Leg 3, Eco-Challenge: Industrial Highway and On Into Delaware

#Climate Justice is Social Justice: the inscription on the homemade sign I held up at the start and mid-point of the Philadelphia area Eco-Challenge portion of the 2021 PA IPL Climate Ride on Saturday, May 22. Indeed, I would be hard pressed to name another recent experience that brings home the rationale behind one of the ride's key principles: Improve human health in frontline communities, and plan for an equitable climate justice future.

Saturday's route started out on the aptly named Industrial Highway south of Philadelphia International Airport, a road that passes through a sea of hotels -- one of which nicely allowed us to park our bike-rack laden cars in its lot. A sign proclaiming East Coast Greenway (ECG) provided a cheering note, and we stayed on the "green"way for the balance of the ride. As a promising step in ensuring smooth travel from Maine to Florida, we found that at times the ECG designation meant that the local authorities had painted in a bike lane, and in one case had provided an off-road path.

The industrial character of the highway and landscape manifested in multiple ways. First up, a lengthy ride past a Boeing plant. The defense industry presence heralds aspects of the economic story of Chester, PA, a consummate frontline community that experienced boom times during each of the 20th century's world wars. A bit further along, first one, then a second refinery occupied extensive real estate on both sides of the roadway, recalling the interwoven nature of the shipping and petrochemical industries along the Delaware River.

We rode past a casino as well, a literal reminder of the economic development bets that authorities in and around Chester have apparently felt compelled to make during decades of deindustrialization. In the same vein, we learned about the multiple waste incinerators that have received permits to operate in the area, concentrating a regional air pollution burden in one pocket. Along the way we saw a church with a sign that "Martin Luther King Jr. worshipped here" (while attending seminary in Chester), as well as a historic house with a sign proclaiming "Charles Dickens slept here." We crossed creek after channelized creek near their outflow points into the mighty Delaware River.

A looping bike path under the Delaware Memorial Bridge took us off the road for a mile or two, literally and figuratively in the shadow of a leg of the Interstate Highway System, which has done so much to encourage car culture and shape land use -- and often neighborhood degradation as well -- during the past 70 years. A Subaru-sponsored garden by the Philadelphia Union stadium offered a possibly ironic sign of hope, soon before we reached the huge Chester Generating Station - once coal, now oil. In Marcus Hook, the hulking, vacant former factory building of the American Viscose Corporation loomed over the street.

Passing into Delaware, we crossed multiple entrances to large highways as well as currently unused former industrial sites, before settling into a pattern of rolling hill residential areas and historic sites. We turned around at the 13-mile mark, just as the ECG diverts off-road onto the Northern Delaware Greenway Trail -- a ten-mile feast for another day.

Overall, this gritty ride aptly demonstrated the environmental justice challenges that the intrepid residents of Chester face daily on land, air, and water. One telling statistic: Chester's children suffer from asthma at five times the nationwide rate. Indeed, a documentary on environmental issues in the city is entitled Too Much Pollution for One Place.

Yet as a visiting cyclist, I spent only three hours breathing the questionable air of State Route 291 and US 13. By comparison, what would it take to relieve the people of Chester of the burden they face 24/7? Answering this reflective question reminds me of several of the forward-looking advocacy tenets of PA IPL and its 60+ Climate Riders statewide:

  • Advocate with frontline communities when new pollution sources get proposed;

  • Advocate for new, efficient, and green energy infrastructure;

  • Advocate for investments and programs which capture and clean air and water; and

  • Advocate for jobs and training in the context of a just transition to clean and green energy.

Turnaround point at the head of the Northern Delaware Greenway Trail


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