Can I Get a Transfer?

As frustrating as the mixed-mode commuting experience can oftentimes be, the good news is that a number of bike-friendly policy changes are in the works. | Photo courtesy SEPTA

For Delaware Valley cyclists, traveling on trains and buses with a bicycle in tow can often be a rather dicey proposition. Transit agencies are trying to change that for good.

Let's imagine you're a bicycle commuter with a 9-to-5 job outside of Center City, and with a home in Malvern a few miles from the SEPTA Regional Rail station. Even at 8 a.m., the two-wheeled journey from your front door to the Malvern station should be pleasant enough. And in theory, the process of rolling your bike aboard the Paoli/Thorndale train once it arrives, and then completing your trip into town—at which point you'll hop back on your bike and ride to the office—should be equally stress-free. After all, two bicycles are allowed to travel in each car on all SEPTA Regional Rail lines, provided they stay within a designated area. That's just one example of a policy that should make this sort of mixed-mode travel nothing less than a Philadelphia-area bike commuter's dream.

Similar bike-and-ride policies, in fact, exist within just about public transit agency in the Delaware Valley. Every last SEPTA bus in the city, for instance, is equipped with front-end bike racks, as are roughly half the buses in the NJ Transit fleet, some of which even offer under-floor luggage compartments for bikes. The NJ Transit River Line, which runs between Camden and Trenton, has multiple wall-mounted bike hooks on each car, and even allows Segways onboard. Long-haul commuters heading to New York or D.C. can stash their bikes in the luggage compartment of a Bolt Bus. And in June, Amtrak made waves by announcing that new baggage cars on its 15 long-distance routes will soon be outfitted with racks that can accommodate unboxed bikes.

But as many frequent bike-to-transit rider knows, what's simple in theory doesn't always work out in reality. Just ask Mike McGettigan, who owns Northern Liberties' Trophy Bikes. "I've been on SEPTA cars with my folding bike, where every time the conductor passed me, he grumbled that, 'people should ride on bikes; bikes shouldn't ride on trains.'"

John Boyle of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia says that getting kicked of SEPTA trains was a big problem early on (and still is “to some degree”) but that it mostly happens on Regional Rail. "But generally, the issue has always been not being able to get on the train in the first place,” he says. “You'll be at a station and you're ready to board, and the conductor says, 'No room!'"

And as for our Malvern-to-Center City bike commuter? In reality, he probably doesn't exist, due simply to the fact that on SEPTA and PATCO trains, and on most NJ Transit cars, bicycles aren't allowed at all during the morning or evening rush hour unless you own a folding bike.

Yet, as frustrating as the mixed-mode commuting experience can oftentimes be, the good news is that a number of bike-friendly policy changes are in the works. Last year the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission worked with transportation agencies to find regional transit stops where increased bike parking is needed. According to Boyle, both SEPTA and PATCO have been especially responsive to the project's recommendations.

During November’s Philly Bike Expo, SEPTA will be releasing its Bike Action Plan, says spokesperson Rebecca Collins, which will focus on the facility and infrastructure improvements the agency hopes to make in three different multimodal areas: biking to transit, bikes at transit, and bikes on transit. SEPTA, Collins says, is even looking at ways to get rid of its rush-hour bike restrictions.     

"I would say that generally, the city wants to accommodate bicycles as well as they can," says Boyle, who points out that political objections and a lack of funding in Philadelphia tend to make that a challenge. "All of those things kind of mix together," he says. "[At the moment], the elected officials are sort of plowing their way into funding the path that they feel comfortable with."

This story is part of Grid's 2014 Philly Bike Expo insert.