Last week, City Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a resolution and ordinance to address traffic congestion in Center City. Clarke's package proposes amending the City Charter to establish a new class of employee within the civil service system: Public Safety Enforcement Officers. The non-sworn and non-armed officers' main goal would be to enforce traffic laws, but they would also help with non-criminal, quality-of-life code violations — such as littering, graffiti, and vandalism to street signs and other street fixtures — and order during large events. If two-thirds of Council support Clarke's proposals, voters will see a question about the initiative on their ballots in the May 2019 primary election.
There is a lot to like in this proposal: Congestion has become so bad that a report by the Center City District points out it is faster to walk during certain hours than take a bus in Center City. Enforcement of traffic law has been declining in recent years by a count of police citations. And, with almost half of homicides in the city going unsolved it seems logical to find a way to increase enforcement without diverting police resources away from the investigation of serious crime. The new enforcement officers will also be cheaper than hiring more police officers, according to Clarke, who estimates that 100 officers would be needed.
But there are also arguments against: The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the area, opposes the proposal, arguing that traffic enforcement should be reserved for police officers. Inquirer reporter Jason Laughlin reports that Pennsylvania state law might be on the FOP's side. This means that Harrisburg might need to get involved to allow Philadelphia to create the new force.
The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which already has about 250 parking enforcement officers on the streets, could serve an enhanced function. But that's not their priority, and they believe that traffic violation enforcement is very labor intensive. That is why the PPA advocates for the use of technology instead; one example is the use of forward-facing cameras on buses that would automatically issue citations to drivers blocking bus lanes.
Congestion, especially in an older city, grows out of a number of factors — construction activity, ride-sharing services, economic and population growth, more reliance on online shopping and delivery, lack of strategic parking, and traffic enforcement. To solve it, a multidimensional approach is necessary that includes departments and divisions from throughout the city. Should we close certain streets, or limit deliveries to designated time periods? Should the city impose congestion pricing? Clarke's proposal has merit, but we are worried that it is a Band-Aid that isn't necessarily designed to alter the underlying conditions that cause congestion.
The road to civilian traffic enforcers is long. Clarke will need the support first of Council, then Philadelphia voters, and perhaps even the FOP and Harrisburg. He would make a stronger case if the current proposal is part of a comprehensive approach that brings all the key stakeholders to the table.