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The next dangerous roadway Philly redesigns needs to avoid the Washington Ave. missteps

City planners are redesigning Lehigh Avenue to make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists. They can do it better this time.

Because of the opioid crisis in Kensington, panhandlers frequently wade into traffic on Lehigh Avenue, especially in the area near the Market-Frankford El.
Because of the opioid crisis in Kensington, panhandlers frequently wade into traffic on Lehigh Avenue, especially in the area near the Market-Frankford El.Read moreInga Saffron

The Spanish-language Mass at the Visitation B.V.M. Church on Lehigh Avenue was due to let out on a recent Sunday morning, and the Vietnamese version was about to follow when a pack of motorists came racing past the brownstone sanctuary.

Lehigh makes a slight bend just east of the church, as the road approaches Kensington Avenue, and the traffic light isn’t easy to see. A nervous cyclist (that would be me) hewed farther to the right to avoid the speedsters, only to find the bike lane blocked by a car. As drivers continued across the intersection, a panhandler waded into the travel lanes, adding another obstacle to the already terrifying course.

This kind of traffic chaos isn’t unusual on Philadelphia’s wide, east-west boulevards, but it happened to be playing out just as city transportation engineers were preparing to announce a long-awaited safety plan for Washington Avenue, Lehigh Avenue’s South Philadelphia twin. The contentious design process took the better part of a decade and consumed enormous amounts of municipal energy, yet almost no one was happy with the result.

Now city planners and PennDot are beginning a similar exercise to improve Lehigh Avenue, with repaving expected to start later this year. What are the chances they can get things right this time?

Given the attention lavished on the South Philadelphia boulevard — along with the vast literature of Twitter outrage generated by the controversy — you could be forgiven for thinking that Washington Avenue is the most dangerous roadway in Philadelphia. Far from it. Twice as many people died in traffic crashes on Lehigh between 2014 and 2018. Spend a minute studying the city’s map of “high injury” streets, and you’ll see the death toll rises as you skip north, through some of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. Roosevelt Boulevard saw 62 fatal crashes in roughly the same five-year period, compared with four on Washington Avenue, and it remains the most deadly artery in the city.

Still, a dangerous road is a dangerous road, and many urbanists were furious when the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability announced it had modified the original Washington Avenue safety plan after some nearby residents complained they had been left out of the engagement process. The hard-core activists, who had attended dozens of planning meetings, filled out online surveys, and gone door-to-door with fliers, were appalled. How can you compromise on safety? they wondered.

The final version isn’t perfect. But neither is it the sellout that some have suggested. The new design, called a “road diet,” would narrow the road’s overall width considerably, and includes parking-protected bike lanes and traffic-calming features like speed bumps and rumble strips — measures that will make Washington Avenue not just a safer street but a more pleasant one to walk and cycle.

The real failure on Washington Avenue was a communications one. The long safety campaign was promoted by younger, more tech-savvy residents who tend to subscribe to newsletters from advocacy groups like the Bicycle Coalition and 5th Square. Because the city was late to reach out to people who weren’t part of those networks, less-online residents were suspicious of the changes when they finally heard about them. It didn’t help that the two groups were largely divided along racial lines. Many Black residents in the Point Breeze section were already feeling sidelined by the neighborhood’s rapid demographic changes, and the haphazard outreach for the Washington Avenue project made them feel only more marginalized.

The bigger problem with road projects like Washington Avenue is that they tend to be only about the road. But the strongest pushback came from residents who had other concerns, like gentrification and rising house prices, that they felt weren’t being addressed by the city. Because Washington Avenue is a dividing line between affluent neighborhoods of Greater Center City and mixed-income neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, the safety project became a stand-in for those other issues.

The economic and racial disparities between the two sides of Lehigh Avenue are even more extreme, and a similar clash could easily happen there if the city doesn’t broaden the discussion to address the larger issues. Lehigh forms the border between a cluster of thriving neighborhoods, including Fishtown and Olde Richmond, and Kensington, where the median household income is $30,000 and residents struggle to pay their rent. The first thing you see when you step onto the Kensington side of Lehigh Avenue is an encampment of active drug users. So, yes, crossing the five-lane speedway is harrowing, but for many residents, it’s the least of their problems.

“Our current residents are not begging for bike lanes. They’re begging to keep the damn SEPTA station open,” Bill McKinney, director of the New Kensington Community Development Corp. (NKCDC), told me when I stopped by his office just north of Lehigh Avenue.

McKinney was referring to SEPTA’s abrupt announcement last March that it was planning to close the Somerset stop on the Market-Frankford El because it had been overwhelmed by drug users. Although the transit agency reversed course and beefed up security and outreach, the experience left Kensington residents feeling like second-class citizens.

Despite the neighborhood’s rich industrial history and today’s diverse culture, McKinney complained that the city has intentionally concentrated homeless shelters and drug treatment facilities in Kensington. Last summer, the number of drug users living on the streets hit 800, a record, according to the nonprofit Impact Services. In addition to open-air drug use, neighborhood residents grapple with constant gunfire, which left 75 people dead in the Kensington police district last year — another record. Until the city began stationing rangers in the local parks last year, the drug trade had made those public spaces difficult to use. If the Kenney administration is serious about putting equity at the forefront of its planning, the Lehigh Avenue improvements will have to deal with more than just the road surface.

The conceptual work for Lehigh Avenue’s road diet is underway, and the three variations outlined by the city planning department are strongly reminiscent of the early visions for Washington Avenue. Looked at purely as a road project, the first draft offers many excellent ideas, including a proposal for a landscaped median to reduce the vastness of the 82-foot-wide avenue. Deputy Managing Director Mike Carroll, who leads OTIS, told me he was eager to “close the chapter” on Washington Avenue and focus on Lehigh, which is “screaming for attention.”

But OTIS’s specialty is traffic, not social problems. In December, McKinney sent a letter to the city planning department, asking the Kenney administration to expand the scope to address Kensington’s larger issues. Three months later, he has yet to receive a response, he said.

Unlike some of the Point Breeze skeptics, the NKCDC doesn’t have any philosophical opposition to bike lanes and other road changes. “We certainly agree with the principles that the streets should be made for humans instead of cars,” McKinney’s letter began. “Protected intersections, curb extensions, separated bicycle lanes, improved pave markers … will help make Kensington residents safer.”

But, as McKinney argued, it makes no sense to spend millions fixing Lehigh Avenue while there are still dozens of people living — and dying — on the sidewalks just 20 feet away. He also raised an issue that was part of the subtext of the Point Breeze debate: What’s the point of having a safer avenue if the current neighborhood residents get displaced and can’t enjoy the benefits? Over the last year, housing developers have pushed north into Kensington, and house prices have been rising.

To avoid the stalemate that plagued the Washington Avenue process, NKCDC and another neighborhood group, Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, decided to lay their cards on the table: Before settling on a new design for Lehigh Avenue, they want the city to take a holistic look at Kensington’s problems. Some requests are specific, like airtight guarantees that local residents will be hired to work on the road project. But they have also asked the city to “acknowledge … the decades of disinvestment” in Kensington caused by systemic racism.

Based on the city’s experience with Washington Avenue, good communications will be key. In hindsight, OTIS was probably too quick to identify a “preferred plan.”

When there are many stakeholders with different views, “you can’t tell people what’s good for them,” said Damon Rich, an urban design consultant who has led the painstaking process to redesign Mifflin Square in South Philadelphia. There’s no such thing as the “best option,” he added, only the best option that has been fairly negotiated. That requires holding lots of meetings where residents get to blue-sky their ideas. Because such meetings are educational, he suggested that OTIS can help win people over by showing them how road changes will function, perhaps by creating a temporary road diet with rain barrels and traffic cones.

Unfortunately, PennDot’s paving schedule is ahead of the city’s planning for Lehigh Avenue. Later this year, the state will start repaving the street from Ridge Avenue to Richmond Street. Because the city has not yet recommended specific changes, PennDot will simply replicate the current five-lane configuration. There has been talk of introducing parking-protected bike lanes in that repaving, but a city spokesperson could not confirm that they have been approved.

Once speedways like Lehigh Avenue were seen as a good thing. But over time, traffic engineers and the public have come to understand that slower roads are better roads. The same is true of the public process that creates them.