Philadelphia is home to more than 10,000 acres of parkland and about 220 ever-expanding miles of bike lanes. Local illustrator Kate Otte and I visited five of the city’s major parks to get a taste of their different topographies, their accessibility by bike, and how the former influences the latter. If there’s a will — or, in this case, an efficient bike route — there’s a way.
One of Philadelphia’s most famous and centrally located parks, Rittenhouse Square is packed on a recent Saturday afternoon. People-watching is plentiful, and everyone seems accepting of, and willing to shake off, the feeling that people are watching people watch other people. The level paths crisscrossing the park are wide and heavily trafficked. It’s a no-brainer to dismount your bike and lock it up to the long, low iron fence on the square’s east side, next to dozens of other rides of all kinds. Sometimes the fence is so packed that bikes are crammed wheel to wheel, with nearby racks and street signs filling up as well. While few cyclists ride through the actual park, many take to the wide sidewalks surrounding it, opting to avoid the perilous roadways of Walnut and 18th streets. With a piloted bike lane now in place to the west, a Jane Jacobs favorite may finally become safer to circumvent by bike.
Spruce Street Harbor Park
This temporary beach along the Delaware River sprung up again this summer, to even more popularity and activity than its inaugural year in 2014. One perk this time around: a formal bike corral at the park’s southwestern entrance, a relief since the space gets far too crowded to walk a bike through. Still, on the park’s north side across from the Hilton hotel, bikes stack up along railings, a raised fence, and other, sparse parking options available. More than a few bikes (including Indego) ride past on the sidewalk out front — understandably so, since the Delaware Avenue bike lane is narrow and half gravel, and cars zipping by tend to exceed 35 miles per hour. To access the park from the cobblestoned Spruce Street, cyclists ride on the sidewalk and through the crosswalks.
Tucked deep in South Philly, Dickinson Square is, perhaps even more so than Rittenhouse, a quintessential city park. It has children on swings, old-timers on benches, and neighbors chatting each other up over the handlebars of their bikes. Indeed, the Moyamensing Avenue bike lanes make it accessible to cyclists from all over the area. The park itself is used occasionally as a cycling throughway, too, with wide sidewalks tempting riders to cut across and enjoy the greenery. Renovated in 2012 with help from the Community Design Collaborative, the square now includes bike racks inside the park.
The only year-round, privately owned park on this list, Liberty Lands is distinct. Its paths, where it has them, are narrow and worn. Dogs run off leash, the Awesome Fest summer movie series screens R-rated flicks, and visitors make no effort to hide their open containers. (After all, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, and not the city, calls the shots around here.) Liberty Lands stands out, too, as the only park on this list without an adjacent bike path. Instead, it sits along the de facto cycling route to points northeast: 3rd Street. Going north is treacherous — potholes and misshapen asphalt turn the road into a pump track, and cars eek around cyclists in the single lane between on-street parking. Still, cyclists bound for the River Wards remain undeterred. In just 10 minutes of observation, seven cyclists coasted by on a recent Saturday at sunset. Today, North 3rd Street has been milled for repaving, leaving the roadway scarred and bumpy. Yet the bikes ride on.
Clark Park often seems like West Philly’s collective backyard. Barbecues, dance classes, hand drummers, and volleyball games are all Saturday staples. Bikes lay casually on their side, never far from their reclining owners. The gentle slope of the sidewalks makes it ideal for parents teaching young riders how to balance safely. There’s foot traffic, but not nearly as much as in other parks and squares. And the Baltimore Avenue bike lane, though it has many problem points, takes you right there. Sitting at the moveable tables and chairs on the north end of the park, we couldn’t help but overhear a woman talking to her friend who had just moved to Philly: “Get a bike, you’ll be so much happier.” Sage advice.
Illustrations by Kate Otte