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Philly visits NYC to learn how to make our streets safer and less clogged

New York City's declining traffic death numbers suggest more lives could be saved on Philadelphia streets.

Philadelphia City Council members (L to R) Curtis Jones, Mark Squilla, and Darrell Clarke discuss traffic enforcement with New York City police detective Ahmed Nasser and Philadelphia Police Inspector Walt Smith outside police headquarters on the Lower East Side.
Philadelphia City Council members (L to R) Curtis Jones, Mark Squilla, and Darrell Clarke discuss traffic enforcement with New York City police detective Ahmed Nasser and Philadelphia Police Inspector Walt Smith outside police headquarters on the Lower East Side.Read moreJason Laughlin

NEW YORK — Members of Philadelphia City Council visited here to determine whether this city's successful traffic enforcement efforts could work in Philly.

"This is clearly something that the time has come for in the city of Philadelphia," Council President Darrell L. Clarke said during the trip on Wednesday.

New York employs 3,434 people in its traffic enforcement bureau, most of them civilians. Among them are 443 traffic enforcement agents responsible for parking enforcement and traffic control, said Thomas Chan, the police department's chief of transportation. The agents handle the tasks in New York that Parking Authority personnel do in Philadelphia, but also have the authority to control traffic, oversee construction sites, and enforce blocking-the-box infractions with a scanner that reads the license plate of a vehicle stopped in an intersection.

"As the agents are out there," Chan said, "they're freeing up our police officers."

New York traffic enforcement resulted in a million moving violations in 2016, according to statistics made available by the NYPD, and 8.8 million parking violations.

Congestion on Philadelphia's streets has increasingly become a problem as the city's population grows, ride share companies move more people, and the boom in e-commerce brings a glut of delivery trucks to narrow streets. Addressing it is part of the city's Vision Zero philosophy, which proposes that with engineering changes, education, and enforcement, traffic-related deaths in the city could be eliminated. In September, Clarke introduced a resolution to amend the City Charter to create the position of traffic officer in Philadelphia. If approved by Council and signed by the mayor, the matter would go to voters as a ballot question in May.

>>READ MORE: Philly to consider new class of officer to fight Center City gridlock

Clarke envisions the new class of officers to be under the authority of the Police Department, which would decide how to use the personnel. How the officers would be paid for is an open question, he said.

"That's something we will look at throughout the budget season," said Councilman Mark Squilla, who, along with Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., joined Clarke on his visit to New York.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 has been an outspoken opponent of Clarke's proposal.

"I met up with the Council president a couple weeks ago,"  John McNesby, president of the union, said Thursday. "We're still at an impasse. We have no common ground." McNesby has said that outsourcing some traffic enforcement tasks to civilians is contrary to a state statute that reserves traffic enforcement power to sworn officers.

>>READ MORE: Police union opposes using civilian workers for traffic enforcement in Philly

The NYPD inherited its traffic officers from the city Department of Transportation in 1996, Chan said, and they were already members of a union that represents police officers in the city.

Clarke has suggested that the new class of officers could be on the street within six months of the ballot question's approval, but said existing laws would likely not accommodate creating a new class of officer without action in Harrisburg. "There will probably be at minimum some legislative changes," he said.

Jones suggested that since the New York officers handle some of the tasks performed in Philadelphia by the PPA, he would consider having the city absorb the Parking Authority's parking enforcement branch and then add traffic enforcement to its responsibilities. That possibility has not been discussed with the PPA, spokesman Martin O'Rourke said Thursday.

New York's traffic agents are typically concentrated in Manhattan, Chan said, but teams meet weekly to discuss enforcement patterns, and personnel can be reassigned throughout the five boroughs to respond where accidents or congestion may be increasing. New York's Vision Zero initiative has used red-light cameras, express buses, and bike lanes to make streets safer. Without more data, it's difficult to say which initiatives are most effective, Chan said, but the overall result is positive. Last year, New York reported 221 traffic fatalities. The city has reported 175 traffic deaths so far in 2018, Chan said. At this rate, it would be the fifth straight year in which traffic deaths have declined.

New York has more than five times as many residents as Philadelphia's 1.5 million population, but only about twice as many traffic deaths.

Less serious than deaths, but still of concern, is the effect of congestion on travel in the city. A report from the Center City District found it took 10 percent to 20 percent longer in 2017 than in 2013 to drive between Broad Street and 23rd Street in Center City. It is in some places faster to walk than to take SEPTA buses, and riders abandoning buses means less fare revenue for public transit.

Jones was struck by the level of cooperation among New York agencies to implement Vision Zero since that city adopted that approach in 2014. The District Attorney's Office, the Health Department, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority all play roles in street safety initiatives, Chan said.

"Silos," Jones said, describing enforcement in Philadelphia, where the PPA, SEPTA, and police all bear some of the burden for managing traffic. "Everybody's protecting their particular interest."

New York's traffic enforcement agents are considered to have a difficult job. A WNYC radio report this year described traffic enforcement agents being abused by the public.

In Philadelphia, Clarke said, the special officers would be respected.

"By and large," he said, "people will respect law enforcement."