Philadelphia must deal with return of car as pandemic eases

The pandemic has been terrible in a hundred ways, but wonderful in one particular case: it has allowed us to live in Philadelphia almost empty of cars.

Without the noise and exhaust of daily traffic in the first few months of the lockdown, the chirping of birds became the score of city life, and the air took on a country freshness. Downtown streets turned into jogging routes, cyclists raced through town without fear of being swept away, and full-service restaurants sprouted in empty parking lots.

The city even gained a major recreation area on the Schuylkill waterfront when Mayor Jim Kenney banned cars from Martin Luther King Drive. Daily recreational use climbed from 500 to 5,000 people, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Every day felt like a festival as people from all over converged on the stretch between the art museum and the Falls Bridge.

Given the extreme adjustments we’ve made to our day-to-day behavior over the past 14 months, many were hopeful that the city would retain the new public spaces that we have reclaimed from the automobile. But it becomes clear that Philadelphia doesn’t easily give up its driving habit. Despite Kenney’s highly controversial pledge to cut the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and hiring a climate specialist with the fancy title of Chief Resilience Officer, his administration is struggling to manage the return of the car.

So far, the message to motorists seems to be: come back. During a city council budget hearing earlier this month, the Kenney administration casually revealed that it plans to reopen MLK Drive to cars during the work week, starting in August. Driving will still be prohibited on weekends, but once again cars will have all three lanes of the road for most of the week. Everyone – families out for walks, teens on long boards, cyclists and joggers – will have to hurry up the 10-foot sidewalk.

What makes it all so frustrating is that street department officials admitted in an interview that the decision was made without performing traffic counts on the adjacent Schuylkill highway or analyzing how working from home alters. commuting habits.

Kenney isn’t the only one who believes that returning motorists is the key to Philadelphia’s salvation. Council member Cherelle L. Parker has just introduced a bill that would dramatically reduce the garage parking tax to encourage people to come downtown to work and play. It was board member Curtis Jones Jr. who pushed for MLK Drive to reopen, in part so his constituents had an alternative to the freeway. While their motivations have merit, their solutions encourage driving, reduce SEPTA, and will lead to more congestion and pollution in a city facing severe asthma.

Like Winston Churchill famous informed, you should never let a good fit go to waste. Across the country, places are taking advantage of the moment to formalize street and street closures. This includes smart suburban cities such as West Chester and the media. Studies have shown that restricting car traffic helps local businesses, making shopping lanes more pleasant for shopping and dining.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia acts as if nothing has changed in the past 14 tumultuous months. If we’re lucky, we can hold onto the streets that have turned Philadelphia into an outdoor dining mecca and that promise to revive a crucial employment sector.

Some argue that Philadelphia cannot afford the luxury of “open streets” right now. (That’s the term city planners use to describe the roads without a car.) Those who want the car back are saying – and rightly so – that we need people to leave their dens and dining rooms and return to their elders. offices for the sake of the downtown economy. . They also rightly observe that many workers are still afraid to resume public transport, despite the evidence that “shows that there is no significant risk of COVID if you wear a mask,” says Barry Seymour, head of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Then there is also the question of who benefits from the open streets. Pushing for a return to the status quo on MLK Drive, Jones told Council his constituents in Wynnefield, Overbrook and other neighboring communities of color saw increased traffic during the closure, as motorists sought to avoid the highway. Traffic volumes on I-76 are now reaching pre-pandemic levels, according to Seymour. This increased congestion, Jones suggests, could also mean increased commute times for his constituents.

Yet the return of MLK Drive’s three lanes to cars raises a different equity issue. After the road was opened for full-time recreation, residents of adjacent neighborhoods flocked to the space. “There was definitely an increase in the use of the Strawberry Mansion park,” Tonnetta Graham, who runs her community development agency, told me. An avid cyclist, she found herself doing the MLK-Kelly Drive loop more regularly. “Now that people have found out that this is a place for families, they want to continue,” she said.

The thing is, it’s not necessarily a situation in between. With a little creativity, the city can keep MLK Drive available for recreation and still accommodate the car.

Even as the Streets Department moves forward with plans to restore MLK to the status quo, its engineers have a better option tucked away in a drawer. Instead of making all three lanes for cars, they would divide the highway: cars would have two lanes – one in each direction – and cyclists would have one. The newly paved 10-foot-wide sidewalk would be reserved for pedestrians and runners. By separating the wheels and walkers, the plan would have the added benefit of eliminating common strife on many of the city’s other 10-foot recreational trails.

“We are thinking about it,” Mike Carroll, Deputy Director General of Transport, told me, while acknowledging that there are great implementation challenges – both technical and political.

To ensure that cyclists ride safely in a lane a few inches from speeding cars, the city should erect some sort of barrier. It should probably be stronger than the white plastic border posts used on some bike lanes.

I cannot think of a more perfect compromise. Not only would the setup provide enough space for everyone, but it would also help calm traffic. For years, the neighborhoods closest to East and West Fairmount Park have struggled to access the space as it is nearly impossible to cross the MLK and Kelly Drive tracks.

Slowing traffic on the walkways would be the first step in improving access for residents living near the park’s walkways. But there is still a lot to do. Last August, a young mother from West Philadelphia, Avante Reynolds, was killed by a motorist while trying to reach Cobbs Creek Park. It took her death for the city to finally install a speed table to slow traffic, something the neighborhood had been looking for for years. Council member Jamie Gauthier, whose district abuts MLK Drive, said her constituents would be more likely to support the compromise setup if they believed they could access the recreation space as easily as downtown residents. .

So how about this: As city engineers design a dedicated cycle lane on MLK Drive, they should simultaneously plan the installation of speed tables and crosswalks in adjacent neighborhoods. There is no mystery as to where to place them. The main danger points were identified in the master plan for Fairmount Park in 2015.

Parker’s plan to reduce the garage tax deserves a different answer. She proposed the reduction, from 25% to 17%, as a way to help low-wage workers who work in establishments. The city’s garage owners have complained for years that the tax is exorbitant. But fiscal policy is not just about increasing revenue; it is also about achieving the objectives of the policy. By imposing a high tax, the city discourages driving and encourages people to use public transport.

A better way to achieve Parker’s goal of getting people back to the city center would be for SEPTA to offer reduced fares on regional trains, perhaps the same $ 2 fare that it charges on buses and trains. subways. The city could subsidize the reduction. Or, it could offer sales tax exemptions to attract people downtown.

“We should market SEPTA now,” said Jennifer Dougherty, who heads the pedestrian advocacy group. Feet First Philly (and is also an employee of SEPTA). “We are stuck in a 1950s mentality, where the car is synonymous with freedom, and its loss equals the loss of economic development.”

As Philadelphia’s elected officials focus on the city’s immediate economic health, they must also think about its long-term survival. And that means crafting policies that will create a future that is less car-dependent, more climate-friendly and people-centered.

Oh, and guess what? From early 2022, MLK Drive will be closed to cars south of Sweetbriar Drive, so that the 60-year-old bridge over the Schuylkill can be rebuilt. The project is expected to last two years. What a great opportunity to create a road that everyone can enjoy.


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