Every few weeks or so, it’s the same story: A beloved … teacher, child, parent, NBA player … is walking or biking on a Philadelphia street when a car, often speeding, slams into them. Often — like last week, with former longtime Masterman teacher and avid biker Kevin Saint Clair — the collision is tragically fatal. Sometimes, it’s a hit and run, like what apparently happened Saturday night when Sixers forward Kelly Oubre Jr. was injured while crossing a Center City street. (Details on that remain murky.)
These collisions are not a consequence of living in a city. They are the result of speeding, poorly-designed streets, an overabundance of cars and lackluster policymaking. Philadelphia has been a Vision Zero city for six years, a designation that prioritizes preserving human life by slowing down cars, adapting transportation and street design, and reforming the system rather than counting on better human behavior.
But Mayor Kenney’s Vision Zero plan has not worked. In fact, the problem has gotten even worse: As J.P. Romney reported in July with a city graphic to back him up, “On average, 60 more people are dying each year than in the years before we tried to fix things.”
An Inquirer editorial this week said even more:
The numbers on traffic safety in the city are grim. Philadelphia has twice as many traffic deaths per capita as compared with peer cities like New York and Boston. Each week, an average of five children are hit by a car while walking in our city. The driver who hit Oubre fled the scene, and hit-and-runs have become a regular occurrence. Last year, more than 30 people in our area lost their lives to hit-and-run drivers. Hundreds of others, like Oubre, were seriously injured. An NBC10 investigation put the number of annual hit-and-run collisions at over 10,000, a rate of roughly 40 per day. That’s just in Philadelphia.
There has been some progress on one of the city’s most dangerous roads, Roosevelt Boulevard, which now has speed cameras that reduced car crashes by 36 percent in the first two years of a pilot program. But we can, and should, do more.
Here are some ideas for making our streets safe for pedestrians, bikers and all of us:
Install pedestrian scrambles
Install so-called “pedestrian scrambles” or diagonal crossings, which use traffic lights to stop vehicle movement in all directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the street whichever way they choose. As soon as the light changes and pedestrians are off the road, traffic starts up again. Dozens of U.S. cities, including Chicago, Boston, Nashville and Pittsburgh have pedestrian scrambles, and as Courtney DuChene reported last year, studies have found that installing scrambles can lead to as much as a 50 percent reduction in pedestrian-vehicle conflicts.
Make small road changes
Adopt the small but meaningful road changes that have led Hoboken, NJ, to have zero pedestrian deaths in the last six years, like setting cones in high-risk intersections as makeshift roundabouts to force cars to slow down; corralling bike stands in areas protected by plastic barriers; making bike lanes everywhere in the city more visible by painting them green; adjusting traffic lights to give pedestrians more time to cross without cars turning; and creating “daylight” (ie visibility) between drivers and walkers, as with plastic delineator poles to prevent people from parking right up against the crosswalk.
Add speed cameras
Make speed cameras permanent, and put them on more roads. The Roosevelt Boulevard pilot is a great example of a simple solution to a deadly problem. City research found that 80 percent of traffic fatalities and serious injuries occur on just 12 percent of our roadways, including Roosevelt. The pilot has dramatically reduced those accidents — but it is still just a pilot, pending state approval (Roosevelt Boulevard, aka Rte 1, is a state road). Philadelphia State Rep. Ed Neilsen, chair of the House Transportation Committee, has proposed a bill that would extend the cameras indefinitely, and allow them on more roads in the city. Urge the legislature to pass it asap.
Use smart tech
Use smart technology smartly. SEPTA buses are now equipped with cameras that send the license plates of cars illegally parked in bus lanes to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which will mail tickets to the owners. Intended to decrease the wait time for buses, this also makes it safer to enter and exit buses and to cross the road. The City has also piloted the use of smart loading zones for deliveries in parts of Center City, though it has not yet announced if that was successful in cutting down on congestion or accidents.
End councilmanic prerogative
End councilmanic prerogative, the unofficial “policy” that allows City Councilmembers to rule their districts like mini-fiefdoms, with different rules for different parts of the city. Live in Councilmember Darrell Clarke’s 5th District? You have an elected official who believes Philadelphians “drive to the corner store” and that parking must be included with any new housing. Live on Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s side of Washington Avenue? Forget about implementing citizen- and transportation department-approved renovations that would have made it safer to cross, bike and walk along.
As Jon Geeting put it a couple years ago: “One of the iron laws of Philadelphia politics is that if you want to have less of something, put it under the control of the councilmanic prerogative system. Whether it’s housing, outdoor dining, bus lanes, bike lanes — you name it — once it’s under the sway of District Councilmembers, you are practically guaranteed to see less of that thing.”
Build 20-minute neighborhoods
Work diligently, collectively and determinedly towards building a 20-minute city in every neighborhood. Want to limit the number of drivers speeding towards jobs, appointments, shops and other services? Then ensure they have all of those within a 20-minute walk or public transit ride from their home. This idea — popularized in Paris and Portland — hearkens back to what cities used to be, and has benefits that go well beyond pedestrian safety: cleaner air, healthier and more equitable neighborhoods, vibrant local business communities.
In Paris, this idea has gone hand in hand with reducing the dependence on cars over the last three decades. Since the mid-90s, the amount of Parisian driving has gone down by about 45 percent, while Metro ridership has risen 30 percent, and biking has gone up tenfold. That is because of more than 400 miles of protected bike lanes; pedestrianized streets, including all the avenues along the Seine River in summer; and an ever-broadening subway system. As I wrote, shortly after returning from that frankly incomparable city a few years ago: Its current mayor, Anne Hidalgo, The Atlantic’s CityLab has noted, is responsible for “some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city.”
Lead on this
Which brings us to maybe the most important solution of all: Lead with intention. It was a good idea to become a Vision Zero city. But under Mayor Jim Kenney, that idea failed to make our roads actually safer, and save actual lives. With a new mayor taking office in January, we have another chance to do this right. As Dena Driscoll, Chair of Philly’s 5th Square PAC, told The Citizen’s J.P. Romney in July: “We have to decide what we want more. Do we want to reduce deaths? Do we want to make it easier for people to walk and bike safely? If we could muster the will, Vision Zero can work here, too.”
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