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West end of Washington Avenue will get some traffic calming measures after all, city says

It was another twist in the nine-year struggle over how to make Washington Avenue safer.

Neighborhood Activists gathered along Washington Avenue at 16th Street in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia to protest the possible safety overhaul of the street, which would have reduced the number of lanes.
Neighborhood Activists gathered along Washington Avenue at 16th Street in the Point Breeze section of Philadelphia to protest the possible safety overhaul of the street, which would have reduced the number of lanes.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

When opposition from Point Breeze neighborhood groups and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson stalled a comprehensive safety makeover for Washington Avenue, city officials split the difference: They’d repave the western portion but it would remain five lanes wide.

Other proposed traffic calming elements — including fewer lanes, shorter crossing distances for pedestrians, and protected bike lanes — would be installed only east of Broad Street.

But in a twist, the western stretch of the arterial road is now due to get speed cushions on two blocks and hardened centerlines at 12 intersections to limit dangerous left turns, Johnson announced Tuesday.

“I believe that Washington Avenue can and must be much safer, with the help of strategic investments,” said Johnson, whose district includes the western portion of the road. For months, he has argued that the road could be improved without sacrificing travel lanes and parking spaces neighbors and businesses in his district need.

The latest compromise came after nearly a decade of planning, community meetings, and negotiation. In 2020, the city said it would proceed with what it called the best option: narrowing Washington Avenue to three lanes and adding a panoply of other traffic calming designs along all 2.1 miles of the roadway from Fourth Street to Grays Ferry Avenue.

The city reversed course and reopened the process in the summer of 2021, disappointing traffic safety groups that had been pushing for a “complete streets” redesign of the avenue. It is on the list of 12% of city roads where 80% of the crashes involving injuries and fatalities happen.

“It will be good to have some traffic calming, but this still falls short of what Washington Avenue really needs, especially to protect its most vulnerable users, people who cycle and walk,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. The group was part of early talks with the city on a redesign of the avenue.

“It seems they’re taking steps toward what is possible, but it could still be much more,” she said.

The original proposal had sparked a backlash among some neighbors on the western side of the avenue who said their voices were not heard initially. They expressed concerns that traffic calming would only intensify gentrification of Point Breeze, where some longtime Black residents have been forced to move in recent years because of escalating home prices.

» READ MORE: How a redesign of Washington Avenue got detoured by a clash of competing needs

Johnson allocated $320,000 for the changes from a discretionary fund district Council members can use for improvements to city-owned assets, from streetscapes to facilities, spokesman Vincent Thompson said. The work is scheduled to be done by the end of the year as part of the road’s ongoing repaving project.

Initially, Mike Carroll, the city’s top transportation official, had said it wasn’t possible to take partial measures on the west side of the avenue because all of the elements of the safety makeover were designed to work in concert.

In an interview Wednesday, Carroll said the administration was always open to revisiting the issue, but would need to start from scratch because the lane configuration wasn’t changing on the west side of the road. “We wouldn’t be able to just kind of cut and paste ideas and improvements from the previous design and put them there,” he said.

By early September work on repaving and the safety measures east of Broad were progressing well enough that it seemed possible to design something for the western stretch, Carroll, the deputy managing director for transportation said.

We felt like we could put together a package of improvements that would that would make a difference to give people on the west side some relief, and and get it done,” Carroll said.

Coordinating with Johnson, who arranged funding, a scaled-down plan took shape within the past two weeks and Carroll began notifying neighborhood groups and other stakeholders.

Johnson and Carroll first touched base in the spring as the city budget was being prepared about safety improvements that could be done on western Washington Avenue, said Thompson, the Council member’s spokesman.

Johnson said he wants more school crossing guards, improved traffic signals and better lighting, among other changes. The Council member will continue requesting funding for more, Thompson said. “We’re going to keep at it,” he said.

Hardened centerlines are stiff reflectorized posts stuck in a base that is drilled into the pavement. They force cars to make slower and wider left turns.

They are due to be installed where Washington Avenue intersects with Grays Ferry Avenue, 25th Street,24th Street, 23rd Street, 22nd Street, 21st Street, 20th Street, 19th Street, 18th Street, 17th Street, 16th Street, and 15th Street.

Speed cushions built in traffic lanes force drivers to slow down; they also can be spaced to accommodate the wide wheelbases of emergency vehicles so they don’t need to slow. Cushions will be installed in the 1600-block of Washington Avenue, just east of Chadwick Street, and in the 1700 block of Washington, between Bouvier and Colorado Streets.

This story has been updated with fresh comments from the Kenney administration and to clarify the type of speed-control devices to be used on western Washington Avenue.