Washington Avenue needs safety first

Washington Avenue is going through a well-documented public identity crisis as it transitions from a hard neighborhood boundary lined with commerce into an an even more mixed-use place. Questions of just how Washington Avenue will evolve and who stands to benefit leave property owners, businesses, neighbors, elected officials, and planners wringing their hands.

But even as conversation about Washington Avenue’s future heats up, plans to tame the street itself have been back burnered for more than a year.

After a public meeting last week it seems the city has gone back to square one when it comes to crafting a plan to make Washington Avenue a safer street for all users. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was ground we’d already covered.

This time last year Washington Avenue seemed poised for a road diet. The goals were simple: Reduce the avenue’s average of 300-plus crashes per year, improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure, add parking, and rationalize loading zones. But businesses balked at the recommended parking and loading solutions. Some neighbors feared that the plan, which would have reduced the number of lanes from five to three for parts of the corridor, would have unintended consequences like pushing more cars onto nearby smaller streets. What support there was for that plan fell apart.

Entropy led to political paralysis. Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson and Mark Squilla hit the breaks after hearing conflicting input from constituents and they opted not to introduce legislation in City Council to enable a reallocation of Washington Avenue’s road space.

Last fall the Streets Department partly restriped Washington Avenue, a decision that made the already difficult road less clear and therefore less safe. Washington Avenue was still left with five unruly lanes of traffic, the faintest whisper of paint delineating the stop-start bike lanes, crossings difficult to traverse before the light changes, inadequate loading zones, double-parking in travel lanes, and sections of sidewalk that are often blocked by merchandise and machinery. And it looks like nothing major is going to change any time soon.

By most accounts it’s been hard to find a solution to Washington Avenue’s shortcomings that everyone can agree on. But the corridor’s current state, coupled with a political stalemate, sent the message that the city has little sense of urgency to make the corridor safe, even in a temporary way.

Since it became clear that last year’s study, funded through a $75,000 grant to improve the corridor, was stuck in planning purgatory, the city opted to take a step back and reopen the conversation about how to make Washington Avenue safer and more functional for its diverse users.

To that end the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU), Streets Department, and the Planning Commission hosted more than 200 people at a public meeting last week to share a menu of options for improving the street, both now and over time, and to take the public’s temperature on which changes are most welcome. Some changes, like retiming pedestrian signals, could be implemented before the year is out. Other bigger interventions, like protected bike lanes, would have to wait until the street is repaved.

Attendees participated in small group discussions and were asked to vote via sticker for the three possibilities they supported the most. Planners said they hoped to identify points of agreement that will be used in tandem with updated data about how the corridor is used – including vehicle travel times, pedestrian counts, bike counts, and crash records – to inform the changes ahead.

“We’re refocusing right now because clearly we hadn’t reached a consensus among the groups. And we had to figure out why was that,” said MOTU’s director Denise Goren.

Aside from seeking common ground, the city hoped the meeting would serve as a forum for conversation between people with divergent priorities and hopes for Washington Avenue. Perhaps dialogue would give stakeholders a better understanding of each other’s points of view, and in turn give the city a degree of cover to take some action.

Streets Department Deputy Commissioner Mike Carroll told the crowd, “We want to hear from you, we want you guys to talk to each other so everybody knows they’re hearing from the community not just from the city. One of the basic things people need to be clear on is there is a need to do something.”

Although the group I spent the meeting listening to had plenty of differing perspectives, there was also a lot of respectful exchange. A desire for a safer street was perhaps the only point of clear agreement among attendees I spoke with.

“We need to make sure it’s a safe place for everybody,” said Councilman Mark Squilla, who represents the eastern reaches of Washington Avenue, after the meeting. “Even though we had a [public input] process before, people now feel like their voice will be heard. Not that everybody’s going to be happy with the end result, but just that people were listening to them to try to come up with the best possible plan to make Washington Avenue a safer place.”

We know street space is finite and as Washington Avenue changes not everyone will get everything they want. The city is especially sensitive that businesses, particularly the building supply companies and showrooms on Washington Avenue’s western end, will be hurt by possible changes. But pitting safety against a successful corridor is a false choice. Streets designed to support multiple modes of travel well are ideal for the kind of richly mixed-use future planners and some property owners see in Washington Avenue’s future. A better-designed street for all users can also foster an active, quality public environment that is more desirable destination for residents, businesses, and shoppers. 

No one from the city would confirm to me just how a decision would be made about what course of action will be taken on Washington Avenue. What’s clear is this: The city intends to implement some easy, low-cost changes this year and next, and hopes to lay the groundwork for a more intensive possible redesign of Washington Avenue when the whole corridor is repaved in the coming years. That’s cold comfort for those already fed up with the status quo on Washington Avenue.  

But doing nothing isn’t an option.

When Washington Avenue is repaved the work will be funded using federal dollars, Carroll confirmed, which matters because “the federal government actually mandates that we look at streets in terms of all modes of traffic.” That means that the city will be required to thoroughly examine the impact of the street’s configuration, signals, and curb dimensions on all users. The need to reallocate street space is a reality.

And it’s not just the feds who require that kind of holistic thinking. It’s also the city’s policy to create “complete streets” – which means finding ways to give all modes of transportation an equitable share of scarce street space. It’s also worth noting that making a better Washington Avenue for all users is a priority in three recent city plans: this year’s South District Plan, last year’s study, and the 2012 Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.

There’s often a gap between what we plan for and what we implement. But in an ultimate sense making Washington Avenue safer is a public imperative.

MOTU’s Denise Goren noted that throughout the corridor “there are just too many crashes, and they’re not isolated, they’re spread out.” Pedestrians are the most vulnerable, left with long crossings and blocked sidewalks. Cyclists are drawn to the bike lanes but because they are not contiguous there are points of conflict.

Since 2010 Washington Avenue has had more than 1,600 crashes, according to PennDOT and Philadelphia Police Department data. Four crashes since 2010 have been fatal. That’s four too many.

“Our goal first and foremost is always safety. We want to address the fact that there is a crash history,” Carroll said.

While the city deserves credit for restarting discourse about the tools available to reshape Washington Avenue, decisions about safety should not rest heavily on public opinion.

If Philly is seriously considering committing to Vision Zero, the international initiative to zero-out serious traffic injuries and fatalities, it’s time for our planners and public officials to make hard decisions that may ruffle some feathers in the name of safe streets for all.

Washington Avenue may not be Philly’s deadliest street, but no one can argue its current configuration is safe. The good news is it’s not too late to change.

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