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I Want To Ride My Bicycle

Up in the sky, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's a cheesesteak!

From a flying Phillies helmet to a rolling Whiz Wit, when Red Bull's flight contraption contest FlugTag hit the Camden Waterfront on Sept. 4, more than 85,000 people watched unbridled mayhem hurtle off a thirty-foot pier overlooking the Delaware River. As thousands of attendees lined the sidewalks and stairs of the Ben Franklin Bridge, their faces pressed up against a chain-linked fence and jockeying for a better view as they waited their turn to descend a three-story stair tower that greets visitors at the end of the bridge's pedestrian walkway. For walkers, the stair tower is wide and easy to navigate from the bridge to the waterfront attractions below. But this was FlugTag, where the wheeled contraption is king. This was a day for the bicycle.

"I have pictures of hundreds of bikes locked up against the fence on Pearl Street," says Cooper's Ferry Development Association Project Manager and Chief Counsel Jake Gordon. "We had no idea so many people would bike to the event or even knew to use that walkway. Next time, we will have bike parking for sure."

From pedal-powered cabs navigating Logan Circle to bike-only parking spaces in Northern Liberties, you don't have to look far to see the influence of the bicycle taking over Philadelphia's streets. Once a niche market for weekend warriors and families, biking has gone from an urbanite hobby to a defining characteristic, able to shape neighborhood planning and policy. This summer, bicycle fever traveled across the river into Camden with the announcement of $23 million in federal funds to improve and expand Greater Philadelphia's regional trail network. With projects in Manayunk, Marcus Hook and Center City, none has created more excitement than the Camden Waterfront trails project, which economic development officials and bicycle activists alike believe is a pivotal step toward former Mayor Ed Rendell's vision of two cities sharing one waterfront. The first step, officials say, is the proposed removal of the Ben Franklin Bridge stair tower in favor of a ramp that would seamlessly connect Camden and Philadelphia.

"FlugTag was just one example because it was such a Philadelphia-based event," says Gordon. "And it wasn't in the Susquehanna Bank Center, it was right out here on our waterfront."

The Delaware River Port Authority, which manages the bridge infrastructure, had plans to remove the stair tower in 2012. But with TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants for bike trail projects at the bridge's Pearl Street Entrance moving forward, the stair tower has drawn the attention of avid bike activists at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, who believe the proposed ramp holds the key to economic prosperity on both sides of the river. Their June 8 report, Crossing the Delaware for Transportation Independence, calls on DRPA to fast-track the ramp to begin in 2011. Beginning construction sooner, they say, will build partnerships between Camden and Philadelphia, creating a more inviting experience.

"There is barbed wire up there and anti-scale fence so it's clear they could do a lot to make the entrances more attractive," says Bicycle Coalition Research Director John Boyle of the stair tower. "Right now, it kind of looks like the entrance to a military installation. I think you want to welcome people onto the walkway, not create these intimidating atmospheres."

DRPA has since agreed to accelerate the ramp project, opening up a new gateway into Camden. DRPA officials hope to promote the new ramp to locals on both sides of the river but also to Rutgers-Camden students looking for cheap transit passage to nightlife and dining options in Philadelphia.

"If you are going to have increased biking opportunities in Camden and in Philadelphia and those opportunities lead toward the Ben Franklin Bridge as a means of connecting the two, I think it is extremely important," says DRPA CEO John Matheussen. "It makes for a better synergy, a better connection between what is happening on the two landsides."

On the other side of the river, Philadelphia's Delaware River Waterfront trail system is pedaling into the future as well. In March, the William Penn Foundation and Center City District (CCD) unveiled a trail between Washington Avenue and Waterfront Pier 17, connecting neighborhood business districts. Since unveiling the trail this spring, the TIGER program has provided funding to connect the trail system to the Betsy Ross Bridge at the north end of Delaware Avenue. With these connections established at the north and south, the Ben Franklin Bridge is all that remains to create a complete waterfront bike path for both eastern and western riverbanks.

The South Philadelphia trail was the first step in an effort to bring dedicated bike lanes to Philadelphia's more dangerous thoroughfares. In a July 2010 report, CCD members counted the number of bikers crossing Spruce Street into Center City on every northbound street from 3rd to 22nd. Researchers found that 22nd Street, with its wide, dedicated bike lanes, had over seven times the ridership as nearby 20th street, which does not have a lane. But CCD President Paul Levy didn't need a report. He had experienced the danger of biking without a lane before.

"We had proposed four or five years ago that the eastern most lane on Delaware Avenue be taken out of auto use and put a two-way bike lane in there but that was rejected by PennDOT, which is why we wound up going on the sidewalk," says Levy, referring to the sidewalk bike lanes lining the Delaware. "The sidewalk concept was purely personally inspired by trying to cycle there with my eight year old daughter and I wouldn't take her out in the street because it was just too dangerous."

Today, Levy believes his southern trail segment is underutilized and hopes that, under new management, the project will get the focus it deserves. Waterfront bike lanes have since been turned over to the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which is working to improve travel and safety along Delaware Avenue, attracting crowds to attend the corporation's other business: events and concerts. With a two-headed waterfront, development professionals hope concerts at Great Plaza and events like RedBull FlugTag will continue to draw two-wheeled travellers from across the region, driving development in the process.

"I would love to see music festivals and events utilize both sides of the river at once," says Jake Gordon. "Then we could have people traveling back and forth by bike to check out different stages. There is so much more we can do when we are so close and connected as we are."

JOHN STEELE is the News Editor for Flying Kite and is a freelance writer, blogger and communication consultant in Philadelphia. Please send feedback here.


Matt Anastasi chairs the Bridge Access Committee for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Anastasi commutes from New Jersey over the Ben Franklin Bridge to get to his job in West Philadelphia.

Children from the LEAP Academy ride on Pearl Street in Camden, one of the areas scheduled for bike-friendly revitalization.

A map courtesy of The Bicycle Coalition showing TIGER project areas in Camden

All photographs by Michael Persico

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