Car-free streets are becoming all the rage. Private vehicles were restricted last October from a portion of Manhattan’s 14th Street and banned altogether in January along part of San Francisco’s Market Street. Urbanists, cyclists, and others see a “pedestrianizing” movement gaining traction in Copenhagen and other cities around the globe. Philadelphia certainly isn’t Copenhagen, but fervor locally is rising among advocates who see car-free streets as a way to help liberate Center City from congestion, already estimated to cost $152 million annually. An online petition calling on Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to “Cancel cars on Chestnut Street this summer” has attracted more than 500 digital signatures.
Photos and videos of people enjoying Philly’s largely traffic-free downtown during the September 2015 visit by Pope Francis went viral, and the city launched the annual Philly Free Streets program in 2017. Last summer’s one-day event drew 35,000 cyclists and pedestrians to 4.4 miles of car-free North Broad Street, and the opening this summer of the 1100 block of Filbert Street as a part-time pedestrian plaza suggests Philly may be poised to go car-free in a bigger way.
We have long called for improving pedestrian safety and generally support the goals of the Kenney administration’s Vision Zero program, which calls for eliminating pedestrian fatalities and other traffic deaths citywide by 2030. Philly also has a long and colorful history of block parties, play streets, and other community-driven shared uses of public thoroughfares.
Philly’s transportation experts believe that improving mass transit service is the most efficient way to move the most people in, out of, and through Center City. Connect, the strategic transportation plan the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability released in 2018, calls for boosting bus ridership by 10% and increasing average bus speeds by 5% by 2025. The city should take advantage of the high degree of public interest in these issues and broadcast its progress. SEPTA is redesigning its bus network, and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and the Center City District have presented reports that collectively suggest that managing, let alone decreasing, congestion in and around Center City will require faster and more frequent mass transit service, more bike-sharing, and smarter management of parking and traffic.
Chestnut Street does present a major opportunity. Some transit advocates, including The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, have suggested that making the Center City portion of the street a bus-only “busway” could boost ridership and ease congestion. From 1975 until the late 1990s, Chestnut Street was a bus-only “Transitway” between Seventh and 18th Streets. The deeply flawed execution of this concept on Chestnut is mostly remembered as a disaster.
But recent growth in population and commercial vitality, as well as the proliferation of ride-sharing and delivery vehicles, are putting an unprecedented strain on every mode of mobility on Center City’s streets — which were laid out more than two centuries before the car became king. So as it searches for ways to lessen congestion, Philly should consider its homegrown solutions, including making one of its original streets car-free — as long as it’s done correctly.