The recently painted bike lane on the left side of Spruce Street in front of Society Hill Synagogue was wide open Saturday until a little after 9 a.m. Then, one at a time, cars began pulling in. Family and friends attending a bar mitzvah that morning were grateful to park in front of the synagogue without fear of getting a parking ticket.
They were taking advantage of a time-honored Philadelphia courtesy.
“You know how difficult it is to be able to find a parking spot in the city?” said Mary Eng, who went to the celebration with her son from the city’s Northeast. “Without this, you would have to find a paid parking lot or somewhere off street that’s so far.”
On streets near 74 houses of worship in Center City, the faithful are granted relaxed parking enforcement that allows them to put their cars in places that are convenient for services. Some have worshiped at the same place for decades, but their cars are now obstacles to the growing number of bicyclists in Philadelphia. On weekends, bike lanes transform into parking spaces, forcing riders to coexist with cars, an unnerving and potentially dangerous way to travel.
An Inquirer reader contacted Curious Philly, our Q&A that gives readers a chance to pose questions about their community, and asked, “What’s up with Sunday ‘church parking’ in Center City?”
The parking policy, which has existed for about 20 years, has led to finger-pointing between worshipers and cyclists, even spawning a website with the sole purpose of exploiting the free parking.
“I see it as kind of a blind spot on behalf of the faith communities here," said David Brindley, a cyclist who does ministry work with Cru, an interdenominational Christian group for high school and college students. “Their transportation perspective is more behind a steering wheel than a handlebar. They don’t understand how dangerous parking in a bike lane is.”
Church personnel, meanwhile, see cyclists as being unwilling to share limited street space.
“They’re taking a piece of property that they do not own, and they’ve basically taken it and quarantined it off for their own use,” said Victor Psoras, sexton at the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany on 13th Street.
Meanwhile, government officials, religious leaders, and cyclists have done little to find compromise.
“We all need to come together in a more official capacity and figure this out,” said Randy LoBasso, spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “Too often we find we’re all talking past each other.”
It’s another way Philadelphia is struggling with limited real estate for a growing diversity of uses. On 13th Street, for example, St. Luke’s congregants used to park in an automobile travel lane, but when the street got a bike lane, it became a one-lane road, which created few other options for parking.
“This brought the streets down to a single travel lane, and taking the only travel lane would mean no vehicular traffic would move,” said Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for the city’s administration.
Official city permits, valid for each calendar year, are supposed to be displayed in windshields and are specific to each place of worship. They detail where people are allowed to park for free, which can include bike or vehicle travel lanes, or an established parking lane.
“Center City is a densely populated area with limited space to park in the vicinity of the churches,” Cofrancisco said. “Congregants generally tend to be limited in their ability to walk over certain distances, so this courtesy has been afforded for this purpose.”
Up to 50 people may need street parking during Christian holiday celebrations at St. Luke’s, Psoras said. On 13th Street, the difficulty finding parking elsewhere can drive people away.
“We’ve had people in the past who found parking was difficult, and they just went home,” he said.
At Society Hill Synagogue, executive director Betty van de Rijn said, members who have been with the temple since its founding 60 years ago but moved to the suburbs rely on the permits.
“If we didn’t have that, because we’re an urban shul, it would hamper the attendance during the holidays,” van de Rijn said. “As far as I’m concerned, it has worked out very well.” During High Holidays, the demand for parking can stretch from Third Street to Eighth Street on Spruce and on two blocks of Fourth Street.
At nearby St. Peter’s, an Episcopal church at Third and Pine Streets that dates to 1761, parking used by about 20 people each Sunday has helped attract new members from outside the neighborhood.
“We have people coming in from Jersey, Fairmount section, East Falls, Darby, sort of also surrounding the city where it’s outside of SEPTA or not as convenient on a Sunday morning,” said Kate Randall, parish administrator. “We’re very appreciative of it.”
Less appreciative are the city’s cyclists.
They have been on a long quest to secure safe spaces that allow bicycles to travel separately from the flow of cars.
Reactions from cyclists vary from irritation to rage. A post on the Facebook page UrbanPHL regarding cars parked in bike lanes for a funeral near 22nd and Lombard Streets has drawn nearly 300 comments and harsh words between people who want the parking permits eliminated and those who are more accepting of them.
Even off of Facebook, a touch of anger can color people’s comments.
"Well, then they can go to a church that’s closer to them,“ Amy Cherowitz, a bike courier, said of congregants who drive into the city to attend services.
“The problem is they’ve gone beyond what I feel is negotiable,” Psoras said of cyclists. “You still have all these other people that need to be considered.”
The parking permits might be more tolerable, Cherowitz said, if they were being used properly. Several cyclists noted people with permits park long after services without consequence. St. Luke’s website tells congregants that the permits aren’t even necessary, which city officials said is incorrect.
One website, churchparkingforatheists.com, offers counterfeit copies of parking permits for several Center City places of worship, along with instructions on the kind of paper and color to print them on, with a wry disclaimer:
“Any unauthorized use of the materials contained herein is not sanctioned. This is not an endorsement of parking illegally on Sundays to go to brunch or engage in any other secular activities. And please do not use these placards to park in bike lanes!!!!”
An attempt to reach the site’s operator was not successful.
The city is aware of concerns about misuse and is working to address it, Cofrancisco said.
The Philadelphia Parking Authority does very little to restrict parking during services, spokesperson Martin O’Rourke said.
“Had this not been abused to the level that we have now, this might not even be an issue,” Cherowitz said. “It would be unpleasant still, but it’s the blatant and rampant abuse of it.”
The Bicycle Coalition thinks there is room for a compromise. There are paid parking lots near some churches that are often empty on Sundays, LoBasso said. The city could adjust what streets are opened for parking during services to move cars away from streets with bike lanes. And cyclists also should accept that sometimes some bike lanes may be occupied.
He recalled a decade ago when the city first installed bike lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets but made a deal with places of worship that they could still use that space for parking. The agreement is outmoded, he said, and the balance between the needs of churchgoers and cyclists should be revisited.
“All these things have changed over the past 10 years, and the parking privilege has not changed,” LoBasso said. “What’s happening now is not a solution.”