It was on the road to Damascus where Saul of Tarsus, on his way to persecute Christians, had his sudden conversion to Christianity. Saul became Paul, an apostle—though not one of the Twelve Apostles—and is credited with writing many of the New Testaments epistles.
Urban bike haters - and those of you who just haven't had the gumption to give city cycling a try - now's your time to ride on the road to your own Damascus. This week, a conversion to urban biking is possible.
Now through Sunday, cyclists have the chance to experience urban cycling with little to no automobile traffic. For people nervous about giving city biking a try, it’s a wonderful way to warm up to it, and to get used to traveling on streets that might not have a bike lane.
With the pope’s imminent, eminent visit just hours away, the streets of Center City are all but deserted. Road closures – most notably the Ben Franklin Parkway – have cleared the usually clogged streets of most automobile traffic. On other roads, parking lanes have been cleared, creating another de-facto travel lane. And with businesses across the city voluntarily (or not so voluntarily) shuttering today and tomorrow, there are fewer commuters on our streets and many people are choosing SEPTA and PATCO over dealing with road closures and scarce parking.
The streets are far less full than normal, giving the novice city cyclist ample room to get used to pedaling in unusually light traffic.
Although road closures and detours promise nightmares for automobiles, for bikes these conditions are a dream. With the exception of the Parkway from Eakins Oval to Logan Circle, bicycles are allowed on most of the roads closed to automobile traffic, which is frequently, inaccurately referred to as “vehicular traffic” on the various Pope Maps floating around.
Even East Market Street has been a pleasure to ride these last few days. Usually a hellish mess, Market Street tries to simultaneously act as a bus depot and high-speed thoroughfare and fails miserably as both. Aggressive drivers and buses race to beat lights, while throngs of oblivious pedestrians staring at their phones step into traffic, often far from any crosswalk. It’s an overtaxed road, so I usually decide not to bike there, saving the street and myself from the added stress.
Not this week. Except for the buses, it’s largely empty. But even with them, cycling is a breeze. I was able to loop around the frequently stopped 60- and 40-footers with ease – a move that’s usually fraught with danger, and more often than not impossible. Most of the time when I bike on East Market Street, I end up stuck behind an alighting bus, sucking on fumes.
Still, not every road is quite ready for the novice. Cycling around City Hall is still exciting – I quite enjoy doing it, especially in traffic, but I’m giving in to my thrill-seeking, adrenaline junky side when I do. Most sane people prefer to have calm, uneventful commutes. With the reduced traffic, though, it’s still far less gripping than the norm.
Further west, JFK Boulevard inadvertently makes the case for protected bike lanes. The 1600 block is still a multilane mess, with cars in the center lane travelling at high speeds while taxis and Ubers stop and go in the outer lanes to pick up and drop off passengers seemingly at random. But go another block on JFK where parking has been temporarily suspended and crowd barriers line the curbs. Without the constant parking and double parking from the cabs and delivery trucks, cycling this stretch is wonderfully chaos-free.
Cyclists, too, have some detours and headaches to deal with. The Schuylkill River Trail had its Pope Fences put in place sometime yesterday, for example. But for the most part, the next few days present a rare opportunity to get acclimated to urban bicycling.
On Saturday, there will be a huge Pope Ride – thousands of cyclists have signed up to take a leisurely ride on the streets where automobile traffic will be heavily restricted beginning Friday night and lasting until early Monday morning.
I grew up on the Jersey Shore, and cycling these past two days has reminded me of the calm before the storm. And given the wildly varying crowd estimates, it feels specifically like the calm before a Nor’easter that may or may not actually make landfall.
To see where traffic restrictions will be in place, with a good timeline, you can check out Philly Pope Map or NewsWorks’ coverage, including this day-by-day breakdown of traffic restrictions in Philly.