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Delayed Washington Avenue traffic changes shouldn’t compromise on safety | Editorial

The city was supposed to start work this month on changes — scaling the roadway down from five to three lanes and improving bike lanes — to make the avenue safer.

The scene at 17th Street and Washington Avenue on July 15, 2021, where the city's planned project to fix street problems was supposed to have begun by now.
The scene at 17th Street and Washington Avenue on July 15, 2021, where the city's planned project to fix street problems was supposed to have begun by now.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It’s hardly a secret in Philadelphia that from a traffic safety standpoint, Washington Avenue is a dangerous mess.

It’s filled with double-parked vehicles and impromptu loading zones, in some stretches, the traffic lane markings long ago faded, and too many motorists speed along trying to beat the stoplights. That combination undoubtedly contributed to Washington Avenue earning a place in the city’s high injury network, a list of the 12% of streets where 50% of traffic deaths and severe injuries occur.

The city was supposed to start work this month on changes designed to make the avenue safer, including scaling the roadway down from five to three driving lanes and improving bike lanes. But last week, city officials announced that they were postponing the project for at least a year to focus on other street-related construction work that was delayed by the pandemic.

» READ MORE: Washington Ave. could be a great city street | Editorial

The delay came after a June 24 community meeting hosted by the Point Breeze CDC and attended by City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability — for which public notice was given on June 23, affording neighborhood residents little time to make arrangements to attend. That timeline is in contrast to the process city officials took to develop the current plan, which involved months of asking residents about the kind of improvements they wanted to see.

Critics of the proposed changes say the plan was rushed and didn’t include enough public engagement. But given that city officials held 23 meetings with registered community organizations and civic associations, it is hard to argue that the process was not exhaustive or that local stakeholders were kept in the dark.

» READ MORE: Residents support a slimmed-down Washington Avenue

In fact, plans to overhaul Washington Avenue have been in the works since at least 2013. An earlier plan was scrapped, making it unsurprising that advocacy groups like the Bicycle Coalition and 5th Square worry that the city might be reconsidering what’s been agreed upon. After all, despite rhetoric about eliminating traffic-related deaths under its Vision Zero strategy, the Kenney administration has made little progress on street safety and protected bike lanes, with a claimed lack of consensus a consistent feature of delays.

It is understandable that elected leaders value consensus and want to be responsive to community concerns. But the repaving plan had buy-in from thousands of people. It is also understandable that many long-term residents have expressed skepticism of plans to “improve” public space as moves intended for tourists and prospective, affluent residents, not existing community members. But neglecting to implement the plan in 2013 didn’t stop these neighborhoods from gentrifying then, and allowing Washington Avenue to remain as dangerous as it has been will not stop gentrification now. It will just lead to more injuries in a city that had more than 100 traffic fatalities in 2020. Evidence shows that these injuries will disproportionately affect Black residents, in part because Black neighborhoods so rarely see the type of traffic interventions that city officials paused for Washington Avenue.

It may be too late to start this project on time, but it is essential that the city trust its public outreach process, resist calls to drastically change the proposed street layout, and get moving on a safer, better Washington Avenue.