2017 was a banner year for bicycling in Philadelphia. We counted a record amount of bicycle traffic on the South Street Bridge. The 2017 Census Data which was released about a year later confirmed our trend. Philadelphia was buckling the national trend of stagnated bicycle commuter stats.
It also showed that South Philadelphia had the fourth highest bicycle commuter mode share in the United States, only bested by North Portland OR, Boulder CO and Cambridge, MA.
Then, in 2018, it all came crashing down. Our bike counts showed that bike traffic dropped by 17 percent, the largest drop since we started our annual bike counts in 2005.
This was also reflected in Indego’s usage statistics and the Center City District 2018 bicycle count.
Last month, the 2018 Census American Community Survey Data confirmed what we already knew: the percentage of residents bicycling to worked dropped from 2.6 percent to 1.8 percent. The decline was not just in Philadelphia but also in many other US cities .
We put our heads together and came up with with several possible reasons for the decline, since it was literally unprecedented:
- Bicycle trips being replaced by Uber and Lyft
- Increased traffic congestion in Center City
- Deteriorating bicycle facilities, especially on Spruce and Pine Streets
It turns out that guesses one and two were wrong. We are currently in the middle of our 2019 bike counts program and so far the data is indicating that bicycle traffic is significantly up from last year.
Then, there’s the rain. Last year, during our 60-day count period in September and October 2018, the City recorded 27 days of measurable rain. In September 2019, there were only seven days of measurable rain.
The City is currently upgrading bike facilities on Spruce, Pine and 11th Streets and many streets in the Central Business District have been repaved.
Finally the walkway ramp on the Ben Franklin Bridge has resulted in a major increase in bicycle and pedestrian traffic to and from Camden. It also feels a lot more comfortable to ride on most of Spruce and Pine Streets, when compared to last year.
But since most of the new bike lane projects around the City are not complete, and bicycling rates are way up in our preliminary 2019 counts, we have to assume that the biggest factor in the decline is that Philadelphians just don’t like to bike in the rain.
I cycle less, although I do commute daily, since so much of the city streets have been torn up and are more like off-road cycling than street cycling. Lots of pot holes which may be uncomfortable for automobiles pose much greater risk for narrow bicycle tires. Similarly roadways with deposits of large gravel are dangerous to navigate, especially at night.
I’ve reduced elective travel after dark on unfamiliar streets. Most all of center city has terrible roads, and the bike lanes are usually the worst surfaced parts of the roadway.