Philadelphia Metropolis


Riding Their Bikes

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 By Lucien Crowder

There are two kinds of bicyclists in South Philadelphia. If you think I am over-generalizing, go to the corner of Ninth St. and Washington Ave. and try to find a third variety. You'll be standing there a long while.

Let's call the first kind -- my kind --the South Philly Cyclists. Let's call the second kind the Passyunk Pedalers. These names aren't terribly descriptive, but what's the point to life if there's no alliteration?

We South Philly Cyclists are new to the neighborhood. We are interlopers. We are the educated types, or the creative ones, or occasionally even both. We are young, or despite appearances we pretend to be. We are female as often as male, but uniformly white. By no means are we rich, but we care about reducing our carbon footprint, and a certain material comfort is required of those who care about their carbon footprint.

The Passyunk Pedalers are also new to the neighborhood, though they've arrived under different circumstances. They are mostly young, though the older ones make no pretense otherwise. They are overwhelmingly male. They are Mexican and Chinese, Guatemalan and Vietnamese--the various ingredients in South Philadelphia's immigrant salad bowl--but they are united in needing a cheap, practical way to get to work. If you knocked on their doors to talk about carbon footprints, they'd probably gaze significantly at your shoes.

I, as a South Philly Cyclist, engage every morning in a safety regimen. I buckle up my helmet. Wrap a reflective strap around my ankle. Turn on the flashing red light that's mounted on my bicycle's seat post. What a dork I am. But such precautions are wise for South Philly Cyclists because, as a matter of principle, we go fast. We go fast because we care about physical fitness, because we regard every moment spent commuting as stolen from the serious business of self-realization. We get on our bikes, engage in our virtuous behavior, and dismount.

Passyunk Pedalers approach safety from a different perspective. The attitude seems to be that if you don't break your neck trying to get to work in the morning, you won't break your neck trying to get to work in the morning. They minimize risk by traveling very slowly--that way, passing motorists are never surprised by sudden movements. But Pedalers also exhibit a conspicuous wobbliness--that way, passing motorists must always be on guard for sudden movements. Pedalers are also keen on utilizing the sidewalk, thus avoiding motorists altogether.

Of course, it's easier to ride fast and confidently like the Cyclists do if you've got a good bike in good repair. Mine, for instance, is a Gary Fisher mountain bike, an old unit now but fairly expensive once, and it's no stranger to the mechanic's rack. It brakes instantly, crisply. It's got 21 smooth-shifting gears, two of which I actually need.

Passyunk Pedalers, meanwhile, ride clunkers that no doubt delighted the 12-year-olds for whom they were purchased in 1986, but haven't delighted anyone for a long time. Because these bikes were built for children, they are too small for the adults who ride them today. It seems a universal element of the modern immigrant experience to hit your chest with your knees as you ride your bike to work.

But here's what marks me most clearly as a South Philly Cyclist--I'm thinking of giving it up. Quitting has been on my mind since last October, when my tire slipped on a disused trolley track, sending me flying. The 180 pounds of flesh that constitute my middle-aged frame delivered all their downward force on the few inches of flesh that constitute my left knee. As a result I climbed stairs sideways for the better part of a month, and now I'm terrified of trolley tracks. Equally terrifying is the prospect of losing my temper someday when a belligerent motorist speeds by, screaming at me to get off the road. Irate confrontations with belligerent individuals are not associated with positive health outcomes. They pose serious risks to your carbon footprint.

So maybe it's time to stash my bike in the basement and pursue transportation alternatives such as catching the bus or buying a second car. But these options may not be available to Passyunk Pedalers, those slow weaving figures maneuvering their undersized machines along the streets and sidewalks of South Philadelphia. Because it's not some ecological impulse, or a hunger for self-realization, that makes them pedal and wobble. They just wake up every day and realize they have to get to work.


Lucien Crowder is a writer and editor who does a lot of pedaling in South Philly.


Read The Metropolis Report by Elise Vider on the future of bicycling in Philadelphia. Bicycle City: Part One, Part Two and Part Three 

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