The city will reduce the number of traffic lanes in the heart of Center City this spring as part of a nine-month pilot program aimed at improving street safety and better accommodating cyclists and pedestrians after a year of high-profile traffic-related deaths.
Mayor Kenney said Saturday the city will change traffic patterns on Market Street and JFK Boulevard between 15th and 20th Streets by reducing traffic from four lanes to three. That lane reduction will create space for parking-protected bike lanes, a longtime wish-list item for street-safety advocates. Parked cars will act as a barrier between the bike lanes and traffic.
The mayor announced the program at the third annual Vision Zero Conference hosted by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, a daylong event that brought together cyclists, planners, safety advocates, and public officials. "Vision Zero" refers to the goal of eliminating traffic-related fatalities.
Market Street was a problem street identified in a Vision Zero Action Plan released by the Kenney administration last fall. That blueprint zeroed in on 12 percent of Philadelphia streets that the city says contribute to more than half of all serious crashes. There are about 100 traffic-related deaths in Philadelphia each year.
Kelley Yemen, the city's complete streets director, said the $50,000 bike-lane project will be implemented by spring, though she couldn't put a specific date on when changes would take effect. The protected bike lanes will be situated to accommodate bus stops. On Market Street, the lane will be on the north side; on JFK, the south side.
She said the city's overall traffic models show the change in travel time should be "negligible" for a driver traveling the five-block corridor, as the city is working to implement other changes, such as improved turning lanes. It also will examine traffic signal lengths. Kenney said Comcast officials are on board with the plan, which would presumably affect traffic surrounding its headquarters at 17th and JFK.
The city will also implement changes at the intersection of 16th Street and JFK, where pedestrian Peter Javsicas, a well-known transportation-safety advocate, was killed last summer. Yemen said that intersection near JFK Plaza will be "reinvigorated" to increase pedestrian safety, including adding delineators to reduce the length of crosswalks and enhanced curb bump-outs to allow pedestrians to see traffic from a better vantage point.
Officials will examine data after the pilot program and look to move forward with a permanent solution, which would require Council approval, Yemen said. The new lane protections will be in the district represented by Council President Darrell Clarke, whose office was involved in efforts to get buy-in from affected residents, according to a spokeswoman.
Some of those residents remain unconvinced. Hamadi and Wendy Mosbahi, both 48, have lived at the Penn Center House at 19th and JFK for 20 years. Both said Saturday that they're concerned the traffic changes might negatively affect elderly residents of the building who already face challenges crossing the street.
"I've almost gotten hit by people on bikes," Wendy Mosbahi said. Bike messengers who speed by pedestrians are prevalent in the area, said her husband.
"I want to see some kind of example of this working," Hamadi Mosbahi said. "Knowing the city, I don't think so."
Philadelphia's first protected bike lane — meaning there's an obstacle between vehicle traffic and the bike lane itself — was implemented in 2016 on Ryan Avenue in Mayfair. While there are more than 200 miles of bike lanes on Philadelphia streets, only about 2.5 miles are protected. Among the most high-profile of those is on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia between 34th and 45th Streets, and those lanes have irked some community members due to the lost traffic lane.
Kenney set a goal of 30 miles of new bike lanes by 2022. After announcing the plan addressing traffic patterns in Center City, he apologized "that we have not been able to keep up with the pace that we would have liked to have seen when we came into office in 2016."
"Change comes slowly," Kenney said. "Too slowly for many of you in this room. But it's a cultural change that we're trying to establish here, and for many years, the car has been king. … I'm sorry for all those here who have lost loved ones because of this kind of cultural contention."
While some of those struggles can be attributed to the politics of reducing car traffic in neighborhoods across the city, other changes, like reimagining dangerous intersections, prove costly. The Streets Department has devoted $1 million to its Vision Zero initiatives, which critics have called insufficient.
The administration's plan also emphasizes education and enforcement. The city is developing a street-safety plan that could put more police officers in Center City for traffic enforcement. Yemen said that in addition to pulling over problem drivers, police will also aim to educate them on street safety during that interaction.