Philadelphia recently launched a bike-share program called Indego. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

For one thing: narrow, European-style streets.

If you were to name the big American city with the highest rate of commuter cycling, Philadelphia might not be the first place that would come to mind. But Philly is, in fact, the U.S. city with more a million people that has that distinction. In 2012, according to estimates based on U.S. Census data, the bicycle-commuting rate in Philadelphia was 2.3 percent. That compares favorably to Chicago, with 1.6 percent, or New York, with a mere 1 percent.

Why is Philly such a good place for riding a bike? Not because it has the most or best bike lanes, according to a new video from Streetfilms. It’s because the fabric of the city itself is bicycle-friendly. Narrow streets, originally meant for walking and horseback, mean naturally slow speeds. In many ways, Philly looks and feels more like a European city than an American one.

The Philadelphia Bike Story from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

“We have got a lot of people who are bicycling here in Philadelphia, and when you look at our bicycling infrastructure, we are not number one in the best bicycling infrastructure,” says Alex Doty, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “Part of it is when you have more narrow streets where it’s difficult to put in infrastructure, it also means you have more reasonable traffic speeds. People feel a little bit safer being on a bike.”

Philadelphia has a few other things going for it, bikewise:

  • Traffic lights on its tight street grid are only half a minute long, and are often timed for a 20 mile per hour speed limit. “You’re never waiting more than 30 seconds,” says a city official. “That helps to encourage good behavior.”
  • It’s relatively flat.
  • The city is compact, and many people live within a relatively short distance of work, making biking an attractive and convenient transportation option.
  • Overall, the city is scaled more to humans than to automobiles, meaning biking is often faster and more convenient than driving.

Philadelphia is by no means lacking in high-quality bike infrastructure. The recent completion of the Schuylkill River Trail connects Center City with miles of recreational biking opportunities that lead all the way to Valley Forge and beyond, some 26.5 miles altogether. And with the launch of the Indego bike-share system last month, the city hopes to get even more people out there using bikes for transportation within the city. Indego’s pricing structure and station locations were planned specifically to increase bike access for the city’s low-income residents and neighborhoods.

Still, Philly’s greatest bike asset may be its old-fashioned layout, something that wouldn’t necessarily be easy to replicate in newer cities. “This is a city that’s made for bicycling,” says one Philadelphian in the Streetfilm. “It’s flat, it’s dense, and it’s impossible to drive in.”

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