After a surge in crashes, safety fixes are coming to 34th St. in Mantua

De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, at 34th and Wallace streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

De’Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, at 34th and Wallace streets in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Late one November night, the harsh sound of scraping metal interrupted Carmen Davis Cliett from her nighttime prayer. She didn’t have to look outside her bedroom window to know what happened.

“I just knew,” said 78-year-old Cliett. “I said, ‘Oh no, my car, my car!’”

The Mantua resident’s car was totaled. Driving south on 34th Street, another motorist first smacked into a different car up the block near Haverford Avenue. They backed out of the first crash and kept going, Cliett said, hitting her car a half-block later. The crash tore a pole from the concrete sidewalk and upended her flower bed.

Carmen Davis Cliett and her daughter Corine Sapp in front of a community garden at 34th and Brandywine streets. (Provided)

Cliett instinctively knew her fate because she’d seen it happen before — more times than she could count. She’s lived in Mantua her entire life, and in her house on 34th near Brandywine for the last 50 years.

To her, it feels like 34th Street has always been a traffic terror. And it’s only gotten worse.

Alongside the Philadelphia Zoo, the half-mile of 34th from Girard to Mantua Avenue often devolves into a speedway. Cars zoom 50 miles per hour or more down the four-lane stretch, then pass over the bridge — with little to slow them down before they’re in the residential Mantua neighborhood.

“It’s so scary for the seniors, because a lot of [drivers] go through the light, and the seniors are there crawling across the street,” Cliett said. “These guys have no regard for them.”

Since construction started on I-76 two years ago, there have been even more cars detoured through the neighborhood, speeding the residential streets to get to the expressway.

The city is taking the problem seriously. The Streets Department launched a new traffic safety project in the neighborhood last year, beginning with a socially distant community meeting in October. A community survey circulated in Mantua the last few weeks, which will inform improvements that aim to slow vehicles in the community. They’re expecting to start implementing changes in summer 2021.

“I’m somewhat relieved,” Cliett said. “But I’ll be much more relieved when they actually do something about it, when they start putting stop signs on every corner.”

105 crashes on one road last year

The crash outside Cliett’s house is one of many on 34th Street — so many that her daughter, Corine Sapp, started keeping track.

Corine Sapp took this photo of a 2020 crash on 34th Street in front of Mantua Presbyterian Apartments. (Provided)

Sapp lives in Mantua, too, and she snaps cell phone pics every time she sees cars collide in her neighborhood. She’s had plenty of opportunities: Last year, there were 105 crashes on the mile of 34th Street between Girard and Powelton avenues, according to Philadelphia Police Department data.

That’s a huge increase from past years. PennDOT counted 53 crashes from 2015 to 2018, out of more than 40,000 total in Philadelphia County. Meanwhile, nearly half of Philly’s traffic crashes happen on roads in poor areas mostly populated by people of color.

De’Wayne Drummond has seen it too. The president of the Mantua Civic Association, Drummond distributes free food every weekend at the senior living Mantua Presbyterian Apartments, where almost 100 people live. Last weekend he said he saw an accident there at 34th and Haverford at 11 a.m. Then he heard another one later that night.

“It’s deadly,” Drummond said. “The scary thing about it is a lot of the accidents are happening on 34th Street, near the senior building. A lot of the seniors are afraid to cross the street.”

A Vision Zero project launched at the end of last year hopes to usher in some improvements. The community meeting in October helped the Streets Department gather feedback from residents who’ve seen the harmful traffic patterns firsthand.

In a subsequent video presentation, Vision Zero officials said they observed that 34th Street is the “most dangerous facility in the neighborhood,” and described it as “a barrier for people who walk.”

Meanwhile, they also found 60% of Mantua residents rely on walking, biking or public transit to get around — to work, to the corner store, to the playground or the library at 34th and Haverford.

In addition to the general speeding on 34th, there are a few specific problems: There’s no light at the intersection of 34th and Wallacae, making it perilous for pedestrians and motorists who need to get across. All the bike lanes are faded, and there’s a ton of congestion around Spring Garden Street related to the I-76 detour.

Some solutions on the table, per the Vision Zero video presentation:

  • An update to signal timing
  • New bike lanes, perhaps with flex posts protecting them
  • Fresh paint on the roadway
  • Speed cushions
  • Pedestrian plazas
  • Planters
  • A road diet — aka reducing the number of car lanes and introducing possible bike or pedestrian lanes

For now, it’s unclear what the neighborhood will get. That depends on results from a survey distributed throughout the community, which had a Jan. 15 deadline.

Drummond is hoping to see a traffic light at 34th and Wallace, and red light enforcement cameras. Cliett likes the idea of speed cushions along the thoroughfare.

Meantime, ever since a car smashed into her sidewalk, she’s tried to stay inside after dark.

“I just thank God I wasn’t out there, and he didn’t come out and tear me up,” Cliett said. “I call that a true blessing. All the other stuff can be replaced.”

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