They called it the Philly Handshake. That indelible experience of cruising up the street, wind in your hair, shiny new bike under your feet, pedaling your way to a new job in our fair city.
And then you bite it on the 11th Street trolley tracks. Welcome to the City of Brotherly Love.
Ask Shannon Braden, 37, of Graduate Hospital, who broke her ankle after falling in the tracks last summer near 11th and South. Or Tina Testaverde, who flew over her handlebars into the windshield of a parked car outside the Pub on Passyunk East in 2011. Or Jamie Shanker-Passero, who was snared by the tracks on a tortilla run in 2012 and landed on her wrist. (“I also broke a lot of tortilla chips, which was sad,” she wrote me.)
Bobby Allyn, an NPR journalist, got caught in the tracks by the police station on Reed on his way to a pitch meeting, shortly after moving to the city from Tennessee in 2015 to report for WHYY-FM. “You should know better,” his coworkers told him when he arrived to the meeting with ripped slacks and bruises.
“It was the city of Philadelphia putting me through a hazing,” he said. “I got to hit the asphalt and shed a little blood to become a Philadelphian.”
He got the Handshake, a term that Braden said she learned from other cyclists after her accident. A rite of passage, more than a few people told me.
But it’s one that, mercifully, is fading into the past. Last week, the city finally began to pave over the tracks on the perilous stretch of 11th Street between Passyunk Avenue and South Street — some of the last remnants of the long-discontinued Route 23 trolley. The tracks are surely a charming bit of character, a tribute to a bygone mode of transportation down in South Philly. (The beloved Girard Avenue trolley, and others in West Philadelphia, still rumbles on.)
They’re also a potentially deadly trap for cyclists — and especially dangerous in a neighborhood with more biker-commuters than almost anywhere else in the country, said Randy LoBasso, policy manager for Philly’s Bicycle Coalition.
“It’s really crazy how many people bike in South Philadelphia — when for so long there’s been no good infrastructure here,” LoBasso said. To the city’s credit, he said, it’s been working to fix that.
In 2013, Katie Monroe, a former Bicycle Coalition employee and Women Bike PHL cofounder, broke her jaw in three places after tangling with the tracks. Afterward, the coalition gave the city a map of 24 intersections whose unused trolley tracks its members considered most dangerous, and asked it to pave them over. Nearly all have been repaved.
Jeannette Brugger, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said that the repaving has been a city priority and that the aim now is to focus on repaving whole corridors of tracks, not just at intersections. “When we look at repaving, we look to increase safety for everyone,” she said.
Paving over the tracks makes the street safer for drivers, too, whose cars can also slip on tracks. The city has also added an all-way stop sign at the intersection of 11th and Reed, and painted curb extensions to increase sight lines for pedestrians and make crosswalks safer. It’s added new loading zones for businesses, away from traffic.
But South Philly’s bikers are rejoicing at the new two-way protected bike lane. “It will make things safer, and get more people biking,” LoBasso said. “It sends a message from the city that they hear the concerns of people who bike in South Philly and that they want to make it better.”
For cyclists, the end of the Philly Handshake can’t come soon enough. The cutesy name belies a harsh reality. Fractured jaws, elbows, torn ACLs and busted backs are just some of the horror stories I have heard.
On paving day, bikers took pictures of the wide, smooth stretch of asphalt. “11th is FINALLY trolley track free!” gushed Adrian Mercado, owner of the aforementioned torn ACL, in a South Philly Facebook group.
I rode down 11th on Wednesday morning. It felt like gliding. At a stoplight, I pulled up next to Matt Grady, an accountant and bike commuter who said he’d seen his fair share of fellow cyclists earn the Handshake. How did the road feel today? “Beautiful,” he sighed.