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Philly is only walkable if you're an able-bodied childless adult | Opinion

Why do Philly parents want big strollers? Just look at our streets.

Jon Geeting and daughter Ramona
Jon Geeting and daughter RamonaRead moreHandout

Instead of decamping for the suburbs, more Philadelphians with young children have been choosing to raise their families in the city in recent years, recognizing that Philly can be an amazing place to raise kids.

The city has a wealth of public amenities for families, like parks, libraries, and free outdoor activities. And we've been making steady progress — although unequally, and in fits and starts — on improving the quality of our schools, reducing the draw of suburban schools as a reason to leave the city.

But there's one area where the city still has a ways to go on the family-friendliness scale, and that's mobility. Getting around with young children on transit, biking, or even walking is still a more frustrating experience than it has to be, and the reasons for this have everything to do with public policy.

This week, families scored a nice win when SEPTA, in response to an online petition, announced it would change its policy prohibiting open strollers on buses. The change, which goes into effect in January, will allow parents to leave their children in their strollers outside of peak hours as long as they aren't blocking the aisle.

Under the current policy, parents must pull their kids out of the stroller and fold it up as they're preparing to board. Even if your child is cooperative during all this — not always a sure bet — it's still a big, and unnecessary, hassle.

Some of the public reactions to SEPTA's new policy have focused on the trend toward larger strollers, alternately worrying that the move could create stroller jams on buses — an issue addressed by SEPTA's policy —  or blaming parents for purchasing larger strollers that are a pain to carry onto the bus.

The reality, though, is that large-wheeled strollers are necessary in a city with such a laissez-faire approach to street maintenance, where sidewalks are poorly maintained, curb cuts are constantly blocked, and city streets routinely go more than a decade without being repaved.

In Philadelphia, sidewalk maintenance falls on individual property owners rather than city taxpayers, mainly due to ancient property laws giving people ownership all the way up to the curb line.

The ultimate responsibility to maintain the sidewalks falls on the property owner, and if you take a walk around most city neighborhoods, you'll quickly notice a lot of terribly maintained sidewalks. This is why so many parents are buying all-terrain strollers with the mountain bike tires.

Some people could afford to fix their sidewalks but don't do it because there's no penalty for putting it off, but there are also a lot of low-income homeowners who don't have available cash to pay to fix the sidewalk.

A few years back, Councilman David Oh proposed a bill that would have had the Streets Department repair all the decrepit sidewalks and then place a lien on those properties if the owners couldn't pay. Nothing came of that idea, but it's something we should explore if we want to make the city a friendlier place for people who rely on wheelchairs, seniors with mobility challenges—and, yes, parents with strollers.

Another reason many parents want these all-terrain wheels is that the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Police Department almost never enforce the laws against illegal parking in crosswalks or in front of ADA curb cuts, or even parking up on the sidewalk in some neighborhoods.

Because there's no political will to enforce the parking laws, pushing a stroller involves a constant looping in and out of traffic, around parked cars blocking the curb cuts, and onto and off of the sidewalk. People who rely on a wheelchair to get around have it much worse than parents on this front, but the whole thing is awful for pedestrians, and the city's nonenforcement policy is begging for an ADA lawsuit.

Lastly, the city's construction boom has created an epidemic of sidewalks blocked by construction fences, which force people to walk out into traffic. This is yet another reason why  Philadelphia parents opt for strollers with off-roading capabilities. This issue received some early action from Mayor Kenney and Councilwoman Helen Gym, as it was something Kenney had campaigned on, though there hasn't been much of a noticeable change.

Less relevant to the stroller issue, but still conceptually and politically related, is the fact that Philly's per capita spending on street maintenance has declined over the last nine years, and is lower today than when Michael Nutter took office despite a small increase in this year's budget. Additionally, despite Kenney's campaign promise to restore Philly's canceled street-sweeping service, that commitment was downgraded to a long-term wish in the city's Zero Waste Action Plan.

It all adds up to a general disinvestment from sidewalks, streets, and the overall pedestrian experience at a time when the city is producing marketing videos for Amazon about how walkable and accessible Philly is. The truth is that Philly is walkable and accessible if you're an able-bodied childless adult, but we have a long way to go to make our transportation network — sidewalks included — accessible for families and people with limited mobility.

Jon Geeting is the director of engagement at Philadelphia 3.0, a Fishtown resident, and owner of an UppaBaby Vista. You can reach him on Twitter at @jongeeting.