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Heart of Phila. near standstill

Center City’s clogged arteries

Traffic backed up at 18th and Walnut Streets. The streets were plenty wide - back in 1682, when they were designed.
Traffic backed up at 18th and Walnut Streets. The streets were plenty wide - back in 1682, when they were designed.Read more

Running late for a noon luncheon appointment this week, Pete Hoskins decided to drive into the thick of Center City traffic and find a place to park.

By making this move, was the former Philadelphia streets commissioner demonstrating (A) heroic optimism, (B) blithering idiocy, (C) temporary insanity, or (D) the efficacy of his hypertension medication?


Traffic congestion in the city's most thriving commercial districts, particularly around Rittenhouse Square, is bad. Very bad. Think the matted fur behind a golden retriever's ears. Or Dick Cheney's arteries. Or Sonny Adedeji's taxicab.

"There's a green light and nothing's moving," says Adewale "Sonny" Adedeji, who drives for the PHL Taxi company. "It sometimes takes 20 minutes to go a block." Every day, Adedeji says, he has to discharge exasperated passengers who would rather get out and walk than sit in traffic watching the meter tick away, adding pain to frustration.

Getting from here to there used to be a breeze, says Paul Levy, president of the Center City District.

"Fifteen years ago, it was easy to go zooming across the city," he says. But now condominiums are being built and Rouge needs fresh mushrooms and the Coach store has to resupply the wallets and new residents come and go from apartment buildings and banks require Brinks trucks to deliver the cash.

"This is really a sign of success," Levy says.

A sign, however, that can make a one-mile trip across the city's girth for a doctor's appointment or a haircut or coffee with a friend into a gas-burning, gasket-blowing, marathon slog.

Several drivers, interviewed as they idled in traffic this week, said they had no complaints. "It's a city," one woman shrugged. "What do you expect?"

But many others are beginning to wonder whether it has to be this hard. Including urban veterans such as Hoskins, who would rather not waste the better part of an hour trying to squeeze into the line of cars funneled through 18th Street between Walnut and Chestnut, walled in by concrete construction barriers to the left and delivery trucks on the right, dodging ricocheting pedestrians, and breathing in the exhaust from the back of a bus.

From behind the wheel, it may look as though the major blockages are caused by construction sites. The dreaded orange signs with squiggly arrows saying: Shove over, the lane you're in is about to disappear. Cranes positioned like massive fishermen positioned on busy corners, dropping their lines into the pool of traffic.

Wrong, says Charles Denny, the city's chief traffic engineer, who is in charge of the signals for 2,100 miles of city streets.

"It's true that there are some areas with construction with lane restrictions," says Denny, who has worked with the Streets Department for 30 years. "The big trouble," he says, "is the loading and unloading of trucks."

When a delivery truck drops anchor into a travel lane for 15 or 20 minutes, that cuts the capacity of the street in half. "It has been a recurring problem for decades," he says. As a student at Drexel in the 1970s, he remembers walking into the Center City business district from 22d and Chestnut and getting there faster than cars.

With few exceptions, most streets in the heart of Philadelphia are big enough to handle the volume of cars, Denny says.

One travel lane, he explains, can handle 450 vehicles an hour. That's 60 green lights, each lasting about 24 seconds, with seven to 10 cars getting through. Depending on how many drivers are trying to parallel park, or slipping into an intersection as the light turns red, or straddling two lanes or double parking, the flow can dwindle to zero.

"The roadways are the size they are. Even when you get out into the suburbs, there's no room to add travel lanes," he says. "You have to take what you have and make it work smarter."

Hoskins agrees and says that, in some ways, Philadelphia has a better chance of fixing its problems than most suburban areas, which don't have as dense a network of alternative routes for getting around an obstruction. (If you want to watch a light turn red four times before getting through the intersection, try Plymouth Road between Plymouth Meeting Mall and Butler Pike.)

"Everyone wants to be in their car and nobody wants to use mass transit," says Joe Syrnick, who served as chief engineer and surveyor for the city from 1986 to 2005. "It's not going to get better, it's going to get worse. There's a limit to how all these streets were designed . . . in 1682. Back then, they were plenty wide."

By the summer of 1945, however, the city was already feeling oppressed by cars and formed the Philadelphia Committee for the Relief of Traffic Congestion.

The committee no longer exists, and the fact that it - nor anything like it - doesn't is a problem, says Levy.

Nearly everyone agrees that the city could do a better job of coordinating the different agencies that play a part in managing traffic: the Parking Authority, the Police Department, the Streets Department, and public utilities.

In a city with aging infrastructure, where electric lines, sewer and water systems, and gas pipes run under every street, not a day goes by when work crews don't have to block part of a street to deal with some emergency, says Denny. With better communication, he says, "we could do a better job" of alerting drivers and redirecting traffic around those spots.

Although it's true that every major city has congestion problems, some are trying harder than others to address them.

Stockholm and London charge drivers for traveling in the densest areas during peak hours. A similar measure has been proposed in New York, where a recent study clocked the average speed of cars heading into the Queens Midtown Tunnel at 2.5 miles an hour during the daily exodus.

At some point, Philadelphia might need to think along those lines, too. During the mayoral primary, candidate Chaka Fattah suggested studying the idea. But a variety of analysts say there are several - less drastic - options the city ought to consider.

"One solution is something that Washington, New York, Boston and Chicago all have," says Levy. "A department of transportation. An agency whose job it is to manage the scarce resource of downtown streets."

It also would be nice if the city had traffic police to take over when signals fail, or someone blocks the box. "But there is limited manpower among city employees," Denny says. A police force struggling with homicides and other serious crimes will have a hard time assigning officers to direct traffic.

Of all the problems contributing to gridlock, truck deliveries stand out as the most chronic - and fixable.

Ticketing trucks that double-park or take up regular parking spots is not enough, says Richard Dickson, director of on-street services for the Parking Authority. "We need to look at other cities that restrict hours of deliveries in the essential business district."

Dickson could see opening Walnut Street to deliveries between 6 and 10 a.m., before retail traffic gets started, and then blocking trucks during the rest of the day.

But Levy warns against "draconian restrictions" for delivery trucks, which he calls "the lifeblood of small businesses."

Denny suggests that there may be a need to work with City Council to create more loading zones.

Almost anything would be an improvement on the current situation.

Crawling west on Sansom in search of a parking space, Hoskins called to apologize to his lunch date. "Each block got progressively worse," he recalls. A work crew was fixing some utility problem and had completely barricaded part of 20th Street, but he had no way of knowing he was headed for gridlock until he was already in its clutch. "There was no detour sign. We were all being herded blindly into this alley." At 12:10, Hoskins found himself at a dead stop. "We were going nowhere."

Frustrated-Driver's Ed

You can't do anything about backhoes, delivery trucks, water main breaks, or the width of the streets set in Belgian block by William Penn's surveyor. But you can help ease traffic jams if you:

  1. Park legally.

  2. Stay out of loading zones.

  3. Refuse to give in to the sore temptation to drive into an intersection unless you are absolutely, positively sure that you can get to the other side before the light turns red. In other words, don't block the box. Ever.

  4. Take public transportation.

  5. Walk to where you're going whenever possible. (It's usually quicker, always cheaper, and better both for the environment and your blood pressure.)