Last weekend Barb and I were unable to join the Sunday group ride in Philly. So on Saturday we decided to get in some miles on one of our favorite routes along Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Drive from the Falls Bridge to Eakins Oval – a total of 17.2 miles out and back from our home in Mt. Airy. MLK drive is one of the most popular places to bike in Philadelphia, featuring beautiful views of Boathouse Row, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the city skyline. With that ride as my inspiration, I’ll share some thoughts on what it is like to ride a bike in Philadelphia, and what it could and should be like in the future.
Since coming to Philadelphia in 2014, I’ve biked almost 14,000 miles in and around the city. When people ask me – often incredulous that I regularly commute by bike to work on Drexel’s Center City campus – what it’s like to ride in the city, I usually begin by saying “Well, it ain’t no Copenhagen.” I’m referring of course to the famously bicycle-friendly Scandinavia city, where cyclists vastly outnumber automobiles during the daily rush hour on miles and miles of roadway reserved for bicycle traffic. Seeing this for myself on a visit to Copenhagen as a grad student in the late 1990s is part of what inspired my commitment to cycling as an ideal form of urban transportation.
Maybe it’s no Copenhagen, but some parts of Philadelphia actually make for a lovely bike ride. Living in West Mt Airy, I am blessed with a bicycle commute to Center City that consists mostly of paved bike paths along Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill river and the well-marked green lanes on the Ben Franklin Parkway. I arrive to campus calm and focused, and of course it is wonderful exercise. In six years of regularly doing that commute, probably the scariest thing I have encountered is mother swans aggressively defending their fledglings waddling across the bike paths in early spring.
But the trip from the Northwest section to Center City is unusually pleasant and safe. I’ve ridden many streets that are not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. Vast swaths of Philadelphia are a cycling no-man’s land where the rider must contend with clueless or aggressive motorists while navigating a minefield of bone-jarring potholes and hazardous debris. Given the poor infrastructure, it’s not surprising that only 2.2 percent of Philadelphians commute to work by bicycle. This is actually quite good for a U.S. city, ranking us number one among cities with a population over one million, and 11th among the 70 largest cities. But that’s more a statement about the impoverished state of U.S. urban transportation than the city’s commitment to cycling. In European cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, more than 60% of the people ride bikes to work or school.
Maybe Philadelphia will never be a Copenhagen, but it can and should be a place where the average person feels comfortable riding a bike for transportation or leisure anywhere in the city. The bicycle can and should be an important alternative to the automobile and a centerpiece in our response to climate change. Advocating to make our city a better place to get around in by bike is a great form of climate action.
MLK drive can be a starting point. One of the few success stories in Philadelphia during the pandemic was the city’s decision to close MLK drive to automobile traffic, and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has been advocating to keep the city from simply turning it back into an automobile highway as it has announced it will do in August. Since being closed to car traffic in March 2020, MLK drive has become one of the most widely used public spaces in the city with over 5,000 people on weekdays and 10,000 on weekends. People of every age, every color, every level of ability. People walking, running, skating, and riding on every imaginable kind of human-powered machine. Retaining MLK drive for use by the people could be the start of a much-needed transformation in how Philadelphia allocates its public space.
But don’t take my word for it. Even if you do not want to ride your bike through some admittedly challenging urban terrain to get there, you can put your bike in your car and drive down to the river and check it out for yourself. Or you can rent a bike at Boathouse Row. MLK drive connects to the Schuylkill trail to make a lovely 8-mile loop. It’s a great way to reconnect to this beautiful city we live in, and dream about how beautiful it can grow in the future.