South Philadelphia residents and traffic-safety advocates pushed for years to get chaotic and dangerous Washington Avenue on the city’s radar for a redesign that would protect drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.
Finally, it worked.
After more than 5,600 residents weighed in last year on several proposed options, city transportation officials chose a plan to shrink the thoroughfare from five to three driving lanes, with parking lanes on both sides and bicycle lanes protected by the parked vehicles.
Work was scheduled to begin this month, coinciding with Washington Avenue’s first repaving since 2003, but now the city says that’s going to be delayed for at least a year. Neighbors who have campaigned for a safer avenue wonder what’s going on.
“We continue to punt,” said Dena Driscoll, a mother and member of the urbanist advocacy group 5th Square, who recalls attending meetings and discussions for six years about changes to Washington Avenue. “Every year we don’t fix it is another failure. Somebody is going to get killed.”
Between 2012 and 2018, Washington Avenue saw 254 reportable crashes and four fatalities, including two people who were killed while walking. It is on the high-injury road network in the city, the 12% of streets where 80% of crashes with deaths or serious injuries happen.
The project delay is due to the need for “review, coordination and contracting” of a number of construction and repair projects underway at the same time amid a backlog of work from last year’s COVID-19 shutdown, Mike Carroll, the city’s deputy managing director for transportation, said in a statement.
Repaving projects on Martin Luther King Drive, Spruce Street through University City and West Philly, and Main Street in Manayunk were deemed more “shovel ready” than Washington Avenue’s redo and were given priority for this construction season, Carroll said.
“We expect the package that includes Washington Avenue to be contracted this fall and … for paving to take place during 2022,” he said in the statement.
In the meantime, “the [Kenney] administration has continued our engagement with community stakeholders and elected officials to capture additional neighbor feedback as we refine our traffic safety concepts,” Carroll said.
Some advocates are concerned that could mean further delays or even changes to make the plan less ambitious. Opponents who might dislike, say, a loss of parking spaces or often-controversial bike lanes have extra time to weigh in, and members of City Council could intervene. It is unclear if aspects of the plan still need Council authorization.
There’s no indication yet that the city has moved off its commitment to putting Washington Avenue on a “road diet,” but activists say they have seen this movie before.
“I have no idea why the city isn’t moving,” said Randy LoBasso, policy director with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, among the groups pushing for a rework of the corridor. “It’s been surveyed to death. Thousands of people filled out surveys supporting this plan; it wasn’t even close. The city should be moving ahead with it.”
Under the plan, supported by more than 70% of respondents, motor vehicles would travel along one lane in each direction, there would be a center turning lane and space for “floating” bus islands where SEPTA passengers could board and disembark safely.
As it is now, some people treat Washington Avenue like a personal driveway, cars race along the crosstown route, and cyclists navigate uneven asphalt amid speeding cars where current bike-lane markings are faded. And then there are the double parking and impromptu truck loading zones.
“Everyone agrees Washington Avenue isn’t safe and you don’t feel good on it, but there also is a fear of change,” Driscoll said. Bike lanes, she noted, are almost always controversial and built after bitter fights. To some, they are harbingers of gentrification.
Meanwhile, “people still want to use the street as a freeway,” Driscoll said.