When Gov. Wolf announced he would name Montgomery County Commissioner Leslie Richards as the new secretary of PennDot, many Pennsylvania urbanists cheered.
For the first time, the head of the state's Department of Transportation would be someone with a planning background, who understands the importance of designing streets that work for everyone, and who would guide the agency's traffic engineers in a more balanced direction from the top down.
Streets like Market and JFK Blvd, the Ben Franklin Parkway, Broad Street, Delaware Avenue, Kelly Drive, Spring Garden Street, and Girard and Frankford Avenues are all state routes under PennDot's control, and not coincidentally they're death traps for pedestrians and cyclists due to automobile-focused street design. PennDot-controlled streets figure prominently on the High Injury Network map the Kenney administration released as part of its Vision Zero initiative to reduce pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries.
Unfortunately, if PennDot's institutional views have become geared more toward pedestrian-friendly design, it is invisible in the decisions its District 6 office has been making on the ground in Philadelphia. In particular, there appears to be no sign of urgency to redesign the collection of dangerous urban arterials for greater pedestrian safety.
Part of the problem is the institutional culture at PennDot, which is dominated by engineers who have been trained to value fast speeds for motorized vehicles as the most important measure of a successful street.
Changing those values to place pedestrian safety and convenience at the center of decisions won't happen overnight, but personnel are policy, and the best way to start recruiting different personnel is to move PennDot's Southeastern headquarters from King of Prussia to Center City.
The Philadelphia Business Journal reported that District 6 plans to begin construction on a $33 million, 30,000 square-foot addition to its King of Prussia headquarters, which will house a new traffic management center and office space for new hires. The current facility is about 40 percent over capacity, according to the report. About $25 million will fund the traffic management center, and $8 million will fund modifications to PennDot's parking facility. The agency hopes to break ground on this project in 2020.
The question for PennDot — and, really, for Gov. Wolf— is: What kind of talent is District 6 looking to attract?
The urban areas and downtowns of Southeastern Pennsylvania badly need the next generation of PennDot engineers to have more empathy for pedestrians, cyclists, and walkable commercial districts.
Moving PennDot headquarters to Center City would go a long way toward changing the agency's priorities, since the engineers who are likely to care the most about urban walkability and bikeability are more likely to live in the city themselves. People with these values would also be less inclined to take a job with PennDot if a reverse commute by car is essentially mandatory — which it is at this location.
PennDot's District 6 headquarters is located in what is arguably the least walkable part of King of Prussia, and that won't change even after the Norristown High-Speed Line extension. Even when that project is completed, reverse commuters from Philadelphia still would not be able to walk to work from the station.
It's also possible that traffic engineers would make different design choices about PennDot's urban routes if they had more personal exposure to them. In programming, there is a slang term called "dogfooding," which holds that programmers who have to use the software they're designing will make better decisions about how to build it. PennDot engineers might design urban streets in Philadelphia and other cities with more empathy for pedestrians if they had to eat their own dog food and personally navigate streets like Market, JFK, and the Parkway on foot every day.
Symbolism matters. By doubling down on a location that is only accessible by car, PennDot is saying something meaningful about its transportation planning priorities.
While some might say expanding near the same site in an area with lower land prices is the more cost-conscious move, I would argue this ignores the private transportation costs — and public environmental costs — that such an inaccessible location imposes on PennDot's employees and all the engineering firms the agency does business with (many of whom have Center City locations).
The Kenney administration is committed to big reductions in pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries over the next decade, but it can only do so much when so many of Philly's worst streets are controlled by PennDot. If Gov. Wolf and Secretary Richards want to show that they are committed to Vision Zero and a modern transportation agenda, they should make a practical and symbolic down payment on this by moving PennDot's District 6 headquarters into Center City.