Two pieces of news in November 2014 made Philadelphia stand out in its quest to being a great American bicycling city.

First came the announcement of the elevation of status of the Philadelphia’s Parx Casino Cycling Classic. The professional race (one of the few internationals offering equal prize purses to men and women) will now be part of the UCI Women’s Professional Road Cycling Series (the 2015 rebranding of the World Cup series) and the only United States stopover for the series.

Then the creation of the “Philadelphia Bicycle Advocacy Board” made the headlines in cycling advocacy circles. A brainchild of Mayor Michael A. Nutter, the commission was established “to promote bicycling among Philadelphians and on public policies.”

These two significant steps are part of a strategy to bolster the city’s reputation as a cyclists’ haven.

Hosting cycling events to boost local cycling culture

In Philadelphia, major events and everyday cycling go hand in hand and benefit everyone. Pro races looking for visibility and fan-bases take advantage of the favourable cycling environment of the city, while public administrators can leverage on the surge in popularity of the cycle sport to promote active forms of transport.

The best example of this synergy was probably Copenhagen’s status as UCI Bike City from 2008 to 2011. Over this period the city hosted a series of international UCI BMX, track, road and para-cycling events, encouraging inhabitants to take an interest in the sport while providing racers with a supportive, competent “city climate” to compete in.

A more recent example was the Prudential Ride London, supported by the Mayor of London and the local business community and represented by the city’s promotional company London & Partners. This event was a successful blend of professional, mass participation and everyday cycling, contributing to the tremendous rise of cycling in Britain.

Richmond, Virginia, host of the 2015 UCI Road World Championships, is also doing its homework, using one of cycling’s pinnacle events to positively influence local cycling policies and transport patterns.

“The city of Philadelphia is poised to emerge as one of the nation’s great cycling cities, and we want to increase the ways in which we are already encouraging bicycling,” said Mayor Nutter.

Informing policies with cycling evidence

The Bicycle Advocacy Board has the task of “advising the Mayor on ways to promote and protect recreational and professional cycling in the City of Philadelphia”. The group encompasses several representatives from the private sector, in particular the bike and industries.

Public-private partnerships are indeed crucial in Philadelphia. Encouraging private sector support of cycling, especially among employers, is part of the city’s “cycling marketing mix”. Last summer, Nutter travelled to Paris for a trade mission aimed at building alliances in cycling. Firmly convinced that “cycling is also about overall economic impact on metro regions”, he was accompanied by local business leaders on his European expedition.

Mayor Nutter (below right) takes pride in Philadelphia’s bike-commuting figures. The city ranks first among America’s 10 largest cities in this respect, with a modal share of 2.3% (and peaks of 5.5% and 5.3% in the Southeast and Centre boroughs respectively).

The city transport policies are informed by the documentation produced by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP), the tireless local cycling advocacy group, whose Executive Director, Alex Doty, sits on the city’s cycling advocacy board.

The BCGP conducts annual bike counts to obtain a statistical perspective on cycling’s modal share in the city – and it is on the rise. Between 2005 and 2013 cycling increased by 260%.

BCGP’s research also showed that local cyclists are willing to go out of their shortest way to work or education, if it means riding on streets with bike lanes. In addition, “streets with buffered bike lanes carry 78% more bicyclists than streets with standard lanes”, and 131% more than streets with no bike infrastructure at all, says BCGP’s 2014 “Bike PHL Facts” report (available here).

The Mayor has always bought into this “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach. The city now has more than 500 miles of bike lanes, and a new bike-share scheme is due to be launched in spring 2015.

By creating the Bicycle Advocacy Board, Nutter – whose second and final mandate will come to an end in 2015 – has built “something that has the legs to continue to do that work beyond this administration”, in the words of BCGP’s Doty.

Of particular interest is the Coalition’s work in favour of women’s cycling. In a city where the percentage of women bicycle commuters is higher than in the rest of the country (33% vs. 24%), a specific campaign (Women Bike PHL) is run to shrink the gender gap in bicycling. To do this, Women Bike PHL organises classes on “urban riding basics”, mechanics workshops and social rides.

Hosting such a prestigious women’s professional event on the home ground is certainly another means towards gender equality on the bike lanes of Philly.

Photo credit: Kyle Gradinger