The Mayor’s Office put out a neat public-facing street closure map for the citizens of Philadelphia in February. As a person who travels all over the city, begrudgingly, for my work as a photographer and host of a transit-focused podcast, Who Taught You How To Drive?!, I know what it’s like to rip and run all day and get sent on a maze of detours because there are 17 block parties in a five-block radius. I know how it feels to walk through Center City stuntin’ in my new suede Pumas, and then get accosted by construction dust and grime because some real estate investors are building another Lego house in the middle of a congested area.
So I wondered: Will the Mayor’s map help me navigate these pesky first-world problems — and make sure I also, say, get to important appointments on time?
Some say this map will improve safety and walkability, while providing transparency and holding permit holders accountable for the closures. It’s been a long time getting here: The pedestrian safety bill City Council passed in 2017 has been around, in some form, since 2008. This new map took input — and complaints — from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.
In a post on the city’s website, the Mayor celebrates the map as a safety victory: “Providing online access to Streets’ permits for street and sidewalk closures in real time better equips Philadelphians as they walk, bike, take transit, or drive around the City.”
I took the Mayor’s optimistic words as a challenge to investigate how well this map works and who it really works for. Here is what I found:
The map’s labels are both terrifying and helpful. My body literally jumped when the map loaded on my computer screen. According to this blueprint littered with red, blue, and green lines, nearly every Center City street I’d consider crossing had some kind of closure. It was horrifying. But also detailed and, in theory, useful. Red lines show full street closures, blue partial, and green closures that affect sidewalks only. It also gives a direct link to email philly311 so you can submit a right-of-way violation complaint.
The map doesn’t always reflect reality. As part of my investigation, I chose a small area with all three types of closures. That area was right off the Parkway near Moore College of Art. The street closings I had prepared for turned out to be … nonexistent. Meaning they were listed on the map before I left my house, but when I showed up were completely open. There was construction, but no problems for traffic or streets. Ultimately that’s a win, but if I had rerouted myself because of the supposed closures it would have been for naught.
It’s challenging to use in real time without an app. Perhaps most importantly, if I saw a street closure while I was traveling, I wouldn’t be checking the map to see if the permit is valid. I also wouldn’t be able to take the 15 minutes to register with 311 and go through a bunch of drop-down options to send my complaint. If I had to pull up this map on my phone while walking or catching buses, it just wouldn’t fly. It’s hard to read on a small phone, with so many lines, and a bit difficult to navigate.
So what public is this most useful for? I still don’t really know — and am hoping for a smoother app version. It contains great information, but it’s not quite user-friendly enough yet for me or my beloved kicks.
Tezarah Wilkins is a photographer and disgruntled city driver. She’s also the executive producer and host of the podcast "Who Taught You How To Drive?!”