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With bus service no faster than walking, a new approach to clear up Center City traffic jams

More cops on the city streets target Center City traffic.

Two police officers instruct a vehicle to keep moving after they began to drive in the bus lane. This new police presence on Chestnut and Market St. is due to a push by the city to enforce bike lanes, bus stops and turning rules.
Two police officers instruct a vehicle to keep moving after they began to drive in the bus lane. This new police presence on Chestnut and Market St. is due to a push by the city to enforce bike lanes, bus stops and turning rules.Read moreErin Blewett

There are times of day in Center City when a person on foot can move faster than a SEPTA bus.

That is one of the factors driving a pilot program that began Monday to use Philadelphia police to improve traffic congestion. The initiative is redeploying officers from districts around the city to enforce traffic laws on Chestnut and Market Streets during the day.

The effort comes on the heels of a proposal from City Council President Darrell L. Clarke to create a new class of officers specifically assigned to improve traffic conditions. City officials say it is just an early step in a focus on Center City congestion, which is taking a toll on the quality of life and economic health in Philadelphia's core.

"There's been a significant sense of increasing congestion in Philadelphia, and it's affected everybody," said Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city's transportation office.

The program won't be permanent, but the hope is that an intensive period of enforcement will help change drivers' bad habits.

"We're partnering together to see if we can change behavior," said Scott Petri, head of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which is participating in the initiative.

Police have said that bursts of enforcement alone rarely produce long-term results. The pilot program, though, is being looked at as a measure to see what might work to improve traffic. Outcomes could include a more regular focus on traffic enforcement but also could result in traffic signals being timed differently or changes to the city's loading policies.

City officials believe healthy public transportation is integral to addressing traffic jams, and right now transit, particularly buses, isn't thriving in Philadelphia. Bus speeds have been declining since 2014 and now average less than 12 mph. Fifty-four of SEPTA's 83 city bus routes don't meet an on-time rate of 80 percent punctuality. Federal Transit Administration data released early this year showed bus ridership declined by 18 million trips, about 10 percent, from 2016 to 2017.

One priority of the policing initiative is to get buses moving faster, and bus speed will be one of the metrics used to determine whether the pilot program is a success, Puchalsky said.

"You can't get people where they need to go, and you can't have an efficient transit system if your buses are just stuck in traffic," he said.

Blocking the box, double parking, and stopping in bus stop zones all contribute to slowing bus service, and all are a focus of the enforcement effort. On Monday morning, pairs of bike officers kept watch on Chestnut Street intersections between 10th and 22nd Streets, and on Market Street between Seventh and 13th. Ticketers with the Philadelphia Parking Authority are coordinating with police, as are SEPTA officers this week.

In the coming weeks, SEPTA police traveling to and from their headquarters will be asked to watch for traffic violations on Chestnut and Market and issue tickets, said Thomas Nestel III, SEPTA's Transit Police chief.

Those corridors are travel arteries for eight busy SEPTA bus routes, SEPTA officials said, and these buses will be observed for the length of the pilot program to judge whether added police presence makes service faster. The enforcement effort will focus on hours between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. It turns out that bus service in Center City is slowest when it isn't rush hour, officials said.

One bus rider waiting for the Route 45 bus at 12th and Chestnut said his ride from Center City to his job as a caretaker in a South Philadelphia senior center has become five to 10 minutes longer in recent months.

"The traffic is very congested, and it's an inconvenience to getting to work," he said.

It's not just the number of vehicles. It's what they're doing. Center City's narrow streets can be almost completely blocked by a truck stopping to make a delivery, or a ride-share picking up a passenger.

One bicycle cop said he issued two tickets — one to an Uber driver and another to a shuttle bus — for double parking and gave other motorists warnings. Two officers on Chestnut tapped on the windows of vehicles blocking the intersection. They were trying to not issue tickets, the officers said, but warned drivers not to block the box.

Bus service isn't the only beneficiary of the enforcement effort. Police also are seeking to prevent stopping and parking in bike lanes, and to improve safety for the city's pedestrians.

Last week, Clarke introduced an ordinance to change the City Charter and create a new class of officers who would not be armed or able to make arrests but could help with traffic enforcement. Both Clarke's office and city officials said it was a coincidence that the added enforcement initiative, which has been in the works since May, and Clarke's proposal were announced within the same week. But one approach doesn't necessarily negate the other.

Complications could come from resistance from the Fraternal Order of Police and from civil service rules that prevent duplication in hiring. Right now, police are tasked with enforcing traffic laws, and a new class of officers could be seen as doubling up on the same job.

"I think we're still interested in exploring it," said Brian Abernathy, the city's deputy managing director, "if there is a structure that could overcome the FOP's concerns."

There's also recognition that using intensive manpower to watch the city's intersections may not be sustainable. City officials have hoped that automated enforcement, such as speed cameras that a bill in Harrisburg could legalize, might eventually reduce the need for human enforcement. Still, the pilot program marks an unusual collaboration among city agencies. The enforcement entities with power to make traffic better — the police, SEPTA, and the PPA — rarely work in concert, something that officials say need to change to make Center City's streets more navigable.

"This is the first concerted effort I've been involved with," Nestel said. "Often we're overlapping with our enforcement, but it's not coordinated like this is."