What a walk along Germantown Avenue reveals: Tough going for pedestrians

Kelli McIntyre stood in light rain on Germantown Avenue, holding a clipboard and watching as car after car ignored a “Do Not Enter” sign

Kelli McIntyre and Andy Trackman check out walking conditions along Germantown Avenue during a FeetFirstPhilly walk audit. (Meir Rinde/PlanPhilly)

Kelli McIntyre and Andy Trackman check out walking conditions along Germantown Avenue during a FeetFirstPhilly walk audit. (Meir Rinde/PlanPhilly)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Kelli McIntyre stood in light rain on Germantown Avenue, holding a clipboard and watching as car after car ignored a “Do Not Enter” sign and turned up a small street called Ashmead Place.

“Somebody just went the wrong way, I’m pretty sure,” she said, surprised by the drivers’ casual disregard for the sign. Her page filled with hash marks as she recorded each violation.

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Occasionally, a pedestrian stepped out onto Germantown Avenue’s cobblestones, waiting for a break in traffic to dash across to the other side. McIntyre noted each one.

“Ugh. So nerve-wracking,” she said, as another person quickly crossed the road. “This is why we’re doing this, right? There’s no indication to drivers that people would be crossing there, except that there’s a cross street. There are no crosswalks, no yield sign, no signal for them to slow.”

McIntyre, a physical-activity coordinator at the city’s Department of Public Health, spent a couple hours documenting conditions on a stretch of the avenue Friday as part of a walk audit organized by FeetFirstPhilly, a pedestrian advocacy group sponsored by the nonprofit Clean Air Council. She and several other volunteers gathered data that FeetFirstPhilly and Germantown United CDC will use to come up with suggestions for improving pedestrian safety in the area.

“In Germantown, you have this beautiful commercial corridor, with a lot of amenities for the neighborhood. Without features for pedestrians, what you’re seeing is a corridor for cars instead of for people walking to get to the side of the street where the clothing store is or whatever it may be,” said Nick Zuwiala-Rogers, transportation project director at the Clean Air Council. “It’s really about access and thinking about people before cars.”

Making it easier to walk, bike or take the bus encourages people to avoid driving cars, which are leading contributors to air pollution in Philadelphia, Zuwiala-Rogers said.

The group conducted a similar audit on West Shunk Street in South Philadelphia’s Girard Estate neighborhood earlier this summer, and it’s is in the process of putting together recommendations for both stretches of road.

The organizers acknowledged that they won’t be making any major improvements on their own. Their grant funding from the national nonprofit America Walks comes to just $1,500, and they hope to raise another $500. Adding substantial new infrastructure such as crosswalks or stoplights would cost tens of thousands of dollars at least. But they said they hope to make some small changes that will improve safety and pave the way for more substantial upgrades in the future.

“At certain intersections, you might, say, put a planter down as a bump-out temporarily and make that crossing section shorter, and that might make the case for thinking about long-term infrastructure that accomplishes the same spatial goal but in a more real and permanent way,” Zuwiala-Rogers said. New road markings and signs are other options they will consider.

Long before the volunteers made their observations and collected data Friday afternoon, the challenges along Germantown Avenue were clear, said Andy Trackman, executive director of Germantown United CDC. He led a quick tour of the street before the group set to work, noting that for several blocks there are no crosswalks or wheelchair ramps across the avenue, leading pedestrians to take their chances dashing through traffic.

“This is very, very typical of intersections in Germantown,” Trackman said, pointing to a dogleg on the avenue with Ashmead Place on one side and Ashmead Street on the other. “The streets don’t line up, and it makes it very difficult to have any kind of crossing pattern. There are no handicap ramps that cross at this intersection, but that doesn’t prevent people from trying to get across. So that’s a big issue.”

The safety of children and families is a real concern, he said: The corridor is full of day-care programs, making for hazardous morning drop-offs, and school buses deposit older students who run across the street toward John Wister Elementary, a charter school on East Bringhurst Street. Trackman said he looks down on the resulting chaos from his office at the corner of Penn Street, another dogleg intersection.

“It’s nuts,” he said. “There’s a day care on the corner, there’s a day care over here, there’s a Boys & Girls Club on Penn Street, kids are going across all the time. There’s no crosswalk, there’s no anything. It’s pandemonium. People make U-turns — that’s a lot of fun to watch.”

Trackman said he researched crosswalks and learned they cost the city about $21,000 each to install. Zuwiala-Rogers suggested trying less expensive stopgaps like banners across intersections to warn drivers to watch for pedestrians trying to cross the street.

After a child visiting the Boys & Girls Club was hurt while crossing, the organization hired a crossing guard with a stop sign to help people navigate the busy road, Trackman said.

Other attractions that draw walkers and drivers to this section of Germantown Avenue include Grumblethorpe, a historic landmark and museum; Bargain Thrift, a major retailer for the neighborhood; a Family Dollar store; a U.S. Post Office; and a small business park that is home to about a dozen companies, Trackman said. He pointed out a few unoccupied properties and lots that attract illegal trash dumping, as well as a small city park, Gilbert Stuart Park, that is closed to the public.

Though narrow, Germantown Avenue is fast here, with few stop signs or stoplights to calm traffic, the audit participants said. It’s difficult for drivers on small cross streets to turn onto the larger road, so they edge forward to peer around parked cars and other obstacles for an opening, blocking the way for pedestrians and causing congestion. Cycling is nearly impossible because of cobblestones, trolley tracks, and speeding cars, so bicyclists roll down the sidewalk, muttering, “Excuse me,” as they maneuver around pedestrians.

“If I were on a bike, I’d probably be on the sidewalk, too,” said McIntyre, who lives a few blocks away from the audit site.

Another quirk, Trackman said, is that for 10 blocks of Germantown Avenue, the cross streets on the southwest side are all northeast-bound, so cars look for shortcuts to reach Greene Street and other points to the southwest. In one spot, pedestrians and drivers used two adjoining parking lots as a pass-through to Greene Street, though the way was recently blocked off for cars. Alternately, they head the wrong way on Ashmead Place, as McIntyre observed, because the little street essentially changes direction mid-block and becomes one-way in the direction they want to go.

Audit participants gathered both quantitative and qualitative data during their visit. Chloe Finigan, transportation-outreach coordinator for the Clean Air Council, said she and the others noted how long it takes to cross the street, traffic counts, the numbers of cars parked on sidewalks, sidewalk widths, street furniture and obstacles, and other metrics, as well as how people feel on the street.

“Do I feel safe walking here? Are there lights, are there enough trees? On a hot day like this, are you too hot standing on the sidewalk? It’s about safety and comfort as well as the physical attributes,” Finigan said.

Once their recommendations are finalized, FeetFirstPhilly and its neighborhood partners will work with the city to make the proposed changes happen, Zuwiala-Rogers said. That could involve the Office of Transportation & Infrastructure Systems’ pedestrian-plaza program, which allows community groups to temporarily turn underused portions of streets into pedestrian areas. The Streets Department also has a program that allows residents to petition for traffic-calming measures.

“OTIS welcomes community input on how their streets can serve them better,” an agency representative said in an email. “Walk audits are a great tool for neighbors to evaluate their local streets and help point out both near- and long-term items that would create a more walkable neighborhood. OTIS will continue to use community input together with data analysis such as the High Injury Network to prioritize its limited resources.”

Zuwiala-Rogers said he hopes the city eventually makes it a regular practice to address the type of pedestrian issues the walk audits have identified.

“This is something we’re able to do in a couple places, but certainly this could be looked at across the board, everywhere in the city,” he said. “It could be done every time the city is doing a project, looking at how the situation for pedestrians could be improved.”

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