Putting the brakes on Lincoln Drive’s raceway

When Kittura Dior was growing up in Mount Airy in the 1960s, she got used to feeling her house shake every so often, when cars veered off Lincoln Drive and slammed into the trees out front.

In the succeeding years, the driving only become more dangerous, as she was reminded when a car left the road and skimmed her lawn in 2007.

“It clipped a bush, it hit a traffic light, it crossed the street, it went up an embankment — you could see the tire tracks — became airborne, and landed in my neighbor’s front porch,” she recalled. “People I know who were in Hawaii called me, like, ‘Oh my god, is that car in your house?’ It made world news.” The driver and passenger, who were intoxicated, survived the crash, she said.

Dior and others living near Lincoln Drive have been clamoring for years for the city to do something to cure the plague of weekly accidents, and occasionally deaths, on the notoriously fast, curving thoroughfare. Two years ago, Philadelphia’s Streets Department announced an extensive plan to resurface the road, upgrade drainage, and make other improvements. Last month, work finally began on the $12 million project, which is expected to wrap up by the end of 2019. Federal funding is covering 80 percent of the cost.

Whether the effort succeeds in making the four-lane road, nicknamed “Dead Man’s Gulch,” significantly safer remains to be seen. Residents and safety advocates say bigger changes may be needed if the city is to achieve its Vision Zero initiative’s goal of preventing traffic deaths. More ambitious traffic-calming measures have been proposed for Lincoln Drive, such as installing speed cameras, eliminating shoulder areas, and creating dedicated bike lanes, but they face a variety of obstacles, including legal restrictions, fears of increased automotive congestion, and opposition from some neighbors.

“Residents are very open to options to slow down traffic. It’s just that the options that have been presented aren’t the ones that they want yet,” said Randy Lobasso, of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “With the remaking of most of the road, the residents along Lincoln Drive and residents in Germantown and Mount Airy need more options from the city to slow down traffic and make the corridor, and especially the residential part of the corridor, safer. City officials have to pay attention to it, they have to do something, if they’re serious about getting to Vision Zero.”

Navigating Lincoln Drive has been compared to driving a pothole-studded version of a Formula One race. “People want to prove to the person in the car next to them, who they probably don’t even know, how fast they can drive along the curve,” said Tia Mathisen, a board member with the West Mount Airy Neighbors group.

The city’s Vision Zero map records 13 serious-injury crashes from 2012 to 2016, including four deaths. Between 2004 and 2007, Lincoln Drive’s residential stretch saw an average of three motor-vehicle accidents a week, according to a study of police reports by the Northwest Traffic Calming Committee, a group Dior founded.

Among the most notorious accidents was the 1982 crash that left soul singer Teddy Pendergrass a quadriplegic after he lost control of his car near Rittenhouse Town and struck two trees. In February, Sheila Modglin, a popular bartender at Dirty Franks and founder of the Sunshine Arts Center in Upper Darby, was struck and severely injured while crossing Lincoln Drive. Tow trucks often park near the road’s southern end during morning rush hour, waiting to be called to accidents.

“All of Lincoln Drive really needs to be addressed because it’s such a hazard,” said Kathleen Woestehoff, a West Mount Airy Neighbors board member. “Even if speeding weren’t such a concern — and speeding unequivocally is a giant concern — the width of the road is a concern, the curviness, and the way that debris that can fall on the road because there’s so much overgrowth. The potholes are just awful. All of these things contribute to it being a pretty treacherous strip.”

Drivers often swerve to avoid the potholes and uneven areas around drainage grates, so simply fixing those may make things safer, neighbors of the road say. To reduce skidding, the Streets Department is applying high-friction asphalt paving surface on curvy sections, as well as adding surface reflectors and improving roadside drainage to channel water away. Workers will install rumble strips that motorists will hear as they approach the curves, warning them to pay attention. New markings that make the lanes seem narrower should encourage drivers to slow down without actually reducing lane width. A taller median barrier will reduce glare from oncoming headlights, and extra-thick road markings next to the barrier will reminder drivers not to drift too close.

The project will also replace the guardrail, add improved LED street lights at intersections, and put a new architectural finish on a retaining wall north of Forbidden Drive. Pedestrian improvements will include new wheelchair-accessible curb ramps, an asphalt walking path from north of Wissahickon Avenue to Johnson Street, and a new sidewalk on an adjoining stretch of Wissahickon Avenue. The state Department of Transportation is repaving the surface at the Kelly Drive interchange and in the residential section between Wayne Avenue and Allen Lane, the Streets Department said.

Neighbors have welcomed the Lincoln Drive improvements while pressing for more action to reduce speed. The posted limit is 25 mph, but drivers typically go at least 40 mph and often 50 or 60 mph.

For at least a decade, residents have asked about installing a speed-camera system that would snap photos of cars and mail tickets to drivers who were recorded exceeding the posted limit. After that widely noticed 2007 crash, then-Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay, a Lincoln Drive resident, called for cameras. They are illegal in Pennsylvania, however, and efforts by the Bicycle Coalition and state legislators to enact a law allowing them on Roosevelt Boulevard and potentially other roads have not succeeded thus far.

As part of PennDOT’s work on the section of Lincoln Drive above Wayne Avenue, planners had considered eliminating the shoulder area, which would allow them to create a buffer zone alongside the travel lane and a wider separation between the opposing directions of traffic, the Streets Department said. But that idea was shelved over concerns about the loss of parking spaces and the parked cars that act as a safety barrier for pedestrians on the sidewalk. “The Streets Department has met with the community, and they are not in favor of the shoulder removal,” the agency said in an email.

The Bicycle Coalition has suggested a more substantial rethink of Lincoln Drive that would close one travel lane between Wissahickon Avenue and Allen Lane, turning it into a two-way bike lane protected by a barrier. That would make for an easier ride to the Wissahickon Trail and commute to Center City, while also calming traffic, Lobasso said. “The point of any work on this deadly stretch of road should be slowing down motorists,” he wrote on the Bicycle Coalition’s website. “A bike lane and side path … is the sort of traffic-calming device that would help do just that.”

Opinions are divided on the wisdom of such a change, though. Mathisen said she was open to the idea, saying it would improve Mount Airy’s connection to Center City. “It sometimes does feel very much like we have to take the train or drive into the city,” she said of her Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood. “There are other ways, but it would feel nicer and safer if there was an actual intentional bike lane created that helped us access the city in another way.”

Others said they had a hard time picturing a bike lane on Lincoln Drive. Woestehoff called the idea “terrifying.” Dior has been pushing for traffic-calming measures on Lincoln Drive for more than a decade, but she dismissed the idea as ridiculous.

“You’re talking about, what, 12 people who are going to drive their bike downtown? Compared to the majority [who drive cars]? It’s a ridiculous idea for the only major thoroughfare from this part of town to downtown to have a huge bike lane,” Dior said.

The idea is very preliminary, Lobasso said, and a long way from becoming a formal proposal. The city is not currently considering adding a bike lane.

“Removal of travel lanes on Lincoln Drive would have a significant impact on congestion and traffic delays,” the Streets Department said in an email. “Extensive traffic and congestion studies, as well as public hearings and an ordinance from City Council, would be required. Currently, the Streets Department does not have any plans to move forward with that.”

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