The Bicycle Coalition’s John Boyle rides over the Ben Franklin Bridge with the author. © Thom Carroll Photography 2013
In my three-and-a-half years working at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Research Director John Boyle and I rode over the Ben Franklin Bridge many times together. Much of what I know about Philly bicycling statistics, trends, and history I learned on that span. Recently John and I took a ride over the bridge to have a chat and a couple slices of pizza. He talked with me about his role as the region’s greatest collector and interpreter of bicycling statistics.
The growth of biking in Philly
I collect a lot of data. There is not a lot of bicycling data out there, so I scan the globe to find little bits of data to get a better picture of where bicycling is in Philadelphia and the region. The data shows that in the City of Philadelphia we’ve made a lot of progress. Bicycling in Philly has doubled between 2005 and 2008. There is a young generation coming here because they can walk, bicycle, and take public transportation where they want to go.
The role of bicycle advocates
From the advocacy standpoint, it’s really holding public officials to their promises, whether it’s traffic engineers, or elected officials, or planners. A lot of times they’ll say that they’re going to make it better for biking and walking, then when you see the end game there’s no difference. When you ask them why, they say, We’ve made the roads safer so you can share the road. What we really want to see is more dedicated bike infrastructure.
The City built 30 to 50 miles a year of bike lanes in the late 90s. By 2005 we had over 200 miles.
The start of Philly bike lanes
In 1991 when Ed Rendell was running for Mayor, we put out questionnaires to the candidates, and he made a campaign promise to build a bicycle network in Philadelphia. He kept that promise. We made sure that he kept that promise. The result of that was a plan to build bike lanes all across the City of Philadelphia. We had people in the Streets Department at that time who wanted to get it done. The result was 30 to 50 miles a year of bike lanes in the late 90s. By 2005 we had over 200 miles of bike lanes. At the time we were way ahead of everybody.
First wave of public bike racks
At the same time, that plan had 700 bike racks installed in Center City. People were very skeptical about this. We saw people bicycling everywhere every day, but no one really believed that they would use these bike racks, these hunks of metal out on the sidewalks. The thing is, as soon as they were put out, they were like magnets, and they were filling up. That was really the start of Philadelphia as a city where you go to bicycle.
The city just put out a Request for Proposal to find a company that will manage the bike sharing program to be launched in the fall of 2014. That’s going to be a huge game-changer. In 2012 there was a tipping point in urban areas. They saw the success of Washington, Paris, Montreal, and other cities. That primed New York City to accept bike share. They were waiting for it. They were ready for it. That’s the same situation here. It’s going to be an immediate success.
John Boyle carries his bike down the New Jersey side of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Over the years, he’s climbed up and down those stairs thousands of times. © Thom Carroll Photography 2013
Ben Franklin Bridge: recent history
The bridge was re-opened in 1973 [after having been closed since the Korean War]. A big change happened around 2000 when they were going to do construction, they were repainting the bridge and were going to put up new lighting. The only lighting before that was street lights, it was very dark on the walkway at night. Now you can read from these lights at night, they’re so bright.
Still, the police weren’t sweeping the bridge. They were locking the bridge up, leaving people on the bridge. A couple of our advocates were actually stuck on the bridge, and they had to call 911 to get the police to open the door for them. It was pretty embarrassing for the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA). That began discussions as to how we could make the walkway better. Eventually the discussion of a ramp came up.
Ben Franklin Bridge: the ramp to Camden
The DRPA was already looking at this. And since the mid-90s we have been asking if we could put a ramp on there. The walkway improvement discussions began the campaign to put the ramp in the capital program. To make a long story short, they put it in, and then they had the toll crisis when they were raising the tolls, and there was a lot of blowback, so they took it out of the five-year plan. We campaigned to get it back into the capital program. They agreed to that in November of 2012, and they began the design work on the ramp.
Of the three designs proposed, we prefer the one that goes straight down, and there seems to be a consensus to do that. There is some concern that speeding cyclists might be an issue, so we’ve suggested putting a little traffic-calming on the bridge by putting a kink or chicane to make people slow down in the middle before they proceed again.
Want to ride over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden? I mapped out one way you can do it today from Broad and Pine. You’ll still have to carry your bike down the stairs on the New Jersey side, but you can ride to and onto the bridge from Philadelphia. Drop me a line at [email protected] if you want to know where to find Camden’s secret 24-hour ice cream machine (that takes plastic).