Philadelphia has become so shined up over the last decade, with glassy apartment towers and craft breweries sprouting well beyond Center City, that it is easy to assume this contented city has finally overcome its scratch-your-back ways and penchant for cash-stuffed envelopes. Then the FBI goes and charges Councilman Kenyatta Johnson with monetizing his office, and reality sets in. That brings the number of indicted city legislators to two, not enough for a quorum, but the most since the Abscam sting in the 1980s.
They say a fish rots from the head down. If you want to see firsthand how the culture of impunity extends down the municipal ladder, step out of the odorous confines of Council’s City Hall chambers and stroll over to the glorious Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Starting at 16th Street and moving west to Logan Square, the painted yellow median is regularly lined with parked cars, a significant number of them bearing municipal government markings.
You may recall from drivers ed that it’s illegal to park on those hatched yellow lines. But the same day that the feds were preparing Johnson’s paperwork, no less than six city cars were in the median and two more on the shoulder of the Logan Square traffic circle. Those last two were parked at the exact spot where motorists prepare to pick up speed for the straightaway to I-676. I had come to Logan Square to photograph Philadelphia’s majestic Roman Catholic cathedral for a different column, but the city employees’ cars ruined the view.
Philadelphia has a long history of strategically overlooking such infractions, particularly on the lower reaches of South Broad, where parking in the median is still seen as a cute feature of the local culture. Dipping into The Inquirer archive, I found that the celebrated columnist Steve Lopez (now at the Los Angeles Times) lobbed one of the first salvos against the practice in 1994 — long before we had a housing boom to blame for our parking difficulties. There was a brief hullabaloo over median parking on the Parkway after the new Barnes opened in 2012, and then it passed. Certain Philadelphia stories always seem to be on shuffle.
Three years ago, 5th Square, an advocacy group and PAC with an urbanist agenda, declared war on median parking. The group went to court to force the city to clear the center of Broad Street. But the lawsuit was quickly tossed out by the judge, who did that Philly shrug thing. His leniency seems to have served as a green light for aspiring scofflaws. The contagion has since spread from South Broad to Washington Avenue, from Spring Garden to North Broad and, now, to the city’s most Parisian of boulevards.
“Everyone is starting to do it,” Richard Montanez, the city’s deputy commissioner for transportation, conceded in an interview.
He and others at the Streets Department were quick to add that the city forbids median parking — by government employees and the public alike. In 2017, the managing director’s office issued guidelines for employees using city cars, stating that government vehicles “shall be parked legally at all times.” Warning memos have gone out several times since then, instructing employees not to leave their cars in the Parkway median, according to a city spokesperson.
But, apparently no one has followed up with actual enforcement. I asked Martin O’Rourke, the spokesman for the Philadelphia Parking Authority — an agency feared for its ruthless efficiency — why it doesn’t ticket motorists who park on the Parkway median. His answer coyly suggested the city didn’t want the PPA to get involved. “With limited enforcement resources, the PPA enforces in conjunction with the city’s priorities and at their direction,” O’Rourke wrote in an email.
The result is that city employees continue to enjoy convenient, free, and, of course, illegal parking on the Parkway median. Back in October, I snapped a few photos of the de facto municipal parking lot, filing them away for future use. A few days later, I noticed intensive median parking on North Broad, just south of Erie Avenue. I regularly see cars parked in Washington Avenue’s median, especially in front of Chick’s bar at 18th Street. Parking in the center of the street is clearly not just a quaint South Philadelphia custom.
To paraphrase Rep. Adam Schiff’s recent impeachment speech in the U.S. Senate: We know these things happen. But does breaking this law really matter?
I think it does. 5th Square found significantly more pedestrian deaths in areas where median parking was the norm. When I stood on North Broad that October afternoon, I saw people sprinting across that fast-moving roadway to collect their children at Shake, Rattle & Roll Learning Center. Some bolted in the other direction to grab a take-out pizza from the popular City View Grill. It’s always dangerous to cross Broad Street in the middle of the block. Darting out from between parked cars increases your odds of getting hit.
It takes an extra dose of chutzpah to break the law on the Parkway, since it’s within throwing distance of Philadelphia’s government center. (Then again, after this week’s indictment, maybe not.)
The disregard for the law reflects badly on the city in other ways. The Parkway is the city’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, a museum-and-park-lined boulevard that connects the Beaux-Arts palace of City Hall to the columned Greek temple of the Art Museum. It’s the city’s most inspiring vista, and a magnet for tourists who flock there in pursuit of the ultimate Instagram shot of Philadelphia. What they get now is a photo of a linear parking lot with gorgeous landscaping.
By the way, the Parkway is a designated heritage corridor overseen by the Department of Parks and Recreation. That didn’t stop two department employees from parking their cars there.
Maybe those city employees were just running into City Hall for a quick meeting. The problem is, once regular motorists see city cars in the median, they feel emboldened to park there, too. Why would you pay to park at a meter when you can park for nothing — with no risk of a ticket — in the median?
The parking free-for-all isn’t limited to the city’s median strips. A recent story by my colleague Jason Laughlin described how South Philadelphia’s sidewalks are now being pressed into service for parking, with almost no enforcement by the PPA. Rather than bother to protect the public, they have become enablers for lazy motorists. Pedestrians, particularly those with disabilities and limited vision, are left on their own to navigate these perilous obstacle courses.
The reasons for the hands-off treatment of illegal parking is no mystery: Parking is the third rail of Philadelphia politics.
Of course, there are known policy solutions that could help manage the problem. Philadelphia could expand its permit parking program and use airline-style pricing to discourage people from warehousing their cars on city streets. That would free up legal spaces for people who can’t get by without a personal car.
Instead, City Hall continues to wink at the lawbreaking. If officials won’t grapple with common, everyday wrongdoing, is it any wonder that old-style municipal corruption may still exist at the highest levels of Philadelphia government?