May 21, 2009


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Philadelphia’s burden

The mood of the average Philadelphia taxpayer is high anxiety. And it should be.

As the city grapples with dozens of ways to rein in an 11 percent budget gap, there’s a lot of talk of tax hikes. Many in Chestnut Hill were worried after a series of stories in The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed a proposal to revamp the city’s real-estate tax assessment system — a move that would have likely meant significant property tax increases for many.

But as Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council negotiate a final budget proposal, it looks like the property tax system — though in desperate need of reform — will not be overhauled. Instead, the city seems headed for, among other things, a temporary, 1 percent increase of the city sales tax, from seven to eight percent.

According to a new study by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative, our city faces a smaller budget crisis than many other big cities, but it is one of four of 13 cities in the study to propose tax increases.

The Pew study (available at takes a comprehensive look at how 13 big cities are managing with budget deficits during a recession, but it is an earlier Pew study that exposes the roots of Philadelphia’s budget crisis and indicates that, even when the good times return, the city may never catch up.

That study, titled “The State of the City,” contains sobering information that should have Philadelphians concerned for the future of their city.

In Philadelphia, the poverty rate is 24.5 percent, much higher than Boston’s 16.7 percent or even Washington DC’s 18.8 percent.  The median household income in Philadelphia is $35,431, about half the median income of its four suburban counties.

As the study’s chapter on health and welfare notes, the city’s significant poor population, which grew 21 percent in just the last decade, is putting a serious strain on city services.  The cost of providing important services is increasing  — health and social service costs increased by 17 percent between 2001 and 2008 — while the tax base is shrinking. The strain is putting a bigger and bigger tax burden on the shoulders of every resident of the city.

According to the study, Philadelphia’s tax burden is far higher than the big city average. For a Philadelphia family of three with a household income of  $100,000, the average tax burden is 14.9 percent compared to the big city average of 8.9 percent. And Philadelphia’s tax burden appears to be remarkably regressive. A Philadelphia family of three with a household income of $50,000 pays 17.3 percent compared to the big city average of 8.8 percent.

If Philadelphia cannot find a way to lift its residents out of poverty by enhancing education and attracting jobs, it will be fighting a losing battle to collect taxes for city services.

Pete Mazzaccaro


Get out your wheels for National Bike Month

The road to sustainability is lined with bicycles. So what better time to become reacquainted with those forgotten leg muscles than National Bike Month.

In one year, riding a bicycle versus owning and driving a car will save an individual $8,000, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia, which has compiled some statistics.

“On average,” the coalition notes, “commuting 10 miles a day by bike instead of a car burns 110,250 calories (keeping off 30 pounds of fat each year) and saves 3,500 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Commuting by bicycle for 15 minutes each way (about two to three miles) meets the Center for Disease Control’s minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per day.”

The Bicycle Coalition also claims that bicycling is faster than driving in Center City and to prove it, on Wednesday, May 27, they are staging a commuter race. The race will be between three commuters: a bicyclist, a car driver and a transit rider.

“The race will test the theory that a bicyclist who commutes four miles or less in Philadelphia will generally arrive before, or within a few minutes of, other commuters during rush hour,” according to the coalition’s Web site. 

To give the car every chance to win the race, the driver will be in a convertible sports car (provided by Zip Car).

As of 2006, 1.2 percent of Philadelphians biked to work. Joel Zickler, a Chestnut Hill resident , has been a bike commuter for more than 10 years and loves it.

“I think it’s addictive for a couple of reasons” he said. “I get a good workout, it keeps a car off the road, and keeps my mind and body sharp. I see things I wouldn’t otherwise see and get some fresh air. It’s a real civil way to travel.”

He’s not alone either. On any given day he’ll run into five to ten other cyclists making their way downtown. They have even gotten together for potlucks.

Zickler says that a really hard rain will make him take the train, but he usually gets in three to four days of biking a week.

“If you’re a hard-core rider,” he said, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment.”

Ed Bush, manager of Wissahickon Cyclery, says that there are probably between 30 and 50 cyclists that regularly commute into the city from Chestnut Hill.

“Philadelphia is a great bike city,” he said, “The streets are narrow, which is tough, but very navigable to ride.”

He should know because he was a bike messenger downtown for seven years before working for the bike shop. Bush currently commutes from his home in Roxborough to Chestnut Hill every day by way of Forbidden Drive, the most popular cycling commuter route.

If you ride on Forbidden Drive or any other multi-use trail, remember that the posted speed limit is 7 mph. Also, if there’s more than one bicycle, you must ride single file.

“I see cyclists buzzing pedestrians and there’s no need for that,” Bush said. “They are going too fast and too close to people. I slow down when approaching a hiker. You never know what people are going to do.”

Safety is obviously a huge concern for cyclists, and the hazards are many, but there are ways to reduce the dangers.

“Obviously, being aware of your surroundings and paying attention is important,” Bush said. “You cannot have an iPod in your ears. I don’t know how people survive with those. You really need to be alert and listen.  Making eye contact with pedestrians and motorists is huge.

“You can tell by their body language what they are going to do, and they can tell by your body language what you’re going to do. Riding with traffic is the safest way to go, if you can keep up. Get out of the way of cars when possible. You have the right to the lane, but people will pass you. Motorists will try to muscle you out. It’s better to get out of the way.”

According to the Bicycle Coalition, “When bicycle usage doubles, the crash risk for each individual declines by one third, a deterrent to many people who would otherwise bike to work.” So the more of us that get out there on a bike, the safer it will be.

If you’re thinking about commuting by bicycle, you’re going to need a high quality bike. A commuter bike is going to take a lot of abuse,” Bush said, “so a good one will save you money in the long run.” 

A better bike will have component parts that can be replaced and upgraded as needed. If you can afford it, having more than one bike is really preferred. Riding in inclement weather can take its toll on the bike, and you’ll need accessories like fenders and panniers that keep the rain and mud off of you and your luggage.

Your choice of tires will also make a big difference. They now make Kevlar-lined tires that will reduce the number of flats you have each year, a necessity if you take gravelly Forbidden Drive.  Bush says that if you remember to wipe your bike down after those rides, you will really extend the life of your bike, and it will need fewer tune-ups.

Let’s say you’ve picked out your perfect bike, accessorized it to the max, (Bush said that’s called “accessoriosis”) put on great tires and picked out a lovely matching helmet and tool kit — how do you keep it all safe?

First, buy a good U-bolt lock. Lock it up to something secure and in a place where people are usually around. A bike rack is, of course, the best place, but don’t leave it locked anywhere overnight. With enough effort, most locks can be cut and nighttime is the perfect time for covert lock snipping.

An unknown author once wrote, “All bicycles weigh 50 pounds. A 30-pound bicycle needs a 20-pound lock. A 40-pound bicycle needs a 10-pound lock. A 50-pound bicycle doesn’t need a lock.”

Bring your bike indoors if you can. Sun, humidity and rain all will degrade the bike over time.

OK, so you’re ready to hop on your bike and ride Philadelphia’s 205 miles of bike lanes and 32.5 miles of multi-use trails. Let common sense be your guide, but some good maps are also helpful. Here’s a link to the best crosstown routes on a map called Over the River and Through the Hoods: bike_route_maps.html. 

If you’re looking for camaraderie, try the Bike Club of Philadelphia at The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia also lists clubs on its Web site and links to all things bicycle related at www. explains “How not to get hit by car” and lists most accident scenarios and how to avoid them.

In other bike news around town:

Friday, May 15, was “Ride to Work with the Mayor” Day as cyclists joined Mayor Nutter and mayors around the country for their morning commute.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown announced the launch of the Bicycle Ambassador program. They’re tasked with educating bicyclists and motorists to safely coexist.

May is National Bike Month. Bill No. 090190 was passed unanimously by City Council’s Rules Committee on May 13 to amend the zoning code to require certain construction projects to install bicycle racks. A full council vote is expected on May 21.

You can make your voice heard by filling out an online survey that will help shape the future of pedestrian and bicycle facilities here in Philadelphia. That address is  

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan Web site can be found at philadelphia. If you want to attend the meetings, their schedule can be found at

For other events this month, visit the Bicycle Coalition’s Web site at Of special interest to me is the New Rider Night on May 27.

Check out to find helpful hints on fitting your bike to how to change a flat tire.

As always, contact me at if you have “green” news.