old City was dangerous and exhaust-filled when you had to take Chestnut, but it’s better now.
1) Benjamin Franklin Parkway: Descending eastbound over the Spring Garden Bridge, I always get a lump in the back of my throat staring out into Eakins Oval, the hellish multi-pronged traffic circle at the western edge of Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This is a horrible place to bike, whether you plan to continue up the Parkway toward City Hall or to cut north onto Spring Garden. To accomplish the latter, you have to cut left into the bike lane, hoping that cars speeding at more than 50 miles per hour from two different directions don’t hit you and then cut right again, to cross onto Spring Garden.
“Too many lanes filled with impatient, oblivious cars,” says Mirra. “Even with the bike lane, I feel like I’m playing Frogger with cars.”
Unfortunately, this is a major and indispensable route for many bicycling Philadelphians. May the Rocky statue grant you the necessary courage.
2) Girard Avenue. The great east-west throughway, named after the famous uber-wealthy Philly financier Stephen Girard, stretches from Fishtown, past the Zoo and into West Philly. But the road has (generally) just one lane of traffic each way, trolley tracks, no bike lane and parking on both sides. It’s a biking nightmare.
“Trolley tracks plus narrow lanes plus inconsistent shoulder equals unpleasant biking,” says Mirra.
Cecil B. Moore Avenue may be your best bet for parts of this route.
“Girard is a complicated street,” says Stober. “It has a lot of different types of traffic moving on it with the trolley and a high volume of vehicle traffic.”
3) Though the South Street Bridge is now open, Grays Ferry Bridge is still your best bet from much of Southwest and West Philly to South Philly.
“Biking that bridge feels like I’m playing Mario Kart, and not in a joyful way,” says Mirra. “Unseen cars ahead of me have tossed rocks, glass and nails on the shoulder to pop my tires. Cars behind me are roaring past at 45 mph. I half expect to get hit by a red turtle shell and tossed into the Schuylkill, but there’s no floating referee in a white cloud waiting to fish me out.”
Unfortunately, the bridge is covered with glass and other novel debris, which cyclists dodge as volleys of traffic shoot by.
“It is really convenient,” Stober acknowledges. “It makes it onto your worst list because people know it because they use it so much.”
A separated bike lane, a few speed bumps and an occasional cleanup would make a world of difference.
4) Baltimore Avenue, West Spruce, Powelton, Kensington Avenue and all of those bike lanes next to parked cars: Baltimore Avenue, the main drag of queer, anarchist, vegan, crusty West Philly? It couldn’t be—but it is! I know two people who have had car doors opened into them, one of whom broke her collarbone. A sleepy side street where you can bike down the middle of the road may be slower than a big street bike lane, but it is always safer to bike without parked cars immediately to your right.
5) Along the Delaware River, Columbus and Delaware avenues are both horrible places to bike, along a generally nightmarish waterfront populated by big-box stores, the debacle of Penn’s Landing and a casino, sandwiched between highway-like thoroughfares and I-95, an actual highway. One day, this could get a whole lot better, as plans to remake the waterfront into something walkable, livable and truly-cool-to-be-at advance. A multi-use trail is in the proposed master plan.