Cycling in the City: A Newbie’s Guide to Riding Safely in Philly
Who knew a bike helmet was such a conversation-starter?
At least once a week in the 36-floor elevator ride up to the office, someone makes a comment about the bike helmet I have looped around my arm. “Where do you ride from?” is the most common question, usually followed by a “I don’t know how you do it. Aren’t you scared?”
Scared? No. For the seven years I’ve been commuting by bicycle, first in Washington, D.C. and now here in Philly, I don’t think I’ve ever associated fear with bike riding. Invigorating? Yes. Fast? Heck yes. But scared … not so much.
It’s always baffled me when friends, family and coworkers look at me like I have three eyes when the topic of riding bikes in the city comes up. In my mind, it seems a whole lot safer than riding a bike on twisty, turney roads in a place like Chester County, where cars zoom along at 50 miles an hour and there’s little (or no) shoulder to ride on. In the city, we’ve got a pretty good network of bike lanes, and drivers here are hard pressed to go much faster than 20 to 30 miles an hour, thanks to stop signs and traffic and lights. Besides, with SEPTA doing me few favors in the public-transit department, I’ve found that riding my bike is the hands-down fastest way to get from point A to point B. And on days when I seriously oversleep (happens more often than I care to admit), I’m super grateful that I can whiz to work in 8 minutes flat. Sure beats sitting in traffic on 76 for an hour.
Okay, okay, so you’re still not convinced. (No worries—my mom’s not either.) To help put your fears to rest, I talked to Steve Taylor and Diana Owens, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia’s community liaison and director of education and safety, respectively, and both bike commuters, to talk about cycling culture in Philly and glean their best tips for those who are new to it. Trust me—it’s not as scary as it seems. Read on for their words of wisdom.
On a scale of 1 to 10—1 being not at all, and 10 being Copenhagen—how bikeable would you honestly say Philly is?
Diana: I want to put it at a 6 or 7. Having lived here for 12 years, it’s evident that the number of people on bicycles is growing. But we have a long way to go in terms of creating safer spaces, improving infrastructure and getting people out on the road. In a place like Copenhagen, people are bought up on bikes—it’s ingrained in the culture—so our goal is to create that norm here. More and more people in Philly are choosing the bicycle as their mode of transportation. The city just has to be more mindful of the fact that when streets are designed and repaved and repurposed, it needs to be for all users—cars, bikes and pedestrians.
Philly’s an old city with a lot of history, which is awesome for tourists but can suck for modern transportation thanks to super narrow streets. Does the age of the city knock us down a few points in bikeability?
Steve: In some ways it actually makes it safer and even more bikeable. Look at South Philly, which has the highest concentration of bike commuters in the city. They’ve got narrower streets and shorter blocks, but the stop signs at every intersection limit the vehicle speed. Since cars and bikes can’t really ride next to each other, it means more cooperation on both sides.
How would you characterize the driver-cyclist relationship in our city?
Steve: It’s getting better. I find that you remember the time a car honks or a driver yells at you, but you tend to forget all those a driver waves you on, gives you the right of wat. It’s really the unsafe behavior on both sides that we tend to remember.
Diana: I feel like over the last 12 years I’ve seen a change with Philadelphia drivers. Because there are more people on the road, the drivers are more aware of cyclists. The big thing is, both drivers and cyclists need to be predictable with what they’re doing. When you’re not being predictable, that’s when the chaos and crashes happen.
What are some of the fears or excuses you hear from people for why they don’t want to ride bikes in the city?
Diana: Aggressive driving, crime and personal injury.
Steve: For a lot of people, it’s: What do I do with my bike when I get to work? What do I wear? How do I deal with different weather? What about this part of my commute that doesn’t seem safe?
Ok, let’s talk tips. Besides a bike, obviously, what other gear to cyclists need?
Diana: A good U-lock and cable leash. And get a good helmet.
Steve: Every helmet out there is going to protect you fairly well. In the U.S., they have to go through independent testing to judge their effectiveness. So figure out how much you want to spend on the helmet, then get the most attractive and comfortable helmet in that price range. For locks, you want to go to a bike store and tell them how you plan on locking it up. How long will it be locked up outside? Where will it be locked up? You want to show them your bike so they can see if there are any components that would be easy to steal—like a quick-release wheel or seat. Then, they can help you find the right lock for you. The more secure the bike, the less of a target it is. If you’re bike is locked up well, someone will go to a less secure bike.
What about lights and bells?
Steve: It’s a law here that you have a white front light and a rear reflector or light. When you go out tonight, take a look at cyclists out there. Cyclists without lights are really, really hard to see. There are times when I’ve been riding and someone without lights emerges from the side street and almost hits me from the side. As for bells, the law says you have to have an “audible warning device.” A bell works fine, but I just use my voice.
What should you do if your bike is stolen?
Steve: It starts with what to do before it’s stolen. Find the serial number. If you buy it from a bike shop, have them show you where it is. Write it down put it in a safe place; email it to yourself. Register your bike with your local police department, and inside the seat post or handle bars, put a piece of paper with your address and contact info. Take a picture of your bike. That way, if it gets stolen, you have your serial number and picture, and if it’s recovered you have ways to prove it’s yours. Go to police to report it right away, then post it to the Facebook group Philadelphia Stolen Bikes. I know bikes that have been found because of that group.
What are some dangerous things you see cyclists do that you wish they wouldn’t?
Steve: Wrong-way riding, sidewalk riding, going through red lights. Police in South Philly recently stepped up bike-law enforcement. I spoke with district captain Michael Ryan and he said his biggest concerns were wrong-way riding and sidewalk riding.
Diana: Riding with headphones. It’s illegal, and it makes nervous for them and me. They might not decide to show me they’re turning left and cause a crash.
In my experience, city cycling is all about confidence. The timid cyclists who ride super slowly and as close to the curb as they can are the ones I worry about most. Is that backwards?
Steve: Not at all. Bikes are a legal vehicle, which means you have the right to feel safe on the road. In the case of a one way street with parking on both sides, riding in the middle of the street is okay. In fact, you never want to ride too close to car doors or to the side of the road; the closer you are to the edge of the steet the less visible you are. The key is to build your confidence by getting out and riding a little bit. Ride with someone who is a little more confident. Start on buffered bike lanes then gradually work up to other streets. And feel free to try out a few routes to find the best one, if you plan on commuting to work. Get out on a Sunday morning, when there’s generally less traffic in Center City, and practice riding around.
Diana: Selecting a good route makes a huge difference. Google Maps has a bicyle feature where you can plug in your starting point and destination and it will give you the best route and show you where the bike lanes are. (Editor’s note: Check out Google’s Bike Map Legend to understand the difference between the kinds of routes it marks.) The important thing to remember is that practice makes perfect. Some people might take longer than others to feel confident on the road, but the more you do it, the better city cyclist you’ll become.
>> Want more resources help you on the road? The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has info on everything from the best commuter routes to bike parking to info on the city’s newest bike lanes. The organization also offers all kinds of bike-education events, including Urban Riding Basics, fix-a-flat classes and group rides. Find those here.