When Sam Fox comes into Center City from Fairmount for coffee, she’s often forced to ride farther than she’d like. The U-shaped bike rack in front of Nook, she said, is always full, and Fox ends up going an extra block or two before finding somewhere to lock up.
Nook isn’t the only place she experiences this problem. When she’s running errands anywhere downtown, Fox deals with what seems to be a shortage.
“I feel like bike parking is not really widely available,” said Fox, a 2017 Drexel graduate.
Just about anyone who rides a bike in Center City can relate. It really seems like there’s never a good place to park anytime between 9 and 5 on a weekday.
But how much of a problem is it? Does Philly really have a bike parking shortage?
The answer isn’t easy to find. The City of Philadelphia has no formal count, aside from the number of rack permits applied for by businesses (1,675) and an estimate for number of racks installed by the city (3,000), and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is working on calculating bike parking in Philly as we speak.
Randy LoBasso, a spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition, said “there are certainly not enough bike racks” in Philadelphia.
So Billy Penn decided to find out not just how many racks we had, but how many bike parking spots were available in Center City. I took a spin through downtown, counting every spot along the way. And after a few hours on the road, I was surprised at the result.
Though it seems like every street sign and rack overflow with locked bicycles by 9 a.m., it turns out downtown Philadelphia has more spaces than I expected. In Center City, there are just over 4,300 bike parking spots, many of them empty.
Here’s how I came up with that number, how it compares to other cities and why, at least on paper, it might be enough to handle Center City’s commuting needs.
The parameters and boundaries
I delineated Center City as being between Race and Pine streets, and river to river. This is because the Center City District considers “core” Center City to be Vine to Pine and River to River. I went with Race rather than Vine because it sucks to bike anywhere near Vine.
Why Center City only? Time and energy constraints, for one thing. I didn’t want to ride over all 2,600 miles of Philadelphia streets. Additionally, residents near Center City are far more likely to commute to work via bicycle. About 6 percent of commuters who live between Girard and Tasker, river to river, use bicycles, compared to 2 percent for the city as a whole. And nearly half of those commuters travel to work in Center City. So even though cyclists live and work all over Philly, a greater number of them live and work in Center City.
For the total number of spots, each U-shaped bike rack or city bike rack counted as two spaces. Spaces at corrals were counted based on the number of bikes that could easily fit and varied between about five and 10 spaces.
Each sign counted as one space. Of course, two bikes can fit on a street sign and in dozens of locations, particularly in Old City, cyclists had done just that. It’s just not ideal.
I only counted signs separated far enough from other objects and with narrow enough posts, like you see here:
I didn’t count the signs with wider posts that make it difficult or impossible to lock a bike.
More spots than commuters?
Here’s how the total number of bike parking spots looks street by street in Center City. The total of 4,300-plus doesn’t include any side streets or alleyways — just the main streets of Center City — or garage parking or racks located away from the streets or sidewalks. I also may have missed a few parking spots along the ride. In other words, this is a ballpark estimate of Center City bike parking and is probably low.
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So are these 4,000 spots a lot? The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia didn’t respond to a request for comment about the total. Comparable cities don’t have good records for bike parking spaces either, though Washington DC apparently has about 3,000 spaces in the entire city, according to a crowd-sourced app called Rackspotter (Rackspotter is based in the DC area and does not have extensive data for Philly). New York City has 6,000 racks — not spaces.
Melissa Shymko commutes from South Philly to Center City mostly every day for school at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and said she has difficulty finding a parking spot “every day.”
She was chatting with DaQuan Harris in Rittenhouse Square. He doesn’t bike but skates throughout the city and said he always notices full racks and bikes parked on street signs. After being told there were 4,000 spaces in Center City, Shymko pointed to a few bikes that were illegally parked on the fence of the park.
“I do not believe you,” she said. “I do not believe you at all.”
But based on the number of commuters who come into Center City, 4,000 spaces might be adequate. Some 11,000 Philadelphians report themselves to be bike commuters, according to the Census, but not all of them are heading into Center City for work. According to the Center City District, about 1,400 people commute into Center City each day during the peak hour of 8 to 9 a.m. from the south via bicycle. It didn’t keep track for those coming from the north because Vine Street makes it difficult to get an accurate count.
That number could be doubled by commuters from north of Center City, and over 1,000 more added for cyclists traveling from one part of “core” Center City to another and there should still be enough spots.
Yet people like Fox and Shymko still struggle to find a space when they’re buying a cup of coffee or commuting to school. Just about anyone can relate: Teenager Jackie Jones was parking her bike on Walnut Street recently. She said she usually just races bikes and was locking up in Center City for the first time.
Sure enough, Jones said she had to walk around for a couple minutes before finding an open space.
The push for more bike parking
Take a walk or a ride down Walnut Street, west of Broad and east of Rittenhouse Square. There’s a bike rack or usable pole in front of nearly every retail store. But on a warm day nearly every one of them is occupied. The same is true around Jefferson, where there are many more racks than typical streets in Center City. The narrow sidewalks crammed with signs, light poles and other fixtures mean the area likely can’t handle more off-street racks.
Center City as a whole might not be in need of more bike parking, but a few streets around popular businesses, offices and residences are clearly lacking.
Philadelphia is attempting to work on it. Per a memo marked as “internal use only” and “not for distribution to public” that was posted publicly on a City of Philadelphia website this month, bike parking is a priority for the Complete Streets project of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems.
The memo, addressed to developers, calls on them to install more bike racks in front of residences or businesses, and provides answers to questions that would likely arise. Though the city has installed 3,000 bike racks, it claims private developers will be counted on to meet the rising demand for new spaces. Racks typically cost between $150 and $300, and owners of businesses or residences would cover all of the cost. The goal of Complete Streets is to make safer and comfortable streets for all types of transportation.
A representative from OTIS was not available for comment.
Fox hopes that if Philadelphia gets more spaces for parking bikes they’re the right ones. Another problem with the 4,000 space count is the quality of the space.
Fox, like many cyclists, doesn’t like locking her bike to a street sign. Some outdated racks don’t allow for bikes to be secured by the frame and the front wheel. Other times, cyclists take up too much space by incorrectly locking their bikes.
Outside of Breakaway Bikes near 20th and Chestnut, Fox pointed to an old bike rack where a cyclist was forced to use it incorrectly and take up three spots.
“Design racks better,” she said. “It’s not a rack that really meets the needs of most commuters.”