Philly streets forum asks: What should our transportation priorities be?

Speak Easy is examining issues of street use in Philadelphia. What should our priorities be to ensure safe streets for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists and transit users? Seeking diverse perspectives on these issues, NewsWorks is accepting personal essays and commentaries. Email your 700-word story to speakeasy@whyy.org.

Bicyclists are the worst, right? Riding on the sidewalk, sailing through red lights, dodging moving cars. And those awful drivers! Hogging the bike lanes, honking impatiently at pedestrians. And how about those pedestrians? Distracted, headphones in their ears, eyes on their smartphones, leaping into oncoming traffic with baby strollers.

Relax. I’m kidding. Playing to stereotypes, fear, privilege, blame — that road doesn’t take us far. We all have our prejudices. We all have our own faults. And we’re all trying to get somewhere. But how can our streets offer safe and fair passage for everyone? What should we prioritize as a city?

Speak Easy convened a room full of Philadelphians for a public forum in June to ask those questions and to talk about Philadelphia’s streets under the pressure of so many users with so many disparate needs.

But are we so different? There was near-univeresal agreement in a few areas.

Every person in the room indicated that they use several forms of transportation — walking, biking, driving, public transit — which had an equalizing effect. So it’s helpful to be more aware of people around us using other modes of transportation, because that “other person” might be you tomorrow.

There was wide agreement that Philadelphia needs better enforcement of traffic laws for everyone on wheels or on foot. Drivers noted that bicyclists and pedestrians can easily get away with disobeying laws, while there are heavy penalties for drivers. If everyone followed traffic rules, the whole system would be more efficient and the conversation would be more honest.

Corollary to that, we might all benefit from an education campaign of some sort to make clear what is legal and what is unsafe. Some bike riders don’t know the rules of the road; and some drivers don’t know how to share the road with bicyclists.

Five stories

Five panelists shared their own transpoirtation stories before the room split up into small discussions.

Darin Gatti, the chief engineer of Philadelphia’s Streets Department, said that civic designers need to think about what’s happening next. When William Penn criss-crossed Philadelphia with the unusually wide High (now Market) Street and Broad Street, he was thinking about uses for those streets beyond transportation, said Gatti. Then through the post-WWII boom, the highway was king — not sidewalks, walking, biking — just: How fast can you get there? Then we saw accident rates begin to rise. So today, we’re looking at all modes of transportation, disabled users, pedestrian plazas, bike lanes. Our streets are no wider than they have been, and we’re stuck with the grid we have, but we have to find that balance. So the city relies on public input to determine priorities. But the city can’t accommodate everybody everywhere.

Greg Krykewycz, manager of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s office of transit, bicycle, and pedestrian planning, talked about those tradeoffs. For example, do we prefer speed or access? (More frequent bus stops, or longer walks for people to access them? Slow car traffic with a bike lane, or privilege drivers over bicyclists?) He mentioned the conflict between reliability and economic development, citing the Route 15 trolley. It was brought back to Girard Avenue as an economic development tool in the corridor. But the people who had been riding the bus on that same route actually hated the trolley, and it took years to re-establish the ridership.

Thaddeus Robinson, who works on SEPTA’s Advisory Committee for Accessible Transportation, spoke a great deal about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Before the ADA,” he said, “SEPTA was not very friendly to the disabled community.” Now the system has 108 accessible stations — the most in the country, Robinson said.

A few of the panelists made the point that improvements for the disabled community also help everyone else (elevators for people who use wheelchairs help travelers with suitcases, kneeling buses help parents with strollers).

It’s the same way with bike infrastructure, said Sarah Clark Stuart, deputy director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Bike lanes calm traffic by slowing cars down — without making the trip longer. She cited Spruce and Pine streets in Center City, which have seen 25 percent fewer reportable crashes since the installation of bike lanes, which means everyone is kept a little safer.

PlanPhilly’s engagement editor, Jon Geeting, like the panelists before him, also spoke about the politics of street space, but he said he sees Philadelphia’s particular space constraints as a blessing: Much of the city is a natural environment for socializing, meeting neighbors, getting anything you need within a 10-minute walk.

“Instead of lamenting the drawbacks of the narrow street network, we need to think about how we optimize this and really own it,” Geeting said. “There’s a lot of places across the county trying to create walkable urban spaces like Philadelphia with about half the authenticity. We really have a gift here.”

Priorities

In group discussions at the forum, when asked where the city should put our priorities, participants had a lot of ideas.

As ever in Philadelphia, parking was a major issue. We need less parking. We need more. It should be more expensive. It should be less. Someone cited a study in San Francisco showing that an increase in the number of parking spots encouraged more driving and made the streets more congested.

Some participants agreed that we need to prioritize moving people and be less concerned about moving cars — favoring the modes of transportation that move the most people the most efficiently using the least amount of space. This might favor buses or bikes over cars in some places, and different streets will have different needs.

There seemed to be a desire not to get rid of cars completely — at least not among the majority of participants — but rather to reduce their dominance and to design streets to slow them down. Some participants noted that the city’s Complete Streets policies are helping to prevent auto accidents, but that in some areas, such as NE Philly’s Roosevelt Boulevard and Castor Avenue, there is no political appetite for traffic-calming measures such as bike lanes, speed reductions, and law enforcement.

One person suggested a London-style congestion charge for cars entering Center City, while others suggested not trying to make cars less popular, but to focus instead on making other modes more popular. To that end, a few folks wanted to see improvements in the reliability of alternative modes of transportation, especially in bad weather — plowing bike lanes in the winter, improving the predictability of mass transit. One suggested high levels of investment in bike infrastructure, as in many European cities, and making short trips, like between city neighborhoods, easier and cheaper by bike and public transit than by car.

There was some griping that bicyclists don’t pay their share. Drivers are licensed, they pay insurance, and they pay a gas tax that contributes to road maintenance. So one participant suggested creating a bike registration fee to contribute to road upkeep.

Many suggested that a lack of transparency into how public authorities make decisions about transportation investments exacerbates the perceived divisions that make the balancing everyone’s needs so difficult. One participant said that, while a lot of that information is available online, data-heavy websites are not always helpful.

Some wanted better, more consistent striping — traffic lanes, crosswalks, bike lanes — and better signage, even posts that make people aware of pedestrian spaces. Some liked the idea of creating protected bike lanes, with physical barriers to car lanes, to calm traffic and keep bikes safer.

And some want to see the city more actively encourage walking, meaning better sidewalks, pedestrian-only streets, eliminating parking from some blocks. The idea is that businesses, a better sidewalk culture, and revitalization would follow from street-level improvements made by the city.

Look to your own sins

Regardless of the mode of transportation, there was a lot of discussion about a general selfishness among all users of Philly’s streets. Bad behavior from motorists, bicyclists, transit riders and pedestrians creates a culture of selfishness, which invites even more such, often retaliatory, behavior.

It can be really important to think about our own poor choices on the road. We asked participants to tell us about the dumbest things they’ve done in traffic, much of which must look familiar:

  • Rode a bike with my dog. He stopped short. I went over the handlebars.
  • I don’t stop at stop signs when I bike late at night.
  • I think I can anticipate pedestrian signals, but I am often proved wrong.
  • Not using turn signals.
  • Texting while walking.
  • Texting at red lights.
  • The “Philly roll” or the “South Philly slide” — rolling through stop signs without coming to a stop.
  • Bobbing and weaving through traffic as a pedestrian.
  • Accelerating at a yellow light.
  • Not stopping at traffic lights on a bike.

So, what do we do?

Gatti reiterated during the group discussion that the city relies on input from its citizens to help determine priorities. The four main needs coming out of the discussion seemed to be:

  1. Better enforcement and education
  2. Better maintenance
  3. Greater transparency about how transportation investments are made
  4. Reduction of the number of cars on the road.

And the best way to have an impact on these things is to get involved, even in small ways. So PlanPhilly produced a kit to help guide people toward the resources they need, from the Streets Department to 311 to SEPTA’s advisory boards.

Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the forum was the way a cooperative, respectful discussion with someone you might not normally talk to felt so much more effective than laying on the horn or flipping someone off. We really are all in this together.

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