Bike To Work Day Not Enough to Convince Casual Bicyclists

The Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia held the 20th annual Bike to Work Day Monday. Despite their long-running efforts to mainstream the transit choice for commuters, many casual riders --often referred to as the "interested but concerned" -- remain hesitant to pedal to the office, citing problems with Philadelphia infrastructure.

“I am afraid of the trolley tracks,” said 27-year-old Mimi Lewis, who commuted by bike for two years in Charleston, S.C. before relocating to Philly in 2012. “People have told me they can be super dangerous for bikers.”

Liz Wingfield, 23, says the general road conditions make her nervous to ride despite her desire to save money commuting to her classes at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law this fall.

“I don’t know any one of my friends that hasn’t gotten into some sort of accident,” she said. “Especially when you are talking about trolley tracks, or drivers that aren’t paying attention, or cab doors that open when you don’t expect it.”

These fears are well known to the Bike Coalition.

“Trolley tracks can be slippery when wet, they can be dangerous if you don’t cross them at a perpendicular angle,” said Nick Mirra, Bike Coalition spokesman.

While Mirra recommends avoiding the tracks when possible, he adds the biking hazard may be alleviated in some parts of Philly in the coming year.

“We are in the early stages of working with SEPTA and the city to fill in unused trolley tracks at key intersections,” he said.

SEPTA will begin removing the unused tracks at a few intersections based on recommendations by the Bike Coalition shortly, and then the Streets Department will repave the roadway, according to Rina Cutler, deputy mayor of the Office of Transportation and Utilities.

Since trolleys are still in use in West Philly, where Lewis lives, she will still have to manage the tracks if she bikes to her Center City office – one reason she suggests rethinking the placement of bike lanes so it lies between the sidewalk and the line of parked cars.

“Getting doored by passengers is the one risk,” she said. “But you don’t have cars on your back the whole time. I felt very contained.”

Mirra touts the Penn Street Trail, a separated bike lane on the eastern side of Delaware Avenue near Poplar Street that fits Lewis’ preferences, as a step in the right direction.

But the .25-mile stretch empties bicyclists heading north into the SugarHouse Casino parking lot – not exactly a continuous bike-friendly route -- while those heading south are traveling against traffic when the trail ends at Spring Garden Street.

“It is a challenge because frequently that kind of setup requires the removal at parking at an intersection,” Mirra said. “To provide visual clearance so drivers taking turns can check to see if a bike is coming.”

Extending the Penn Street Trail south to Washington Avenue is expected, but the Delaware River Waterfront Corp.’s design plans are not yet finalized and construction dollars will be needed, Cutler said.

She added that, “Every time the Streets Department or PennDOT repaves a street, we look at the roadway markings and see if there are any opportunities to change or extend bike lanes.”

While the infrastructure improvements are in the works, both Lewis and Wingfield say a buddy system would make them more comfortable and more likely to bike to work.

“I’d feel a lot safer if I had someone who was a veteran biker who was biking in the same direction with me,” Wingfield said. “They can show me the ropes and give me tips as I’m doing it.”

“Sort of like a carpool, but a bike pool,” Lewis added.

There is no formal system to connect novice and experienced bicyclists, but some unofficial connections are forming thanks to social media, like the Women Bike PHL Facebook page, Mirra said.

“I recently saw a bike community meet up thread,” he said. “Riding with a friend is one of the best entry points in incorporating bicycling into a new part of your life.”

Contact Alison Burdo at 610.668.5635, or follow @NewsBurd on Twitter.

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