Welcome to Bike-a-delphia
"I thought of that while riding my bicycle."--Albert Einstein, explaining the genesis of his Theory of Relativity
Back in December 2006, a now-retired Philadelphian by the name of Russell Meddin was visiting his college-aged daughter in the city of Lyon, France, where she was spending her junior year abroad, when he had a revelation that will almost certainly alter the entire fabric of bicycling culture in the city one day soon. Meddin had just arrived at the Lyon train station when it happened. "I got off the train," he says, "and I walked up the steps and out the door, and the very first thing I saw was a Velo'V Station
--a bike-sharing station. And I looked at it and I said, 'This is interesting. But what is this?'"
It didn't take long before Meddin received an answer to his question, and during his week in Lyon, he fell easily in love with the Velo'V system. As he spent hour after hour exploring the city from the seat of his bike, he noted something else about Lyon--specifically its uncanny topographical resemblance to Philadelphia: The dense central business district, for example, bookended by two rivers. The large collection of universities. And that's when it hit him, almost without warning: A bike-sharing system just like Lyon's would be a perfect addition to the cycling scene in Philly, which had, after all, been surging in popularity. If he could just rustle up a few like-minded partners back home, Meddin thought, he'd go right on ahead and make it happen.
And why not? After all, it's practically an indisputable fact that over the past five or six years, Philadelphia has quietly but swiftly risen through the bicycle-world hierarchy to become one of the country's most active and enthusiastic cycling cities, with a bike-commuter population estimated to be roughly 36,000 souls strong, and a community of once-a-month riders at well over a quarter-million. And that's regardless of the fact that for the most part, cyclists in better-known biking Meccas such as Portland
, Boulder, Madison, and Davis
haven't necessarily gotten around to recognizing the news.
But whether or not anyone else is paying attention, the first decade of the 21st century was nothing if not Philadelphia's metaphorical "coming out" as an honest-to-goodness cycling city. Consider, for example, just a handful of the bicycling events and initiatives that took place here in 2009 alone: The nonprofit Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia
, for starters, hosted its third annual Bike Philly ride in September. The Studio 34 gallery held its fantastically obscure Bike Part Art Show, also in September, with proceeds going to Neighborhood Bike Works
, a West Philly nonprofit that preaches the power of the bicycle to underprivileged inner-city kids. The Moore College of Art & Design, of course, made a serious splash with its Bicycle: People + Ideas in Motion
show, which ended up resembling nothing so much as a love letter to the bicycle itself. The period-specific Philadelphia Tweed Ride
was born, a group event during which all participants are required to wear olde-stlye British cycling outfits. Philly also played host to the Hardcourt Bicycle Polo World Championships
in 2009, not to mention the first-ever Philly Naked Bike Ride
, a sort of kumbaya-cruise which, much to its founder's delight, attracted members of just about every cycling subculture imaginable.
And there was more: Designated bike lanes appeared on Pine and Spruce streets in Center City. During the fall SEPTA strike, the Bicycle Coalition organized in the front yard of City Hall a sort of impromptu rest stop for commuters who had no other choice but to pedal into town. And much to the amazement of nearly every Philly bike fanatic, Mayor Nutter's Office of Transportation hired a Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator whose job involves working as a go-between for the city and its cyclists.
Russell Meddin, by the way, has lately been cranking right along with his plans to turn the city into something of a bicycle-sharing paradise. Of course, due to the necessity of having to partner up with the city, there is a significant amount of red tape that still needs to be peeled away. A feasibility study, for instance, was recently completed by an independent consulting group to discover if a bike-sharing program would even make sense for Philadelphia. According to BikeSharePhiladelphia.org
, however, it's quite likely that the study's authors will soon be suggesting that the program should indeed go forward.
And according to Meddin himself, if the study ends up relaying the good news he hopes it will, there's a decent chance that Philly could be seeing a 5,000-strong bike-share fleet within as little as 18 months. Meanwhile, Philadelphia is also home-base for CityRyde
, a consultancy group for bike share programs throughout the U.S., and even the world.
It was almost as if Philly had become ground zero for some sort of evangelical cycling movement, practically overnight.
As the education director of the Bicycle Coalition, that evangelical attitude is something Breen Goodwin knows quite a lot about. She spends her work week spreading the good news throughout Philadelphia. She creates bicycle education classes for kids and adults, and she teaches urban-biking newbies how to best take care of themselves while riding on the city streets. But perhaps even more important than the classes themselves is the specific philosophy--Goodwin likes to think of it as "a cultural shift"--that the Bicycle Coalition in general is working so hard to instill in the minds of its students. "And it's not only about creating a cultural shift within the bicycle (scene) itself," she explains. "It's about creating a cultural shift within each family. And within each house."
But cultural shift or no cultural shift, Goodwin is not shy to admit that much of what makes Philly such an incredible city for cycling has little to do with bicycle organizations, or coalitions, or affiliations of any sort.
"Philadelphia was not originally built for cars," she insists. "We have small streets, and we have narrow streets. And we're on a grid, which makes it really easy to get around. We don't have a massive amount of urban sprawl, so it's easy to get from Point A to Point B on a bike. We have a lot of things working for us," she points out. "The biggest thing that's working for us right now is that more people are choosing to get out on bikes. And when more people choose to get out on bikes, more people follow."
And as it happens, that's exactly the sort of thinking that Michael McGettigan, a co-owner of Trophy Bikes
and one the city's best known bicycle evangelists, can truly get behind. In fact, if you believe McGettigan's theory, there's no mystery whatsoever behind Philly's bike-population explosion: "I say this facetiously," he says, with a slight laugh, "but William Penn knew the bicycle would be invented someday. So when he arranged Philadelphia, he arranged it to be between two rivers, and to be relatively flat and compact."
Of course, after nearly an entire adult life spent promoting the cycling lifestyle, McGettigan has certainly earned the right to joke about it, and to poke fun. He did two separate stretches on the board of the Bicycle Coalition before starting Trophy Bikes a little over a decade ago. And in the interim, he's seen big changes take place in the city's cycling community. Ten years ago, for instance, there were the big bicycle chain stores and the online market, both of which threatened to put the city's independently-owned shops out of business. And more recently, there's been the exponential growth of bike-related retail success stories, like South Philly's Bicycle Revolutions
, which recently opened a second retail location that sells no bicycles at all--just bike accessories and clothing.
"I don't know if I buy all this creative class stuff," says McGettigan, when he's asked to expound upon the city's more recent cycling-scene changes. "But Philadelphia has a lot of people that are coming here, and trying to get things done. Money's a little tight maybe, and they're trying to innovate or do creative things, and they've seen that New York is a hopelessly expensive town to live in. So they come to Philly, and part of the whole Philly package is that you can live here with just a bike."
Coincidentally enough, that's exactly what Carrie Collins did when she relocated to Philadelphia from Cincinnati back in 2003. She sold her car, that is, and vowed to experience Philly from atop the seat of a bicycle instead. It was a decision, in fact, that ended up contributing to a complete life change: Collins landed a job almost immediately after settling in Philly with R.E.Load Bags
, one of the earliest companies to offer one-of-a-kind bike messenger bags to the retail market. At the same time, she began handcrafting products and accessories for the bicycle market herself, such as U-lock holsters and even utility belts. All of a sudden, her entire life--her social life, her professional life, her after-work-and-on-the-weekends life--was essentially drenched in bicycles and bike culture.
Those utility belts and U-lock holsters, by the way, soon became so in-demand among Collins' friends and social acquaintances that she managed to transform them into an actual business. Today, she sells those products from behind the counter of her own retail store in Northern Liberties, a bicycle accessory shop known as Fabric Horse
. "It's a pretty great thing," she says, of her new life among Philadelphia's cycling evangelists. "Because (bikes) really have become my every day, normal thing."
A pretty great thing? Without a doubt. And yet thankfully for those of us who want nothing more than to see our city continue changing and diversifying, it's a story that seems to be repeating itself over and over again in Philadelphia today. Perhaps Breen Goodwin describes the positive chain of events best when she says that "by creating a more friendly bike culture, and a more friendly bike city, you make the city as a whole more appealing."
Speaking of stories, I could keep going on and on, of course. Because every bicyclist in the city--heck, every bicyclist in the country--every bicyclist on earth--has a story. It might be the factory worker in a Chinese megacity, riding his Flying Pigeon
to and from the job on a daily basis. It might be the nine-year-old boy in the Main Line suburbs, who's learning how to cruise without training wheels for the very first time, and finally beginning to understand the meaning of the word "freedom."
Because, as Trophy Bikes' Michael McGettigan likes to say, "When you're riding a bike, you're really living. You're exercising, but you're getting somewhere. You're thinking, but you're not thinking. A bike's a good escape," he says. "And it's just this crazy, simple machine. I can't take credit for it. I'm just glad it exists."
Dan Eldridge writes frequently about creative and alternative entrepreneurship. Read more of his work at mediabistro.com/ypmedia, and visit his entrepreneurship blog at laborparty.wordpress.com. Send feedback here.To receive Keystone Edge free every week, click here.
Photos:Russell Meddin on at the Pine Street bike lane Turnout crowd for the Philly Naked Bike Ride (Anthony Skorochod www.cyclingcaptured.com)The Philly Naked Bike Ride has a peaceful vibe celebrating cycling in the city (Anthony Skorochod www.cyclingcaptured.com)Michael McGettigan at Trophy Bikes in University CityMichael McGettigan with a Brompton folding bicycleCarrie Collins at Fabric Horse in Northern Liberties
All photographs by Michael Persico unless otherwise noted