Opinion: For our children’s sake, make Washington Avenue as safe as possible

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Families for Safe Streets, Feet First Philly and the South of South Neighborhood Association gathered at 17th and Washington Avenue calling on Mayor Kenny and City Council to stick the with mixed lane configuration that was planned to make Washington Avenue safer for pedestrians and cyclists on June 2, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Families for Safe Streets, Feet First Philly and the South of South Neighborhood Association gathered at 17th and Washington Avenue calling on Mayor Kenny and City Council to stick the with mixed lane configuration that was planned to make Washington Avenue safer for pedestrians and cyclists on June 2, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The future of Washington Avenue has sparked fierce debate about safety and gentrification among community members in the area. This op-ed represents one perspective of the ongoing debate. For another, see here.

As parents of children who have to live near the five-lane highway that is Washington Avenue and who cross it to get to school, sports, friend’s houses, and the playground, we are dismayed that Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is not supporting Mayor Kenney’s plan to make the roadway safer.

Our children attend EM Stanton School, where two-thirds of Stanton’s catchment have to cross Washington Avenue to get their education daily. Many more parents cross to get their kids to daycare at the Christian Street Y and other locations. We feel it is imperative for Washington Avenue to be calmed to reduce speeding and unsafe turning.

I, Florence, grew up crossing Washington Avenue and now, 40 years later, I have a 13-year-old who is subjected to the danger of crossing the five-lane road. The volume and speed of traffic on Washington Avenue make me worry for kids going to Chew Playground or the nearby businesses. The intersections are so busy, particularly when vehicles are rushing to turn on and off Washington Avenue. I have lived near Washington Avenue for more than 50 years and I am very familiar with how difficult and dangerous it can be for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.

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I, Lindsay, take my two sons to play daily at Chew Playground. The use of the median as parking across from Chew Playground makes it incredibly unsafe to cross on our walk home from school. I’ve known children who have been hit by cars in this neighborhood. My concerns are not rooted in “what if” but “when.” As a licensed occupational therapist, my job is to get patients up and moving after a traumatic accident with many incidents being a pedestrian vs. an automobile. The pain and challenges of recovery are immense.

We fear for our children and our fear for their safety is based on current trends.

The Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS) conducted a crash analysis and presented it to our community. They found that people walking and people riding bicycles are much more likely to be involved in crashes on Washington Avenue compared to if they were on another road in Philadelphia. And this is why Washington Avenue is on the City’s High Injury Network, which identifies the 12% of Philadelphia’s roads where 80% of traffic deaths and serious injuries occur.

Out of 254 crashes between 2012 and 2018, four people died on Washington Avenue, including 83-year-old Sarah Wood, 29-year-old Sheena White, and 11-year-old Samantha Nguyen-Ortanez. OTIS has found that most pedestrians were hit while legally walking in intersections and most were hit by turning vehicles.

As parents, we accept these facts as true, but not necessarily something that shouldn’t be improved. The engineering of the road can be changed so that these types of crashes are reduced and pedestrians don’t have a higher chance of getting hit if they walk across Washington Avenue than across another Philadelphia street.

Traffic violence is a burden disproportionally felt by communities of color.

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Studies have found that Black people are killed at higher rates than white people. Black pedestrians are killed at a rate twice as high. Why would Councilmember Johnson deny our district a safer roadway when it needs it?

This is why we support Mayor Kenney’s proposal to reduce the number of lanes and introduce a number of traffic calming measures to make it safer for pedestrians to cross Washington Avenue. And we aren’t alone. This is not a split issue — in fact, every survey (paper or digital) and petition collected has been overwhelmingly in support of making Washington Avenue safer.

Despite current attention, these concerns are not new.

Neighbors have been raising these safety issues for many years, particularly with regards to the significant number of children who cross back and forth daily to attend schools and recreational programs just north and just south of Washington Avenue. We can’t pass up this opportunity to finally make the roadway safer for the whole community.

We don’t understand why Councilmember Johnson is not listening to his constituents. We don’t understand why Councilmember Squilla introduced legislation to adjust the parking and loading regulations that will help make the proposed configuration work to make Washington Avenue safer for his district residents and businesses, but Councilmember Johnson did not. There is nothing gained by keeping Washington Avenue west of 11th Street unsafe, while east of it becomes safer.

We are constituents of Councilmember Johnson who want him to protect us by doing his part to make the roadway just as safe between 11th and Grays Ferry as it will be between 11th and 4th Streets.

We love living in our neighborhood. But, accepting a higher risk of being involved in a traffic crash than necessary is ridiculous. In a time when we feel paralyzed by gun violence, we expect our elected representatives to invest in the best way possible to keep the kids in the community as safe as they possibly can be. Making Washington Avenue safe is a step in the right direction as it facilitates safe use of soon-to-be beautiful sports fields that the city is investing in with Rebuild at Chew Recreation Center.

We expect our elected officials, in this case, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and Mayor Kenney, to make the best decisions possible for our entire community.

Do the right thing. Do your job. Protect our children.

Florence Mickens and Lindsay Birckhead both live in South Philadelphia and are parents to children at Edwin M. Stanton School.

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