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.