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Where the wild things park: Why so many cars in Philly park illegally

The number of cars in Philadelphia is growing, but parking enforcement policies aren’t keeping up.

Cars park in the sidewalk in the 1900 block of Fitzgerald Street in South Philadelphia.
Cars park in the sidewalk in the 1900 block of Fitzgerald Street in South Philadelphia.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Fitzgerald Street in South Philadelphia’s Girard Estates is a one-block slip of road where many of the charming, well-kept rowhouses still sparkle with Christmas lights in January and homeowners park their cars by their doors — on the sidewalk.

In some places, there’s not much more than a foot of space betwixt bumper and stoop. At the corner of Fitzgerald and 20th Streets, an SUV juts into the crosswalk.

“Completely unsafe,” said Karl Schappell, as he walked Brutus and Fiona, his English bulldogs.

What are parkers blocking?

Crosswalks, fire hydrants — “the whole thing,” said the 55-year-old restaurant manager. “This is South Philly.”

Blatantly illegal parking may be a South Philadelphia hallmark, but it’s a problem in residential neighborhoods citywide, where parking enforcement is patchwork or nonexistent. These vehicles are more than a nuisance. They can force people into the street, hinder travel for those with disabilities, and keep pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers from seeing each other at intersections.

“If someone has to go around a car parked where they would be stepping off the curb, there’s a blind spot created for pedestrians,” said Randy LoBasso, a spokesman for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “You see these huge monster SUVs and pickups everywhere, and they’re blocking people’s sight vision.”

The problem is so significant that advocacy groups for people with disabilities are suing the city in federal court over the state of its sidewalks, including the frequency of obstacles on them. Safe-streets advocates say the solution is simple: Start enforcing.

“You’ve got people with multiple cars,” said James Gitto, a South Philadelphia resident and owner of Bark Park Philly, a dog-walking business. “And there’s no enforcement.”

The number of cars in Philadelphia and the percentage of residences with cars have been growing. More than 70% of the city’s nearly 595,000 households had at least one car in 2018, compared with 64% in 2000, according to U.S. Census data.

The agencies responsible for enforcement in the city’s residential neighborhoods — the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) and the Philadelphia Police Department — have little appetite for the task.

“I honestly don’t know what the solution is,” said Scott Petri, PPA executive director. “I guess we should have thought about that 100 years ago.”

There’s no law keeping the PPA from patrolling throughout the city, but the agency’s policy is to assign parking enforcement officers only to streets with posted parking restrictions. The agency budgets for 265 officers, too few to patrol parking citywide.

“We go to the areas that are primarily the most congested or have the most businesses or residential,” said Corinne O’Connor, the PPA’s director of on-street parking. “It’s based on where we want traffic to flow more smoothly.”

Outside those parking-restricted zones, the Philadelphia police can handle parking enforcement. In South Philadelphia, the First District played a role in shifting to 1,400 angled parking spots on streets to create more space, and “thousands” of parking tickets are issued, said District Capt. Lou Campione, but parking enforcement isn’t the first priority of the police.

Under city code, the PPA may tow only within an area bounded by Spring Garden Street on the north, Bainbridge Street on the south, Delaware Avenue to the east, and 40th Street on the west, and along North Broad Street. Beyond that, the Philadelphia police are the first responders, and that can take time. On a recent morning, SEPTA’s Route 17 bus through South Philadelphia had to be diverted due to a car parked for hours in the street because a tow wasn’t available. One illegally parked car on a trolley or bus route can slow or stop transit vehicles and worsen congestion.

“Even on multi-lane roads, a single illegally parked car can cause major problems,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

» READ MORE: Suing a Pa. government agency over a car crash just got easier

By some measures, South Philadelphia is the promised land of illegal parking. The pedestrian advocacy organization First PhillyPhilly runs the Twitter hashtag #NotAParkingSpot, a forum for people to post pictures of illegal parking; it said 78% of complaints came from the First District.

“The overwhelming majority are vehicles parked in a crosswalk,” said Nick Zuwiala-Rogers, transportation program director at Feet First. “What that does to limit mobility for pedestrians, you can’t overstate it.”

People in the community, though, said legal parking is scarce, and a choice between parking illegally without penalty and spending a half-hour or more looking for a legal spot isn’t much of a choice at all, “unless you feel like parking half a mile away,” said Giuliano Alexander, 30.

Alexander’s white Dodge Dart was parked legally on Fitzgerald on a recent afternoon, but he said that neither he nor his wife hesitates to park one of their cars on the sidewalk at their home. His wife drives for work, and although he often relies on the bus to get to his medical publishing job in Center City, his work can take him to New York and New Jersey, too.

“I let my wife have this right here,” he said, gesturing to the sidewalk. “I don’t want to have her driving around looking.”

The number of car owners, the trouble finding spots on South Philadelphia’s narrow streets, and residents’ irritability over anyone messing with their parking plays a role in the PPA’s reluctance to enforce outside restricted-parking areas. People have reacted with outrage over tickets left on cars parked in sidewalks or crosswalks, officials said.

“Generally, if we’re not asked to come and we’re not welcomed, we don’t come,” Petri said. “When we get asked, we come.”

Zuwiala-Rogers noted that Feet First Phillytook over #NotaSpotPhila because the woman who started it was receiving harassing messages from people furious that she had called them out on their parking.

Feet First Phillyhas met with First District officers but said little has come of those talks. Police respond to all complaints, Campione said, but that may be the most they will do.

“It’s not that we want to leave things unattended,” said Police Inspector Sekou Kinebrew, “but we do have an issue with violent crime, as well.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s sidewalks are so bad they violate federal law protecting people with disabilities, lawsuit contends

The PPA will expand patrols into new residential areas only if 60% of the residents on a block sign a petition to submit to City Council asking that all parked vehicles must display resident parking permits. Neighborhood revitalization that attracts outsiders and their cars can spur requests for restricted parking. City Council approved a new area of restricted parking in Kensington in 2019, along with adding restrictions in two other districts near Fairmount Park, the PPA reported.

One factor driving up the number of cars in the city is Philadelphians’ heavy reliance on the suburbs for jobs. About 41% of their commutes take them beyond city limits, where suburban sprawl blunts the effectiveness of public transportation. Meanwhile, Philadelphians living outside the reach of the city’s rail and trolley lines often opt to drive rather than take bus trips that can require one or more transfers.

“We’re going into more and more neighborhoods with the residential permit parking,” O’Connor said. She acknowledged the current rules and regulations may not be equipped to address the city’s growth. “I think the laws behind it will have to change with it.”

The Kenney administration has made street safety a policy priority, but amid concerns about Center City congestion, bike lane battles, and overwhelmed paving and street maintenance programs, tackling bad parking habits in neighborhoods may have to wait in line.

“We know we have to do better,” said Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokesperson for the administration. “The mayor has recommitted to this in his second-term priorities, putting clean and safe streets as one of five main areas of focus.”

Significantly increasing manned parking enforcement would require money. PPA officials discussed the possibility of raising the cost of residential parking permits for people who own two or three vehicles and adding enforcement cameras to SEPTA buses to capture the license plates of vehicles blocking transit routes. The first would require action by City Council; the second, new legislation from Harrisburg. And it’s a challenge to convince drivers illegal parking is hurting anyone.

“Even with cars parked here,” Alexander said of the sidewalk at his South Philly house, “it doesn’t interfere with anyone coming down the block.”

Feet First’s Zuwiala-Rogers countered with descriptions of parents having to weave into the street with strollers to get around cars blocking crosswalks.

“It’s a real safety issue, so it’s not OK to say it’s convenient for people, so let’s let it go,” he said. “It’s illegal.”