A near-miss between an SUV illegally traveling in the bike lane and on the sidewalk in order to get around a Philly trash truck near 21st Street likely was one in any number of congestion-related close calls on a recent morning in Center City. On weekdays, the number of daily “person trips” — a way experts measure all kinds of movements — increased from 450,006 in 2010 to 554,945 in 2015 within the area between Callowhill and South Streets and the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Conflicts among private cars, trash trucks, ride-sharing vehicles, delivery vans, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians are a consequence of growing economic and residential vitality, but the visible lack of progress in managing the issue is the product of a sluggish, bureaucratic approach.
The price of Center City’s success as measured in lost time, money, competitiveness, and livability, as well as in diminished public safety and increased climate change impact, get higher as congestion worsens. And doing something about it is more complicated than it ought to be. Blame for that rests not so much on the city’s overburdened grid of mostly narrow, one-way streets, but the abundance of overlapping jurisdictions, lack of coordinated management, fragmented data, and the inevitable administrative and other roadblocks that result.
At least nine public or private agencies have ownership, planning, management, regulatory, or other roles related to transportation, which includes not only the streets where traffic flows or doesn’t but sidewalks and parking facilities, too. Many agencies are doing research, gathering data, and calling for or planning improvements; Philly’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability last year unveiled Connect, an ambitious citywide plan to, among other goals, cut traffic deaths to zero by 2030 and promote mass transit.
This past September, Mayor Jim Kenney announced a pilot program to reposition loading zones and handicapped spaces along much of the crucial spine that is Chestnut Street in Center City, as well as stepped-up enforcement of parking regulations — although legislation that would double or otherwise increase parking fines has been awaiting final action by City Council since June. And after a recent story by The Inquirer’s Claudia Vargas, the city streets department also plans to beef up its review of trash truck drivers involved in nonfatal but frequent collisions.
Meanwhile, SEPTA will begin redesigning its bus network in 2020 after years of decreasing ridership, some of it related to congestion along Chestnut Street and other Center City corridors.
Keep Philadelphia Moving, a 2018 analysis by the Center City District, includes recommendations for straightforward steps such as creating a single database of traffic and congestion information, and stepping up enforcement of parking and traffic regulations. Why isn’t the city moving on these?
The planned 2023 reopening of PATCO’s Franklin Square station at Seventh and Race Streets will be a boost, but we need to get more serious about other options, like transforming Chestnut Street into a busway.
There isn’t a single reason for congestion, and there won’t be a single solution either. But Philly’s congested traffic bureaucracy needs to get moving or get out of the way.