South Street is suffering. Businesses are closing, and empty storefronts have become a staple of the South's streetscape.
In the last several years, we've seen all sorts of South Street businesses — everything from music venues like Legendary Dobbs, long-standing bars and restaurants like Downey's and Jon's Bar and Grille, clothing retailers, and such fast-food stops as Johnny Rocket's and Starbucks — close their doors for good.
There are still treasures along South Street, for sure, but the seemingly permanent blight, especially east of Fifth Street, has become a sore spot for Philadelphia and has gained notice in a series of stories from news outlets all over the city.
Ideas to turn the street around have come from a range of sources. Most recently, some are hoping an upcoming new grocery store near Second and South will help end the recent bust.
And sure, it could. But there's actually a much simpler solution that could both increase retail sales and return the once-cultural mecca back to its roots.
Here's how you do it: Ban cars.
No, not all cars. Just the empty ones. If the city eliminated parking on South Street and replaced those empty vehicles with more access for people riding bikes, scooters, skateboards, or whatever, it would give South Street new life and help create a more economically-viable corridor.
Currently, South Street isn't great for riding bikes. There is no designated area for cyclists, and with parking on both sides of South, cyclists are forced to "take the lane" heading east to their destination.
While this is perfectly legal, it can be a bit troublesome for those slowpokes among us, often harassed by drivers who lack patience and don't realize they're required to give four feet when passing cyclists (and that's just not possible on South Street).
Getting rid of empty vehicles and giving people on bikes, skateboards, and scooters better access to the street would have lots of positive impacts, and not just on the city's health.
I mean, sure: Protected bike lanes have proven to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and motorists, motorists and cyclists, and cyclists and pedestrians, as we've already seen where they've been installed in Philadelphia. But they're also proven to actually make corridors more business-friendly.
Everywhere around the world where bikes have been prioritized over motor vehicles, positive outcomes have resulted for health, safety, transportation — and economics. And there's no reason to believe doing the same to one of Philadelphia's most famous retail and cultural destinations won't reap similar results.
When New York City added a protected bike lane to Ninth Avenue between 23rd and 31st Streets in 2007, that corridor's businesses saw a 47 percent increase in retail sales , compared with 30 percent at comparable sites without protected bike lanes.
Another New York City survey found that nondrivers accounted for 95 percent of all retail spending on First and Second Avenues, where protected bike lanes have been installed.
An analysis in Portland, Ore., found "nondrivers" are "competitive consumers, spending similar amounts or more, on average, than their counterparts using automobiles."
Research from London's Bartlett School of Planning found that people who walk, cycle, and use public transit spend 40 percent more each month in neighborhood shops than people who drive.
"Adapting our streets to enable more people to walk and cycle makes them cleaner, healthier, and more welcoming, which encourages more people to shop locally," noted London's walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman, of the study's results.
Ironically, the situation leading to this economic opportunity always begins the same: The change is proposed, a handful of business owners protest, and those protests dominate the news media. Those same business owners often benefit from the rewards of selling their goods or services along a bike- and pedestrian-friendly street.
Anywhere it's tried, better access for bikes and pedestrians brings positive results for people, cities, and retail. Doing the same for South Street should be a no-brainer.
Randy LoBasso is the policy manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.