MOTU Missives | Philly’s Novel Approach to Urban Forest Management

This past spring, several MOTU staff members and interns had the opportunity to tour one of Philadelphia’s largest forests, 30-acre Haddington Woods, located on Cobbs Creek in West Philadelphia. Philadelphia’s forests provide a number of benefits to the city, e.g., storm water retention, localized cooling, and recreational opportunities. The Department of Parks & Recreation recently launched a multi-year forest management pilot in Haddington Woods, which is consistent with broader efforts to make the city more resilient in the face of a changing environment. Haddington Woods is open to the public. Check it out, and before you go, read about what MOTU learned on its tour:

It is well known that ecosystems around the world have been drastically altered by human activities. Many of these changes stem from climate change and the introduction of foreign species into ecosystems. In some cases, such as that of the Asian beetle, which is destroying ash trees across the U.S., invasive species compromise the growth of local species and create environmental imbalances; however, in other cases, the foreign species are harmless. This observation, along with the difficulties of eradicating alien species from compromised ecosystems has led to a change in the way that some conservationists and ecologists are approaching restoration.

Rather than attempting to remove all invasive species from an area, which is costly and in many cases ineffectual, some experts have shifted their focus to removing only foreign invasive species that are causing destruction to the compromised area. Importantly, this requires a great deal of management; the proliferation of an alien species that was not previously considered destructive can cause imbalances which later require its removal or reduction. Nonetheless, this novel approach to conservation is considered to be one of the most economically viable and realistic among conservationists in the long term. Rather than spend resources continually removing certain species, this approach acknowledges that because of climate change, species that will be assets to our urban forests today and in 20 years may not be those that were here 100 years ago.


Our experts at the Ecosystem Management Group of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR) have adopted this theory and are putting it into practice at three large forest restoration sites in the park system. Together with the US Department of Forestry, local universities, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and other partners, PPR is conducting experiments to better understand how the forest management approach can improve the state of Philly’s urban forests. The effects of these experiments will be measured and monitored to better understand which management and decision-making processes are the most beneficial.

One of the main sites of this research is the 30 acre Haddington Woods at Cobbs Creek, which came into the Philadelphia park system in 1910. The plot includes forest areas, or “stand types”, of various qualities, which include (1) high quality forest; (2) intermediate quality forest; (3) degraded forest; and (4) an area of Black Alder, a tree species native to Europe.

Haddington Woods -01

The high quality forest area has multiple layers of vegetation, including trees, shrubs, and a thick layer of leaves on the ground. The intermediate quality area features Buckeye and Catalpa trees, as well as Knotweed plants, which are an invasive species that will be removed. The degraded forest area is overgrown with vines which are severely compromising the trees and must be removed. For now, the area of Black Alder will remain as-is. Through these efforts, PPR is not only improving existing PPR assets, but also ensuring that Philadelphia’s park infrastructure remains resilient and sustainable.


Park(ing) Day 2013 Twitter Roundup

We asked Philadelphia’s Park(ing) Day participants to tweet pictures to us @PhillyMOTU and we also took a brief walking tour with some individuals of the Philadelphia Water Department to check out the parks in person!  We saw everything from a floating “green” roof to a live turtles.  Here is a quick visual roundup of what we saw —

MOTU Goes to Los Angeles

One of MOTU’s Planner/Analysts, Ema Yamamoto, was recently in Los Angeles on vacation and she stopped by CicLAvia’s first event of the year!

What is CicLAvia?

CicLAvia is a series of events in Los Angeles where a route is closed to vehicular traffic and opened up to all non-motorized modes.  This particular event occurred on Sunday, April 21st, and it closed 15 miles of road from Downtown LA to Venice Beach, as shown in the image below (original image can be found here).


CicLAvia is modeled on ciclovias (which, translated from Spanish, means bikeways) which have been occurring in Bogota, Colombia for the last 30 years.

Traveling to the Event

Ema Yamamoto decided that while she was in Los Angeles visiting friends that she would go to CicLAvia and find out what the hype was all about.  While LA may be stereotypically synonymous with the car, it was really easy to access CicLAvia without one!  In order to get there, Ema first rode her bike to the nearest metro stop.


Ema Yamamoto waits for the Metro with her bike.

Ema was pleasantly surprised to find that bicycles were allowed on all trains and that Metro was also running longer trains in order to accommodate the number of cyclists using transit to attend CicLAvia.  This being said, there were so many cyclists on the first train that there was not enough room for her and her bike so she waited for the next train to come.  Luckily it was a short 6 minute wait between trains.

After about 15 minutes on the Metro, Ema got off at the Union Station stop.  There were volunteers and police officers directing the traffic inside the station to make it easy for those with bicycles to maneuver the crowd.

What was the event like?

Once out from the station, Ema joined the ride!  This event was CicLAvia’s largest to date with over 180,000 people participating.  Here are some pictures from the ride:



Our bike riding friend found the event incredibly well-attended and well-staffed.  There were points when car traffic needed to cross the CicLAvia route and those areas had large signs instructing bicyclists on how to stay safe:


The above image shows a CicLAvia volunteer holding up signs telling bicyclists to dismount because of sharp turns and traffic intersections.  Volunteers and traffic officers were on hand providing assistance and guidance along the way.


Along the route were several hubs that had tents with CicLAvia information, free bike repair (such as shown above), and first aid assistance.  These were also areas where food trucks were clustered.  These hubs made the ride safe, fun, and delicious.

Overall, it was a beautiful day for a ride and wonderful way for Ema to see and explore Los Angeles.



  • There are a lot of really amazing bikes in Los Angeles and some of them were at CicLAvia.  Here is an example.
  • This route meandered through a variety of different neighborhoods and really allowed everyone from hardcore cyclists to families with kids to get out, participate, and see LA in a different way.
  • While Philly does not have an official ciclovia type of event, it does shut down West River Drive / MLK Drive to vehicular traffic every weekend during the summer.

A Spotlight on Philadelphia’s Bike Culture

Urban Velo is a magazine and online journal devoted to biking culture across the US.  In their latest issue (#36) two articles feature a Philadelphia firm and spotlight Philadelphia’s growing bicycle infrastructure network (with an interview of MOTU’s own Aaron Ritz).


Click the cover to read the magazine! (Image courtesy of

Philadelphia’s own R.E.Load Messenger Bags has a two page spread, devoted to their gorgeous, durable messenger bags.  In Urban Velo they note how much the Philadelphia community has supported them, noting that 

“Philly is an incredibly supportive community. A couple of people saw them and started asking us would we make bags for them. We were also going to alleycats as much as possible at the time. So we just started going there and telling people we could make them stuff. And that pretty much how it started”

R.E.Load is a Philadelphia institution and MOTU is delighted that their iconic bags are receiving national attention, viewed across the country, not just on the back’s of Philadelphia bicyclists.

Urban Velo also highlites Philadelphia’s growing bicycling community and discuss the challenges it faces as it grows and expands.  Urban Velo notes that

“Philadelphia is a good example of somewhere that’s steadily becoming more bike-friendly, has a growing cycling community, and is dealing with challenges that apply to many cities.”

Interviewing Aaron Ritz, who talks about the challenges implicit in building a bicycling network and with average riders, Urban Velo provides a great over view of the physical and cultural issues confronting the riding public.

MOTU is proud, of Ritz, R.E.Load and the thousands of Philadelphians who bike every day through the best big city for bicycling in the US.

MOTU Goes to Washington — Part 2

This is the second post in a 2-part series about MOTU’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Planner, Aaron Ritz’s, recent trip down to Washington, DC to further understand DC’s bikeshare program. If you haven’t already, check-out the first post here

Operator, Operator

After Aaron Ritz experienced some of the features of CaBi first hand, he met with the folks at Alta Bicycle Sharing, the firm that operates the bike sharing system for Washington DC.  As might be expected, operating expenses for bike sharing are quite low when compared with other forms of transit.  The customers provide most of the energy in getting themselves where they want to go, the bikes themselves use no fuel and the kiosks are solar powered, providing enough energy to run the cell-phone based registration system.

ReBalancing Act

That said, bike sharing is a type of transit, and there are costs associated with any system running optimally.  Capital Bikeshare employs 45 people full time to do everything from fixing flat tires to managing the IT demands of the system. The biggest single expense associated with running a first-class bike sharing system is the re-balancing of the bikes throughout the system during the peak commute times.  Every day thousands of commuters head into work in Washington DC by CaBi, leading to an emptying out of bike sharing stations in the outer parts of the city, and a surplus of bikes at workplaces in central DC.  To make sure that the system works well for as many people as possible, CaBi has a small fleet of vans (shown below) that pick up bicycles at full stations and drop them off at empty or close to empty stations.  The operators’ contract states that stations must not be completely empty or full. According to Eric Gilliland, Capital Bikeshare’s general operations manager; the rebalancing trucks are out early in the morning through the late evening hours making sure that bikes are located where people need them when they need them.  Gilliland also has shift dispatchers who monitor system conditions throughout the day in real time, allowing 5 fleet vans to serve nearly 200 stations throughout the system.


Maintaining the Bicycle Fleet

The bikes themselves require service at regular intervals; tires go flat, chains can break and cables can fray and need replacement.  If a customer has a problem with their bicycle, they simply park it in the nearest dock and press the service key on the dock (the button that looks like a wrench).  The wounded bike then gets locked down and an alert is sent to the dispatcher.  If it is a quick fix, one of the roving mechanics can head to the bike and fix it on the spot, but bigger problems get repaired back at the warehouse.   According to the mechanics, each bike is given a check-up every month to assure that system users have a bike that is safe and fun to ride.

Shown in the photograph below, one of the mechanics describes fixing these heavy duty bikes.  Each repair is a multi-step process since the bike parts are unique to bike sharing bikes and have special theft-resistant features.   From the bolts on the handlebars to the non-removable seat, these bikes are designed to stand up to the rigors of daily use. Gilliland said that most of the the 14 thefts that Capital Bikeshare experienced happened in the first few months of the system opening.  Once thieves figured out that the bikes could not be easily stripped of parts or sold, reports of stolen bikes dropped off.


Once repaired the bikes are tagged and set aside for redistribution to the stations.


Expanding the System

Alta Bike Sharing also manages the installation of new CaBi bike sharing stations throughout the system.  When Aaron toured the facility, CaBi was getting ready for an expansion to keep up with demand.  Below is a picture of new bike parking docks ready for installation.


With all of the excitement of new systems rolling out seemingly every few months, it’s easy to think that bike sharing is obvious or even inevitable.  From the system managers and planners at the District Department of Transportation to the on-the-ground operations experts at Alta Bike Sharing’s Capital Bikeshare group, there is a common sense that that a new way of getting around the city is here to stay.  Three years ago when the Capital Bikesharing rolled out its first 50 stations, success was far from sure.  At that time, only the Montreal, Denver and Minneapolis systems were fully operational. The European examples in Barcelona, Lyon and Paris were still going through significant growing pains as they struggled with reliability and theft.   Even the oldest bike sharing schemes in the world are under 10 years old.

Next Steps

Going forward, we can clearly see that bike sharing is here to stay and will continue to expand as a useful alternative to other forms of transportation in vibrant urban centers, campus settings and even smaller communities.  We can expect the systems to grow, evolve and mature a lot over the next few years.  For our part, Philadelphia has an opportunity to take the best features of the existing systems around the world and create a bike sharing program that meets the needs of residents, employees, students and visitors to our city.   Come join us to learn more at our upcoming forum where we’ll meet representatives from Washington DC along with Boston and Denver as they discuss their successes, and lessons from implementing bike sharing systems in their cities.

MOTU Goes to Washington – Part 1

This is the first post in a 2-part series about MOTU’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Planner, Aaron Ritz’s, recent trip down to Washington, DC to further understand DC’s bikeshare program. 

As Philadelphia moves towards implementing its first bike sharing system by the end of 2014, MOTU is keen to learn the best practices from our peer cities.  On March 15th, MOTU’s Aaron Ritz made a trip to Washington DC to do research on the wildly successful Capital Bikeshare or “CaBi” as it’s known by locals.  Aaron met with representatives from the District Department of Transportation, who manage the financial and planning aspects of the system, Alta Bicycle Sharing, the firm responsible for day-to-day operations and with folks from Metro Bike, the firm responsible for planning the Arlington VA portion of CaBi.  As luck and weather would have it, the day turned out to be a fantastic way to learn about the details of bike sharing while using the system to get around Washington.

Step 1: Check-Out the Bike

Every trip through CaBi starts and ends at one of the 200 or so bike sharing stations.  The bike sharing station shown in the photograph below contains 30 spaces for bikes.  Check-out was intially hindered by trying to use thick gloves on a touch screen but soon enough our intrepid colleague had paid his 1-day pass rate of $7 and was riding through the streets of the District to his first meeting.


Step 2: Ride the Bike

Once on a bike, it’s important to know where you’re going because trips on CaBi accrue additional costs if bikes are kept out for longer than 30 minutes.  Fortunately, there are handy websites and smartphone apps that allow users to know where they’re going, and to know how many bikes and docking stations are available at each station.

Step 3: Check-In the Bike

One of the system’s potential hassles is arriving at a station that has no bikes when you want one), or having no parking spaces when you need to park your bike. To deal with these issues, the system operators have a 45 person crew working constantly to make sure the bikes are distributed throughout the system evenly.  All the bikes had been checked out by 11:00 in the morning at this station shown below at the Waterfront Metro stop.


Aaron ran into the opposite problem at his destination; he needed a place to park the bike, but there were no available docks at his destination.  With a quick stop at the kiosk of the full docking station he was able to get an extra 15 minutes of credit for free and was given directions to the next available docking space a few blocks away, and still arrived on time (mostly) to his first meeting.

Lessons Learned:

The lessons learned from this quick test drive are:

    • Bike sharing is easy for day-users and visitors to the system, but really rewards the regular user.  Knowing where the stations are and where to dock your bicycle make the system more valuable.
    • Having regularly spaced and convenient bike sharing stations is important.  While in DC, one is never very far from a station.
    • The website and smartphone apps are invaluable in getting the most out of one’s bike sharing experience.
Stay tuned for the second installment in this series as Aaron learns about the operation of DC’s system with the folks who know it best; the managers, dispatchers, balancers and bike mechanics of Alta Bike Sharing.

Neighboring Cities’ Bikeshare Systems Make Strides

Here at MOTU we are preparing for Philadelphia’s coming bikeshare program by keeping up to date with other programs.  In fact, with new systems coming on line and new records being set in the United States, this spring has proven to be an auspicious time for bike sharing.

Bikeshare Stations Being Installed in NYC

The news media outlets from Philadelphia’s northern neighbor New York City have been buzzing with the first buds of what will be the nation’s largest bike sharing system, Citi Bikes, as it is rolled out throughout lower Manhattan and the inner section of Brooklyn.  Stations have been popping up throughout the planned service area over the past month and New York DOT has released plans for a total of 600 stations with 10,000 bikes when the system is complete. (Image courtesy of Citi Bike)

Capital Bikeshare Sets New Ridership Record Over the Weekend

Meanwhile to our south is the system that has been a national leader in bike sharing.  This weekend, Capital Bikeshare in Washington, DC set a new ridership record.  The combination of fantastic spring weather, blossoming cherry trees along the National Mall, a Japanese cultural festival, and a Washington Nationals home game combined into the perfect storm of big red CaBi bikes throughout the District.  Riders made 11,368 trips on Saturday April 13th, topping the previous record set earlier in the week by about 1,500 rides.  The Capital Bikeshare system consists of nearly 200 stations throughout Washington DC, Arlington and Alexandria.  The system is set to add approximately 20 new stations throughout the spring and early summer, expanding its reach to the Montgomery County, Maryland border. (Image courtesy of the Capital Bikeshare Facebook Page)

MOTU Takes a Field Trip!

In preparation for the City of Philadelphia’s upcoming bike sharing system, MOTU’s own Aaron Ritz took a trip to Washington DC last month to experience bike sharing first hand, and learn from the folks who plan and operate the system.  Stay tuned over the next two days as we post his pictures and observations from that trip.

“No Bicycle Parking” — An Upcoming Photography Exhibit


A new exhibit, “No Bicycle Parking” opens at Philadelphia’s Painted Bride Art Center on Thursday, March 21st. It is the culmination of an ongoing, 12-year photography project– which documents 400+ photographs of abandoned and stripped bicycles from across the world. Photographer Raphael Xavier’s exhibit is culled from photos of more than 400 abandoned and stripped bikes and creates a silent tableau of loss and mourning from cities around the world. The artist will be at the gallery collecting personal stories from owners of lost or stripped bikes for his upcoming book.

Raphael Xavier will record and collect hand-written stories from owners of lost or stripped bikes during the exhibit. Bike owners can also send their stories to the artist by email. Bike owners with stories to share are encouraged to visit the exhibit. “No Bicycle Parking” will be on view March 21 and 22, 2013. Painted Bride gallery hours are 12-8 p.m. Admission is free. A limited number of prints will be available for sale.

Xavier says, “I want to find the owners of the stripped chrome horses who thought they would never see their bikes again. This is a sort of viewing; a celebration or service to put all those unanswered questions to rest, so the bike owners can know that the remains of those bikes are beautifully captured, just as when they first laid eyes on them in a Philly store window.”

Stories from owners of abandoned bikes may be selected for inclusion in the upcoming printed, large-format art volume of Raphael Xavier’s abandoned bicycle art photographs.

Xavier is a Pennsylvania Fellow of the Arts in Folk and Traditional forms and has been funded by the Independence Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His photography has been featured in print publications such as Bike Magazine, Vibe, Blaze and Rap Pages, and was exhibited at the Sweeney Art Gallery’s Re:Cycle–Bike Culture in Southern California exhibit at the University of California, Riverside. For more information, visit

Complete Streets for Philadelphia!

Presentation1In 2009 Mayor Nutter recognized that for Philadelphia to accommodate the many different ways Philadelphians choose to travel, the City needed to treat every Streets as a Complete Street. Complete Streets are streets that accommodate all Philadelphians, whether they are on foot, bike, bus or in a car.  In June of 2009 he signed an Executive Order establishing a Complete Streets Policy for the City, which required all departments to:

  • Give full consideration to accommodation of the safety and convenience of all users
  • Balance the needs of all users in planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operation; and
  • Prioritize the safety of children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities.

To help fulfill the Mayor’s mandate, Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, in conjunction with the Streets Department developed a draft of the Complete Streets Handbook. After meeting with over 100 Philadelphians over ten public out reach meetings, MOTU and the Streets Department have released the final version of the Handbook

The Handbook does two things:

  • Clearly communicate design guidance to planners, engineers and architects
  • Help communities understand the City’s “tool box” for creating better streets

In December of 2012, City Council helped enshrine the policy and the handbook in the City’s every day business practices.  The Complete Streets Bill, Bill No. 12053200, mandated that projects that meet a certain threshold are subject to a Complete Streets review process by the Streets and Planning Departments. Projects that meet the threshold must fill out a Complete Streets Checklist when they submit their projects for review by the appropriate departmental unit. The Checklist ensures that all engineers, developers and architects have reviewed the Complete Streets Handbook and that their designs comply with the principles set forth in the handbook. The handbook and Checklists may all be found at on the Street Departments’ webpage.

The threshold outlined in Bill No. 12053200 states that projects that require Plan of Development Review, or projects that require Civic Design Review, all need to fill out the Complete Streets Design Checklist. Similarly projects that change the curb line AND either add a lay-by-lane, require a traffic study, affect a signalized intersection, or add or expand a driveway to 24 feet will also need to fill out the Complete Streets Design Checklist, to be submitted along with all plans.

Everybody plays a part in making Philadelphia’s streets complete streets, be it the Streets Department, community groups, or developers.  This new framework, which affects both public and private projects, ensures that Phialdelphia’s streets are completed, one street at a time.

Parklets in 2012 and 2013

In 2012, 6 Parklets appeared across the City, from Fishtown to Logan.  The Parklets, small little roof decks in the parking lane,  appeared in front of coffee shops and libraries, pizza shops and take out joints.  Across the City neighbors used Parklets to host community movie nights, and just to sit and eat.  Parklets proved that by turning a parking space into a little park, we can transform our neighborhoods.

This map shows not only where parklets were located in 2012, but also what they were located next to.

This map shows not only where parklets were located in 2012, but also what they were located next to.

Parklets support neighborhoods in all sorts of way.  Studies in California have shown that they increase walking on commercial corridors.  Parklets don’t just add critical gathering space to neighborhoods, or promote active living, they are an economic development tool.  Parklets turn what is a parking space for just one person an hour, into a park for ten or twelve people an hour.  Businesses such as the Green Line Cafe and Honest Tom’s Taco Shop saw an increase of 20 – 40% with their parklets.

Parklets mean economic development

In 2013, the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities expects at least 2 more parklets to debut in Manayunk and Chinatown.  That does not mean that only two more allowed to be built in Philadelphia. If your neighborhood is interested building and hosting a Parklet they should take a look at the Parklet Guidelines 2013.

For more information or to help conduct a pedestrian analysis of existing parklets contact Ariel Ben-Amos (

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