Improve Philly’s great walkability by unblocking sidewalks

A key piece of the Better Mobility Philadelphia 2015 platform is enhancing Philly’s walkability, a legacy strength rooted in our intimate street grid. For this week’s election season op-ed Feet First Philly‘s Deborah Schaaf explains explores the importance of walkability and one of its big enemies – blocked sidewalks due to construction activity.

One of the best available measures of livability for cities today is walkability. Walkable cities are healthier, more environmentally sustainable, have higher real estate values, and may have less crime because walking adds more “eyes” on the street. Walkability is especially important for children, the elderly and people who don’t own cars.

Walkability is a combination of the convenience, safety, comfort, and attractiveness of walking. Philadelphia’s mixed land use pattern gives us a high score (4th among large cities) for convenience of walking, according to Walk Score. On pedestrian safety, Philadelphia falls in the mid-range compared to peer cities and metropolitan areas, but our levels of pedestrian fatalities have actually risen in the last few years. Comfort and attractiveness are less tangible qualities, and harder to measure. Philadelphia’s “Silver level” Walk Friendly Community designation reflects the efforts of city government and local institutions as well as the historic infrastructure we’ve inherited.

At Feet First Philly, we’ve been surveying pedestrians for several years about their biggest concerns. The most frequently cited issues include drivers who fail to yield the right of way to pedestrians when turning at intersections; the poor condition of sidewalks; and disruption of the pedestrian path by construction projects. Each of these issues is addressed in the Better Mobility 2015 platform.

The sidewalk network is the basic infrastructure for pedestrian transportation, where pedestrians should feel safe from conflicts with vehicles. We should have the freedom to stroll leisurely side by side with a friend, or to walk briskly when we are in a hurry. When the sidewalk cannot be navigated easily, the pedestrian’s stress level rises. The quality of the pedestrian experience is shaped by maintenance, a clear right-of-way, and continuity. When the sidewalk is taken away at construction sites- from rowhouses to skyscrapers – pedestrians are forced to detour or make the dangerous choice to walk in the street.

Sidewalk closures due to construction are becoming a more frequent occurrence as Philadelphia’s real estate market continues to improve. Unfortunately too many of these projects are not adequately providing pedestrians with safe walkways. Some recent examples at large construction sites include 38th and Chestnut Streets, Market and 20th Streets, and Rodin Square. At Rodin Square, a bike lane is also closed.

Sidewalk and street closures are controlled by the Streets Department, in coordination with the Department of Licenses and Inspections. The Code specifies that no permit can be issued to close a sidewalk unless an engineering study finds that a covered walkway (sidewalk shed) is impracticable. Oddly, the application to close a sidewalk makes no mention of this required engineering study. Nor has the City adopted any official policy or guidelines regarding when or where sidewalk closures are permissible.

Instead, the Streets Department uses a graduated fee schedule in an effort to encourage developers to minimize the impact on pedestrians. For example, for a site frontage of 200 feet long, the annual cost to close the sidewalk and create a protected walkway in the parking lane would be only $15,600, but closing both the sidewalk and parking lane, thus forcing pedestrians across the street, would cost $52,000. Unfortunately, the fees are not having the desired effect, as many developers are willing to pay to close both the sidewalk and the parking lane, and sometimes even a traffic lane, for the full duration of construction.

Council recently changed the Code provisions governing signs at construction sites. The signs should improve enforcement by making it easier for the public to know whether or not a sidewalk closure has a valid permit. However, many projects now post no information about their sidewalk closure permits. Feet First Philly has created a webpage to track construction sites with sidewalk closures, to assist with enforcement and to document the extent and the impacts of construction disruption.

What more can be done? The sign requirements should be modified so all sites have signs posted to clearly state if they have a permit to close the sidewalk, parking lane, traffic or bike lane, and for how long. Where full sidewalk closures are permitted without an adjacent protected walkway, advance signage must be posted at the location(s) where pedestrians can cross the street with the benefit of a traffic signal or stop sign.

Higher fees, particularly for full sidewalk closures, might reduce the number of forced detours for pedestrians. It has been more than two years since the fees were raised.

Better signs and higher fees need to be followed up with a stronger policy on protecting pedestrian mobility. A stronger policy would require a walkway for projects of specific types on certain streets. Criteria to define these streets should include: the number of traffic lanes, traffic volume and speed, and pedestrian volume.

As cities across the nation strive to become more walkable, Philadelphia needs to build on its historic advantages to enhance our own walkability. Improving our construction disruption policy, along with enforcement, is a necessary part of this effort. When walkability is taken seriously, pedestrians have direct and clear, as well as safe, routes throughout the city.


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