Philadelphia: On Bike and Skate

A Saturday morning in August finds me swishing across Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion Bridge on my skates, heading for West River Drive. Cyclists pass in both directions but there’s plenty of room for us all. Every weekend from April to November, the drive along the Schuylkill River’s west bank is closed to vehicle traffic so cyclists, joggers and inline skaters have the luxury of four asphalt lanes winding past the tree-lined river.

View of the Fairmount Water Works and Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Cathleen McCarthy

View of Fairmount Water Works and Philadelphia Museum of Art from West River Drive. Photo by Cathleen McCarthy

Philadelphia has a quirky beauty: part old-European elegance, part urban funk. It’s a city designed for pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, and that intimacy of scale makes it nice for bikers and skaters too. According to the Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition, bicycling in the city has doubled since 2005 and is about to get even more popular. This summer, the city approved a plan to turn a traffic lane of Pine and Spruce streets into one-way bike lanes, which will make it blissfully easy to get from Rittenhouse Square to Society Hill on two wheels.

For a more adrenaline-fueled tour, join the Philadelphia Landskaters on one of their weekly city skates. Bladers meet at the steps of the art museum—yes, the ones Rocky ran up—then dash, en masse, through picturesque old neighborhoods and zoom through a subway tunnel. I’ve tried the advanced Tuesday night skates—whoosh!—and the more leisurely Sunday morning version. Both offer a fun way to meet adventurous locals. Warning: Skating over Belgian blocks can be a bit tricky and watch out for those subway grates.

On a sunny weekend, I recommend the trails along the Schuylkill. If you’re staying at a hotel downtown, you can access the Schuylkill River Trail from Walnut Street. Benches along the riverbanks present a perfect vantage point to watch the regattas on a summer weekend, or you can do what I do and join the race. It’s pretty easy to outrun scullers on a bike or skates.

A four-mile stretch of West River Drive takes you from the traffic barrier at Strawberry Mansion Bridge to the golden columns of the art museum. From this side of the river, the Fairmount Water Works resembles a mini-version of the neoclassical art museum looming above it. Spin around Eakins Oval and head back up the west bank or opt for the bike path along Kelly Drive. This trail gets crowded on the weekend, creating an obstacle course at times, but the mood is jovial and the views spectacular. You’ll pass the boathouses and tombs tucked into the hillside of Laurel Hill Cemetery. If you’re feeling ambitious and have time, you can follow the bike path to Manayunk or all the way to Valley Forge, 20 miles northwest.

One recent morning, I knelt beside West River Drive to take a picture of the Water Works. A few yards away, a tattered fellow with a long, straggly beard parked a shopping cart full of empty bottles and began waving his gnarly, rolled-up sleep mat at me. My first instinct was to bolt. Then I realized he was offering it as a kneeling pad. Ah, Philly, city of brotherly love. I thanked him and skated on with a smile.

David Byrne knows urban biking. Cathleen McCarthy reviews his new book, Bicycle Diaries.

1 comment for “Philadelphia: On Bike and Skate

  1. Joe Treichel
    September 6, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Great article! It’s nice to see the mention of the Landskaters. I guess we can all understand why they require helmets (heeeee). Good stuff

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