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South Philly neighbors are fighting over parking, and the China trade war is to blame

Plastics, aluminum, and steel products have been in short supply because of the trade war with China. As a result, safety features are missing on 11th Street, which was redesigned so pedestrians, cyclists, and cars could coexist.

People are parking in no parking zones on 11th and Carpenter Streets in Philadelphia, hurting visibility at intersections and increasing the risk of accidents.
People are parking in no parking zones on 11th and Carpenter Streets in Philadelphia, hurting visibility at intersections and increasing the risk of accidents.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Before sunrise, Alvaro Drake-Cortes is awake and on the street, pursuing his private war against parking restrictions in South Philadelphia.

He’s out sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m. to remove metal fencing the city has installed on nine blocks of 11th Street to keep vehicles out of no-parking zones created to make the recently repaved, repainted road safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

“I was like, I don’t see the logic behind them," Cortes said. "It’s not right.”

So he started disassembling the fences. Sometimes he stows them down a side street off 11th, to make it harder for city workers to find them.

Kate Mundie, meanwhile, a bicyclist with two young children who lives near 11th, is passionate about keeping the fencing in place to protect riders on the new 11th Street bike lanes.

“If someone was biking and was not experienced with that kind of thing, they could be really hurt,” she said.

A guerrilla war over the metal fencing on 11th has broken out, with neighbors taking sides for and against, and it’s all because of the U.S. trade war with China.

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The 11th Street no-parking zones were supposed to be protected by 250 plastic delineator posts installed at intersections from Bainbridge to Reed Streets. But the raw material used to manufacture the posts comes from China, and tariffs on those imports have increased the delineators’ price by about 25%. In May, the city told its supplier, Garden State Highway Products, the price was too high. In response, Garden State withdrew from the contract.

Now city officials are scrambling to find cheaper delineators and hope to have them in place by year’s end.

That project isn’t the only one slowed by tariffs, said Richard Montanez, deputy streets commissioner. Aluminum, steel, and LED light components are all imported and getting pricier, leaving the city short of items like new street signs and behind on its plans to replace all city street lights with LEDs.

“Not being able to get material?” Montanez said. “It’s pretty big.”

The city has a new metal products supplier, Montanez said, but has had to decide which signs were more important. A stop sign has a higher priority, for example, than a no-parking sign.

The newly repaved, repainted stretch of 11th Street was supposed to represent the best of modern street design in Philadelphia. The project was featured in a recent report on the city’s safe streets initiative, Vision Zero, as an example of a street where buses, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists could coexist more safely.

“It’s a really wide street, so people felt like they could drive fast,” Mundie said. “There’s a lot of cars and trucks that would pull over into loading zones. We had cars, buses, bikes, all competing for that same space.”

The work, done from July through September, included covering unused trolley tracks, narrowing the crossing distance for pedestrians at intersections, and adding loading zones. It also shifted the bike lanes on the west side of the road behind the parked cars. This pushed vehicles, which back in at an angle, farther from the curb. That created a need for larger no-parking zones at intersections to ensure the parked cars didn’t block the views of drivers and cyclists making turns. The expanded no-parking zones took 18 to 24 parking spots along the nine-block stretch, city officials said.

Eventually, the city hopes to redesign the street again with curb bump-outs and no-parking zones elevated to be contiguous with the sidewalk. Until the city has the funding to reengineer the street, the flexible delineator posts were seen as a good alternative.

“Flex posts aren’t the forever solution for anything," said Kelley Yemen, the city’s Complete Streets director, “but they are the quick solution to make things better in the near term while we work.”

Plastic bumpers also were to be put in place along the bike lane to ensure the angle-parked cars didn’t intrude into cyclists’ path.

The difficulty getting the posts began in May, about two months before work on 11th Street was supposed to begin. Garden State Highway Projects, which had a three-year contract to provide streets equipment, informed the city that the posts would begin costing about $30 a piece, said Robert Green, the Millville company’s co-owner.

“We had no choice,” he said. “If we kept on supplying those orders, we would have been bankrupt in the next six months.”

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Municipalities knew as early as 2018 that tariffs, which have raised duties on billions of dollars of both nations’ goods, were increasing the cost of plastics, and many cities, including Philadelphia, rushed to file massive orders before the price went up. The order Philadelphia ultimately refused to pay would have cost the city about $40,000, Green said, which would have paid for roughly 1,333 posts.

Garden State depends on sales of plastic, aluminum, and steel products, Green said, and the tariffs have put unprecedented pressures on his business.

“Thirty-three years,” he said, “we have never experienced anything like this ever.”

Right now, the only thing marking areas of 11th as off-limits to parked cars are painted stripes. When the fencing is absent, the stripes are mostly ignored. Mundie recently captured on video a car skidding to a stop at Carpenter Street as it made a left turn, apparently to avoid something the driver couldn’t see.

One obvious solution? Have the Philadelphia Parking Authority ticket illegally parked cars. There are signs marking no-parking and loading areas north of Washington Avenue, Yemen said, but not along 11th because the city doesn’t have enough signs.

No signs, Yemen said, no enforcement.

The sign-making shop is “hard at work,” Yemen said, but the threat of winter approaching could delay that work until next year if it isn’t done soon.

Mundie suggested using heavy concrete Jersey barriers instead of the fencing, but Yemen said those could cause other problems.

“We don’t want to put anything in the roadway that will create its own visibility or crash risks,” she said.

So far, the incomplete street project hasn’t caused anything more serious than frustration. The Philadelphia Police Department reported just one car crash on the recently repaved section of 11th Street this month, well below the average for that area.

But bike advocates fear that the more time passes without proper enforcement of the parking rules, the harder it will be to get people to follow the new regulations down the line.

“A big issue here is the longer this goes on without it being completed,” said Randy LoBasso, a spokesperson for the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, “the longer the frustrations between road users using that street goes on.”