A bike corral in place of former car spots outside Reading Terminal Market

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The Philadelphia Parking Authority is branching into infrastructure. Infrastructure for bicycles.

Each year, the PPA slaps 30,000 to 40,000 tickets on vehicles for posting up illegally in front of fire hydrants. While netting the agency a good chunk of ticket revenue, the practice is also dangerous — it can hinder firefighters’ access.

A new initiative seeks designs that would keep motorists from parking there in the first place.

The PPA and other agencies have launched the “Rack ‘Em Up” bike parking competition. It’s a pilot program that will prototype and install a pair of bike corrals in the street space in front of hydrants.

Pitched as “Philly Racks,” their goal is threefold: stop cars from blocking hydrants, maintain emergency access to the water lines, and provide more bike parking in a city that lacks it.

“Fire hydrants are a ‘no man’s land,’ ” said PPA executive director Clarena Tolson. “The goal is innovative use of the public space, but also providing for voluntary compliance of the traffic code.”

Designers, preferably Philly-based, can submit Philly Racks proposals through Sept. 22. Five entries will make the shortlist, and the winning design will be selected in October.

The prize? Up to $3,500, and the joy of seeing the idea become reality. Fabrication and installation of at least two corals — one in West Philly and one in Old City — will happen before the end of the year, officials say.

Inspired by Tolson’s trip to bicycle haven Copenhagen five years ago, the hydrant rack idea was slow to materialize due to funding issues, she said. After unsuccessfully applying for grants, Tolson said the parking agency put up some money, and got commitments from the Mayor’s Fund of Philadelphia and WTS Philadelphia, a women’s transit advocacy group.

At this point, the pot sits at a modest $10,000 for the two bike stations. Tolson said it was too soon to decide whether the PPA, which draws about $265 million in annual revenue, would commit funds from the agency’s yearly budget toward more hydrant racks.

Advocates say more could be done, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Sarah Stuart, executive director the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, applauded the competition. However, she believes PPA should be making regular investments toward public safety and better transit infastructure.

“I think it’s imperative that the parking authority spends some of its own revenue creating a substantial amount of bike parking,” Stuart said. “My sense is that it’s not yet a priority.”

PPA director Tolson said the project should be scalable once the prototyping and trial installations are complete.

The idea has been put forth in Philadelphia before. In 2018, PlanPhilly reported the Innovation Fund was granting $7,500 to the Office of Transportation and Infrastructure to design a similar prototype.

The current competition is co-sponsored by a few branches of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, including the Philadelphia Fire Department. When blazes erupt, firefighters often need to break windows of vehicles that are illegally blocking hydrants — and this infrastructure would prevent that.

Patti Gibson, former president and current director of business development of transit advocacy group WTS Philadelphia, says she’s optimistic the prototypes could be expanded to the rest of the city.

It’s also a good olive branch to bicyclists from a notoriously car-focused agency.

“I think it’s a great show of outreach for a parking authority that often gets a bad rep,” Gibson said. “We’ll certainly see a push for more sharing of the roads. It’s a lovely compromise on their behalf.”

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Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...