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South Philly’s Washington Avenue gets city approval for major transformation beginning in summer 2021

“As a city that is committed to Vision Zero, this is a really important step towards improving traffic safety for Philadelphia.”

A couple cross the street at the busy intersection of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue.
A couple cross the street at the busy intersection of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Sweeping safety changes to improve chaotic Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia are on the way after a stamp of approval from city officials.

A redesign upgrading the dangerous corridor’s layout to three driving lanes, two parking lanes, and two parking-protected bike lanes has already gained favor among residents. Now it’s the city’s official plan to make Washington Avenue safer for pedestrians, bikers, and drivers, the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability (oTIS) announced Monday. Construction is expected to begin next summer.

The layout was one of three redesign proposals the city sought feedback on ahead of next year’s repaving and improvement project between Fourth Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. Of those presented during the outreach efforts earlier this year, the three-lane choice was “kind of the biggest change from what’s there today,” Lily Reynolds, the city’s deputy director of Complete Streets, previously told The Inquirer. Philadelphia’s Complete Streets policy, introduced in 2009, ensures street projects are safely accommodating all modes of transportation.

Washington Avenue, last fully repaved nearly two decades ago, is ripe for change. It has five driving lanes, two parking lanes, and two bike lanes and plenty of problems. Drivers race up to its many red lights while navigating double-parked cars and potholes. Cyclists do the same, forcing them out of the bike lane and into the flow of cars and trucks.

“As a city that is committed to Vision Zero, this is a really important step towards improving traffic safety for Philadelphia,” Reynolds said. “We know that people have lost their lives, or victims' families have lost loved ones, and that continues to be something that we know we can prevent from happening by designing safer streets.”

Between 2012 and 2018, there were more than 250 crashes and four fatalities along Washington Avenue, according to oTIS. Philadelphia has a goal of zero traffic deaths by 2030 through Vision Zero, its safe streets initiative.

Thousands weighed in on the redesign proposals, with responses collected through a survey, phone, and email. Results were revealed in July, finding that a vast majority of respondents preferred the three-lane layout.

A four-lane and mixed-lane layout option were also under consideration. All proposals would adopt parking-protected bike lanes, and prioritized creating space for cyclists and pedestrians. The three-lane option “accomplishes that the most,” Reynolds said.

The results of the survey weren’t “a vote,” Reynolds said at the time, but “one piece of information that the city’s using to help inform [its] decision-making process.”

Retimed signals will better manage traffic flow while new loading spaces are expected to remedy double-parking problems. A change in parking regulations would mean fewer cars taking up the same spots for hours. The plan also benefits SEPTA’s Route 64 bus riders by incorporating “floating bus islands," or a designated area to safely board and exit buses, at each stop.

But, it will take longer to drive along the corridor during rush hours — about 15 seconds per block — and could cause more drivers to travel up and down neighboring streets during those times, according to the office.

The city’s next step is to create a final engineering plan for the Streets Department. The proposed parking and loading changes will also require support and legislation from City Council. The project is part of a paving package budgeted at $15.8 million in federal funds.

The city will continue to keep in touch with neighborhood residents and businesses as it plans upcoming stages, Reynolds said.

“With the current economic climate,” Reynolds said, “we really want this to be as clear, up front, and as light of an impact of a construction project as it can be.”