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New York joins growing roster of cities that ban cars on crucial transit streets. Why not Philadelphia? | Inga Saffron

Still struggling with the myths surrounding the failed Chestnut Street Transitway, Philadelphia has been cautious about introducing changes to speed up its buses. But times are changing.

A sign on the new 14th Street transitway warns motorists that through-traffic is not allowed.
A sign on the new 14th Street transitway warns motorists that through-traffic is not allowed.Read moreInga Saffron / Staff

NEW YORK — It is an article of faith among hardened New Yorkers that traveling by bus in Manhattan is never easy, but that going from one side of the island to the other is an ordeal of a different magnitude. The only way to get crosstown, the saying goes, is to be born there.

Jokes aside, the journey across Manhattan has only become more excruciating as riding-hailing services and delivery trucks have turned crosstown arteries into de facto parking lots. If your bus didn’t get trapped in a gauntlet of triple-parked vehicles, it would be blocked at intersections by the tidal flows of pedestrians. The two-mile trip across 14th Street, the longest and slowest of the crosstown bus routes, could easily consume an hour of your day. Ridership plummeted because it was faster to walk.

As a Philadelphian, I can sympathize because the exact situation exists here on Chestnut Street and many other bus routes that pass through Center City.

So, it was a revelation last week to stand on 14th Street and watch a relay of blue buses gliding effortlessly along the four-lane street, stopping only to collect and deposit passengers. They were liberated from the logjams three weeks ago after New York banned through traffic between Third and Ninth Avenues. Since then, travel times on that one-mile stretch — dubbed the 14th Street Busway — have dropped dramatically, from an average of 20 minutes to 15, according to Eric Beaton, deputy commissioner for Transportation Planning and Management. Buses are moving so fast, one driver confided, many are running ahead of their schedules.

For those who believe that the world will spin off its axis if cars are banned from city streets, stay calm. New York’s new busway doesn’t completely outlaw other vehicles. Trucks are still permitted onto 14th Street for deliveries, and cars can enter to drop off and pick up passengers. They just can’t use 14th Street to go crosstown between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. After completing their business, those vehicles must immediately leave by making the first available right turn. Bikes and scooters are welcome anytime.

Seeing all that free space on the normally congested thoroughfare has delighted New Yorkers, who have been dashing into the street for selfies. “I have never seen buses come one after another like this,” said Annette Chin, an Upper East Side resident. She was taking a crosstown bus for the first time in years to see if the busway was as fast as she heard. “The bus is actually moving,” she marveled.

It didn’t take much to create the corridor, just some red paint to mark the bus-only lanes. But even in transit-centric New York, the hardest part was challenging the idea that cars had primacy on 14th Street. Neighbors filed lawsuits, complaining that their residential streets would be inundated with traffic. Courts issued injunctions, delaying the busway for months. Yet the opening has been virtually glitch-free, with no evidence so far of additional traffic on the side streets, Beaton said.

New York has been a leader in rethinking the way street space is allocated among motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists. It was the first American city to take excess street capacity and turn it into pedestrian plazas, something now embraced around the country. Busways are the next step in rebalancing the relationship between cars and transit.

In fact, bus-only corridors have been around for a while. Denver, Minneapolis, and Charlottesville, Va., have run shopping-oriented busways for years. So has New York, incidentally. Brooklyn’s Fulton Street Mall has been off-limits to through traffic since the ‘70s. And last week, San Francisco stole some of New York’s thunder when its transit agency voted to ban personal vehicles on Market Street, the main downtown thoroughfare, by 2025. So, when is Philadelphia going to get on the busway bandwagon?

Philadelphia was actually an early adopter but gave up the amenity prematurely. In 1975, the city opened the Chestnut Street Transitway, which ran from Sixth to 18th Street, following rules similar to New York’s 14th Street Busway. Unfortunately, the Transitway’s life span coincided with the worst years in Philadelphia’s history, when the city was hemorrhaging population and jobs. Somehow, the bus corridor got blamed for exacerbating those problems.

The Transitway, which was gradually downgraded over the years and finally eliminated in 2000, has never been able to shake the narrative that it killed retail on Chestnut Street — never mind that every downtown in America was losing stores to suburban malls in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “It’s odd that people remember it as a failure,” observed Erick Guerra, a transportation expert who teaches at Penn. “Locust Walk was created in the same period, and it’s considered a success story.”

But because the myth persists, there is little political will here for creating new busways. New York’s experiment could help change that.

Certainly, the need for better bus service has never been more urgent. Like other transit agencies, SEPTA has been struggling to maintain ridership in the face of mounting congestion. The people who suffer most are low-wage workers who commute from outlying neighborhoods to jobs in Center City and University City. Many can’t afford cars, which are better able to avoid congestion. “It’s become a big equity issue,” said Erik Johanson, SEPTA’s director of innovation.

While no one in Philadelphia wants to say the word busway, SEPTA and the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability have begun to nibble around the edges of the idea.

Last month, the city introduced dedicated loading zones on every block of Chestnut Street. They’re on the north side of the street, so they don’t interfere with what are, technically, the official bus lanes on the south side. At the same time, the city has beefed up police enforcement of cars idling in the bus lane. Together, those measures have reduced travel times for Chestnut Street buses over the last year by 2.5 minutes, between the Schuylkill and Delaware, Johanson said.

The secret to making the 14th Street corridor work is a combination of police and camera enforcement. Bus-mounted cameras capture the license numbers of motorists who violate the rules. The tapes are then reviewed by police monitors. If they determine there are no extenuating circumstances — such as a passing ambulance — they mail out $250 citations. In the last three weeks, 1,500 citations have gone out.

The Kenney administration has asked City Council to approve a similar system, one that would raise fines from $125 to $200, said Chris Puchalsky, director of transportation policy. Even though dedicated bus lanes exist on both Chestnut and Market Street, they are nearly useless because so many motorists ignore them.

Stiffer fines would be great, but other measures could help speed up buses on those streets without using the dreaded busways word. Philadelphia is one of the last cities where buses stop at every corner. Reducing the number of stops has been a taboo topic, but it would make a huge difference in travel times on Chestnut Street. So would eliminating right turns by cars. Because so many pedestrians cross on the numbered streets, buses are often held up for two or three signal changes while motorists wait to turn.

In New York, you still hear concerns that the new busway could hurt retail on 14th Street. While it’s too early to gauge the impact, it’s worth noting that the street’s merchants were suffering long before the busway was introduced. Once a place to go for tube socks and T-shirts, it was lined with discount stores. But as the street has been subsumed by the affluent neighborhood of Greenwich Village, those stores have disappeared. “Nobody who lives in a $3,000-a-month apartment wants to shop in my store,” complained Fuad Diab, who owns E & L Sportswear, a discount store.

Interestingly, the biggest stretch of vacancies is west of Ninth Avenue in the trendy, former Meatpacking District, where cars and parking are still allowed. The liveliest sidewalks I saw were in the heart of the busway, across from Union Square.

One of the last people I met on 14th Street was Chris Dalpiaz, a New Yorker who owns John and Kira’s Chocolates in Philadelphia’s Feltonville neighborhood. He had been a vocal opponent of the busway but has taken to the situation and was ferrying his daughter Catherine down the middle of the street in a cargo bike. “We all complained about this, but it’s not as bad as I expected,” he said. “The street was a horrible mess before. This might turn out to be a good idea after all.”