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Montgomery County Planning Commission

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How Bike Trails Became Philly Real Estate's Most Valued Amenity

A majority of Philadelphians are car owners, and parking has always been a must-have for homeowners and renters alike. But now, developers are now opting for bike paths over parking lots. What changed?

Philly has long been a city for cars. The proof is in the numbers: More than 80 percent of people in the Philadelphia metro region drive or carpool to work, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And as of 2015, 67 percent of Philadelphians report owning at least one car.

Or, just go to any neighborhood zoning meeting—it’s almost guaranteed that parking will be the most highly-contested topic of the night.

Yet in the past decade or so, a small but significant percentage of Philadelphians have been trading in four wheels for two.

And developers have started to notice. Today, some of the most-valued pieces of real estate in Philly boast not just a long list of luxury amenities or parking deeds, but also close proximity to bike trails.

"In the old days, the walls of a building defined the space. Today, whether it’s residential or commercial, customers are looking far beyond the building’s walls," says Jerry Sweeney, CEO of Brandywine Realty Trust. "What we’ve found is that access to public space is an incredibly important attribute that a lot of our residents or office tenants are looking for."

A recent report released by the Urban Land Institute found that bike commuting in Philadelphia increased by 237 percent between 1990 and 2014. Even more recent numbers showed that biking rates in the city have doubled in the last year from 1.1 to 2.1 percent.

In addition, a 2015 ULI survey showed that most folks—not just millennials—want to live in a place where they don't need to rely on their cars to get around.

A rendering of what the FMC Tower will look like when it opens in September 2016, on the edge the Schuylkill River. Rendering courtesy of Brandywine Realty Trust.

The hike in bike commuting rates is one reason why a majority of developers like Brandywine Realty Trust have zeroed in on areas along the Schuylkill River Trail in recent years. It's part of Circuit Trails, a 750-mile network of pedestrian paths that run through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Brandywine’s big-time University City properties—Cira Centre, the EVO residential building, and the impending 49-story mixed-use FMC Tower—sit like ducks in a row along the west bank of the river.

Public space is an incredibly important attribute that a lot of our residents or office tenants are looking for."

Further up the river, the Station at Manayunk was essentially designed to be a cyclist's dream. It's located along the Manayunk Tow Path and includes its own bike repair shop and bikeshare system for residents.

In Bala Cynwyd, a mixed-use development by O’Neill Properties will sit along the west bank of the Schuylkill River. Dubbed the Royal Athena, its advertisements describe the development like so: "Landscaped with lush trees and trails that provides access to the Schuylkill River Trail and the Cynwyd Heritage Trail."

But developers are savvy enough to know that building in close proximity to active transportation doesn’t just attract and benefit residents, says Sarah Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

by the numbers

  • 2.2: Percentage of Philadelphians who commute by bike
  • 7: Philly's ranking for commuting by bike or walking to work
  • 69K: Increased value of properties in close proximity to trails

Research shows that access to active transportation—i.e. biking, running, and walking trails—significantly boosts property values. The ULI report noted that properties located within a quarter mile of the Radnor Trail, a 2.5-mile pedestrian path that’s also part of the Circuit Trails network, were valued on average $69,000 higher than other properties. The Schuylkill River Trail on its own generated $7.3 million in direct economic impact along its 60-mile-long route in 2009.

According to Sweeney, almost three-quarters of Brandywine Realty Trust’s revenue come from their developments that are served by mass transportation. Their tactic of zeroing in on public spaces has proved to be so successful that they're replicating it in other cities like Austin. "For one of the major mixed-use developments in Austin, we actually designed it to make sure that our open space was adjacent to a trail," says Sweeney.

"I think there’s a new way of thinking about transportation infrastructure," says Stuart. "Looking backwards, development waited for the government to build roads and highways and then they’d surround it. It’s a new age where I think the real estate community can work in tandem with cities and towns and counties to build out new kinds of trail networks, such as the Circuit Trails, to help facilitate healthier development."

Sweeney agrees. "It’s one of the major focal points going forward: That most real estate developers and communities start to view public spaces as a way to improve economic growth and real estate."

The amenity will likely become even more attractive to residents as the city’s bike infrastructure system improves in terms of safety, says Stuart. The Philadelphia Streets Department just received $500,000 in funds to upgrade and build protected bike lanes throughout the city, and the Circuit Trails network is on track to add 16 additional miles of trails starting this year.

Says Stuart, "The Circuit Trail System not only is it going to be is such an important amenity and benefit to its residents—it’s going to be very attractive to visitors and to workers. This kind of transportation network is what is going to set Philadelphia apart from the rest of the country."


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