By and large, Philadelphia is a city of brick. Whether deep red, dark brown or Drexel orange, most of the city’s homes, and many of its stores and offices, are sculpted from this ancient material made from baked clay.
But head up the Schuylkill River, and then make a right where the Wissahickon Creek flows into it, and the picture changes. The streets of neighborhoods like East Falls, West Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill abound with stone. Even less architecturally rich areas like Manayunk and Roxborough have more stone homes than the rest of the city.
These homes are crafted from Wissahickon schist, the underlying rock foundation of Philadelphia’s highlands. The stone takes its name from the creek, whose name is a Lenape word meaning “catfish creek” or “stream of yellowish color,” and from whose banks the stone was mined for more than a century.
That stream in turn forms a valley through the city’s Northwest section. In the early 19th century, the city fathers, seeking to protect Philadelphia’s water supply, turned this valley into a park. They did the same for the valley around the Schuylkill. Together, the valleys of the Wissahickon and Schuylkill today feature the best bike infrastructure in the city, a “bike freeway” consisting of paved paths closed to all but pedestrian traffic (and, in the case of Forbidden Drive, horses).
“I find it extremely pleasant that you can hop on a bike path and do 75 percent of your commute,” says Dan Murphy, a southwest Germantown resident who rides to his jobs at Firth & Wilson Transport Cycles in Fishtown and a sign shop in Brewerytown. If he is headed to Brewerytown or Center City, and time permits — “it’s a little out of the way,” he says — he uses the Kelly Drive bike-pedestrian path to reach his destination.
That’s an example of the easy part about bike commuting from Northwest Philadelphia. But there’s a hard part as well: getting in and out of those valleys.
Because Northwest lies in the Piedmont rather than the Atlantic coastal plain, it’s of a significantly higher elevation than the rest of the city. But its streams run closer to the elevation of Center City than that of the neighborhoods they surround. As a result, raising the share of bicycle commuters in Northwest Philadelphia from its current 1.8 percent to the city’s 6.5 percent citywide target is literally an uphill struggle.
Chestnut Hill resident Jefferson Moak echoes Murphy’s sentiments about the value of the river drive bike paths. He became a bike commuter by accident during the 108-day Regional Rail strike of 1983. After trying surface transit and subways to get into Center City, a co-worker suggested he try biking in. “I looked at her as though she was crazy,” Moak recalls. “After all, it was a minimum 12- to 13-mile commute.”
Moak found that commuting via Forbidden Drive and the river drives took about the same time as it did for him to bike to the nearest Regional Rail station and take the train. He converted to bike commuting and continued the routine for 30 years, until his office moved to Northeast Philly in 2013 — “more of a trek than I wanted to take daily,” he says.
With a “bike freeway” heading directly to it, Northwest Philadelphia should have a healthy number of bike commuters. Both the Wissahickon and the Schuylkill run in deep valleys, however, and getting out of those valleys requires a climb up steep hills. The reason why the annual Philadelphia International Cycling Classic runs through Manayunk and Roxborough is the same reason why residents of the latter find bike commuting less than appealing. Imagine having to climb the Manayunk Wall every damn day.
“I’ve gone every way under the sun to avoid climbing a hill,” Murphy says. As a result, his commute often takes him through several North Philadelphia neighborhoods well out of his way. “Broad Street is the most gradual way to go,” he says. From there, his path usually takes him through Nicetown in order to reach Wissahickon Avenue, whose grade is less steep than that of Wayne or Germantown avenues.
Even going downhill, the distance involved discourages riders who have nowhere to store their bikes, or shower and change clothes, once they arrive at work. Moak’s commute had him logging between 30 and 35 miles round trip each day. “Both my riding partner and I were fortunate in being allowed to bring our bikes into the workplace instead of leaving them on the street where they were subject to weather and potential theft,” he says. “My office building at 9th and Chestnut streets also had showers if I really came in hot and sweaty.”
SEPTA may not be able to assist with the changing facilities, but it does plan to tackle the bike storage issue. “People have told us they need secure bike parking,” says Rebecca Collins, a strategy and sustainability planner at SEPTA. One of the places SEPTA plans to provide such parking in the near future is the South Broad Street concourse, where there’s room to install a secure bike locker. (Read about SEPTA’s new Cycle-Transit plan here.)
Combined with the Indego bike share network, updated SEPTA facilities would make it possible for many more Northwest residents to have a blended commute, with bicycles handling the first and last mile while Regional Rail does the trunk-line hauling.
Even those who prefer an all-bike commute may be able to take advantage of another SEPTA project: converting part of the former Ivy Ridge Regional Rail branch to a bike and hiking trail. Using the newly reopened Manayunk Bridge to reach the Cynwyd Line would eliminate a steep grade in one direction for Roxborough cyclists, and those continuing to Center City could use routes through Wynnefield and West Philadelphia to get there and back without having to negotiate steep hills.
As for the rest of the Northwest, there are a number of fixes big and small that, taken together, just might make commuting easier for the average cyclist. One of the more intriguing fixes is a device installed last year in Trondheim, Norway: a cable tramway buried in the pavement that gives cyclists a lift uphill.
Matt Wysong, Northwest district planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, says the commission included a picture of the device at work in the final Northwest District Plan as a way to encourage “out-of-the-box” thinking. “The city is not actively considering installing these right now,” he says, “but there are a lot of great streets where it could work, such as Ridge Avenue or the Wall.
“It’s something that would need further study and a champion,” Wysong adds. “I don’t think we have that champion yet, but maybe that person will come along someday.”
In the meantime, a number of less technological fixes could also make bicycling more attractive in the area. Some of them are no-brainers, like making sure Forbidden Drive is properly paved for its entire length.
“The city forgets to accommodate cyclists and has repaved the drive with the wrong-sized stones on a number of occasions,” Moak says. “The smaller stones are a more appropriate paving.” Adds Murphy: “The first 300 yards, from Lincoln Drive to the first bridge over Wissahickon Creek, that’s the worst part.” Wysong says this criticism is “to the point” and that simply maintaining the gravel trail properly would make life easier for cyclists.
Some other simple improvements include marked bike lanes on Wissahickon and Midvale avenues. “It’s precarious crossing Route 1 and Roberts Avenue on Wissahickon,” Murphy says. “The whole of the street, even up into Mount Airy, is bike-unfriendly.” Although it gets narrow where it descends into the valley at Lincoln Drive, much of the rest of the street has room for bike lanes. “And Midvale Avenue is a major artery for people coming up from East Falls,” Murphy says, where the river drive bike paths begin.
Historically, hills and cyclists are sworn enemies. The hills of Northwest will not be moved. But bit by bit, they can become easier to surmount. And when that happens, they will no longer be an obstacle but just another part of the commute.
Photo by Bradley Maule