Photo Curtosey of Michael McGettigan
By Steven Rea
It’s not Amsterdam… yet, but Philadelphia – William Penn’s “greene country towne,” now in its 326th year – is getting there. Take a look at rush-hour traffic on the streets of Center City: Yes, still dominated by cars, buses and cabs, but the number of bicyclists is booming – double the number over the last three years, says Alex Doty, the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
Women in business suits, college students in sweats, restaurant workers and messengers, hipsters, hardhats and hospital interns – all stopped at the lights along Chestnut and Walnut (well, maybe not all stopped), straddling their road bikes and vintage three-speeds, folders and fixies, BMX bikes and beaters. Part of an estimated crowd of 36,000 cyclists on their daily rounds around Fitler Square, on tree-lined blocks of brownstones and brick row-houses, kids ride to their schools – sometimes with their parents alongside, sometimes not. All over the city, from Society Hill to Fishtown, cops patrol on bikes, recyclers haul trash on bikes, takeout guys deliver on bikes.
Try to find a space to lock your wheels at the gastro pubs of Northern Liberties and South Philly – the Standard Tap, say, or POPE: bikes piled three high on lamp posts and poles, moored to the artist-crafted wrought-iron rings affixed to the bar's outside walls, the gates and fences like site-specific sculptures of metal and rubber, a tangle of wheels and metal, Kryptonite and Brooks.
Philadelphia – where the first bicycle was introduced to America at the 1876 Bicentennial at Exposition Hall and where Mayor Nutter led an informal peloton along the Schuylkill River toward City Hall for Bike to Work Week this spring – is fast gaining a reputation as the bike-friendliest place on the East Coast and is earning a new nickname: The City of Bikerly Love. And there is legislation in City Council to establish a Philadelphia bike-share program modeled on ones running in Paris and Madrid.
“I’ve biked all over the world,” says Kimberley Leahy, 37, chair of the Communications Department at Chestnut Hill College, “and Philadelphia’s beautiful to bike in. It’s the fifth largest city in the country, and we’ve still got the greenest city in the country. Fairmount Park is bigger than Central Park. A lot of the city is flat. It’s perfect.”
Leahy isn’t kidding: she lived in Dubai for a year, taking her road bike and Huffington, her Pomeranian, along with her. She and her six-pound pooch (his head popping out of a backpack) have ridden in Holland and Lithuania. She was recently wheeling on her Trek 4500 to South Street – Huffington alertly looking over Leahy’s shoulder – to grab lunch with a friend.
“It’s a thing that makes sense for people to do… and it’s something that naturally fits with Philadelphia,” says Doty, the city’s cycling advocate who commutes four miles from West Philadelphia and often goes for rides with his nine-year-old son (on his new road bike) and four-year-old daughter (in a trailer). “You know, we don’t have a mountain in the middle of the city like Montreal.”