Thursday, October 12, 2017

Running of the Bulls on Lombard Street


Lombard Street in the morning.
A few days ago a stop sign appeared on Lombard Street at Taney, which is a little street sitting between 26th and 27th, not far from the South Street bridge in Philadelphia. Until that point there had only been a stop sign for the drivers on Taney; the drivers coming down Lombard had no traffic controls between the stoplight at 26th and the stoplight at the bridge.

Everyone I've talked to thinks the addition of a stop sign at this intersection is a very good thing. Some would have preferred a stoplight, but they're pleased that at least something was done to calm the traffic here.

Happy ending to the story? Not quite. It turns out that there was a second part to the plan. Shortly after the stop sign went in at Taney, the traffic lights at 24th, 25th, and 26th went to blinking red. People initially assumed, and some still believe, that the lights were simply broken. No, it's all part of the plan. After a period of time on blinking red, the Streets Department intends to remove the traffic lights at these intersections and replace them with stop signs.

There have been several occasions during this year's saga on Lombard that I have had difficulty processing information. Why would you remove those traffic lights? Lombard Street is an access route for the Schuylkill Expressway, and it is well known for its unruly traffic.

Do Streets and Complete Streets Talk?
For months the City's Complete Streets office has been working on a redesign for this stretch of Lombard, for the bit of 27th Street that runs up from Lombard to the South Street bridge, and for South Street where it comes off the bridge and heads east.

The recent initiative adding stop signs and removing traffic lights from Lombard seems completely disconnected from the Complete Streets proposals.

There was a meeting back in July where the Complete Streets concept was presented to the community. I thought the meeting went well, and that there was a vigorous and thoughtful discussion of the issues. However, there was strong opposition from some near neighbors on Lombard to the idea of adding flex posts to protect the bike lane. Shortly after the meeting Councilman Kenyatta Johnson announced that he could not support the proposed changes because of the objections of the near neighbors. This of course does beg the question of the many parts of the plan that the near neighbors did not object to.

The Bicycle Coalition restarted the negotiation with a letter that focused on areas of presumed agreement, including the construction of raised crosswalks (a proven traffic calming device) and also the addition of loading zones to the parking lane. The loading zones in the parking lane are crucial because the bike lane won't work properly without them.

Meanwhile, Back on Lombard Street
There is a school at 25th and Lombard. The Philadelphia School has 478 students, ranging from pre-K to 8th grade, and buildings located both north and south of Lombard. The morning dropoff is a particularly busy time, with children and their parents arriving by foot, by car, by school bus, by SEPTA bus, by bicycle, and by scooter. Quite a few parents bring their children on cargo bikes.

However, children also cross Lombard throughout the day as they move from building to building for various activities and go to the nearby park for recess.

And, at the end of the day, there is dismissal, followed by after-school activities. This is a very active site all day long.

Did the planners take the school into consideration when they decided to remove the traffic lights, or was it all about cars and designing an optimal flow for motor vehicles while excluding consideration of all other users of the space? Perhaps one day we will know the answer to this question, but for now we do not.

Meanwhile, the traffic light at 25th has been replaced by TPS staff, who direct traffic and wave the handheld stop sign. So people who have other things to do are replacing a machine that should not have been removed from service.

Needless to say, the school and its staff consider the safety of the children to be a fundamental goal, and they will do what needs to be done. But shouldn't the City be trying to make their job easier rather than harder?

See also Is It a Curve or Is It a Turn? and Morning on Lombard Street.

Monday, October 2, 2017

At Least It Makes People Laugh

Philadelphia Parking Policy


Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.

I was at a meeting of the Asbury Park parking committee, and I found myself telling the story of Philly's ill-fated excursion into electric car parking. Briefly, the City offered to rent electric car owners the parking spot in front of their house, as a charging station. The car owner was responsible for installing the charging equipment. Apparently it never occurred to anybody involved in the decision-making that people might see this as an opportunity to get an exclusive parking spot at the curb in front of their home.

(I remember talking with a garage manager a while back, when I was inventorying the parking spaces in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse area, where I live. After we got through the basic information on the garage - capacity, price - we chatted a bit, and he almost immediately volunteered that he wanted to buy an electric car and park it in front of his home in South Philly. His very own spot. Nobody else would be allowed to use it. He was just waiting for the price of electric cars to come down. As George Washington Plunkitt said, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.")

At any rate, the predictable happened in Philly, with electric car owners regularly calling the City when someone else parked in the spot, and many other residents expressing concern over the loss of a precious curbside spot; some questioned the wisdom of what might be seen as a government sanctioned conversion of public space into private property.

After a few more than 60 of these spots had been installed, mostly in wealthy neighborhoods in the older parts of Center City, where streets are narrow and on-street parking is perennially tight, City Council declared a moratorium on new spots. And now it is mulling its options. Rip out the existing spots? Grandfather them? Is there a more appropriate way to provide for charging stations, perhaps in large off-street garages?

This is what happens when you act without planning.

Anyway, my friendly and attentive audience at the Asbury Park parking committee listened to the story. And then they laughed. That's right. Philadelphia parking policy is a laughing-stock in Asbury Park.

And why not? It is such a shambles.

The Broad Street Median 
Here's another example - this one is pretty famous. In South Philly people park cars in the median strip of Broad Street. They have been doing this basically since there were cars. In addition to being unsafe, this practice is illegal under state law. And frankly the number of spots - about 200 - borders on the trivial.

But it's a grand tradition, and many long-term residents are as in love with median parking on Broad Street as they are with the (well-cleansed) memory of a former mayor named Saint Frank Rizzo.

The result: As did Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, City Hall turns a blind eye on the Broad Street median.

A local civic group brought a lawsuit seeking to have the law enforced, but the suit was dismissed.

It's true that the cars of South Philly don't fit on the streets of South Philly. The solution (or at least part of the solution) is to build some large garages and let those who are willing to pay take their cars off the street. I've previously mentioned that the site of the old Moyamensing prison at 11th and Reed, currently host to an Acme grocery store and a large, suburban-style parking lot, could be redeveloped to include a large, multi-story parking structure. Another site for a garage as part of a redevelopment would be Broad and Washington.

Actually planning for parking, however, is hardly ever a part of Philadelphia's discourse on parking. The City seems to view parking management as a cash register and source of patronage jobs, and most citizens, while bemoaning the terrible state of parking, are strongly resistant to any changes in the status quo.

MeterUP
Next let's have a look at the meterUP mobile parking app, a good idea that collapsed because of elementary errors in planning. Being able to pay for your parking space with your smart phone is a very attractive idea. Pango, the vendor, had former Governor Ed Rendell on its board. And it was the low bidder. The program had a lovely launch - I still have the t-shirt - and had 20,000 active users when it collapsed in April of this year. Cause of death? "Financial problems." Possibly caused by not charging enough money.

We're now hearing that meterUP is coming back with the same name but a new vendor, possibly before the end of the year.

Asbury Park: Things Are Different
Meanwhile, Asbury Park has had a successful parking app for some time. This year we found a new vendor who had, in our opinion, a better mousetrap, and so we switched vendors, with no gap in service, and usage then increased substantially. That's how grown-ups do it.

I got started on the Asbury Park parking committee about two years ago, after my wife and I bought a small condo apartment and started spending quite a bit of time at the beach. At my very first meeting I was pleasantly surprised that people were talking about the importance of access and an 85 percent maximum occupancy rate. It put me in mind of a graduate seminar on parking policy.

And it's not all talk. Asbury Park has dynamic pricing. The system is not as sophisticated as the one in San Francisco, but the price at the meter does go up and down according to location, time of year, day of the week, and time of day. In Philly curbside parking rates vary by geographic location only.

A Small City
Asbury Park is a small city - about 16,000 year-round residents (the ones the Census counts - I'm in Asbury a lot, but the Census counts me in Philly). Its main calling card is its beach and related boardwalk, but it is also known for music and restaurants, among other things. (I can't resist mentioning the Zombie Walk - October 7 this year.)

There are two main areas for paid parking: the blocks along the beachfront, and the commercial corridor along Cookman Avenue, which extends westward from the beach along the southern border of the city and ends near the train station.

A lot of people live on these blocks, so the City has the delicate task of balancing the needs of residents and visitors. Residents of the metered areas can purchase a resident parking permit. There are several permit zones and, as in Philadelphia, your permit is only good in your home zone.

In much of the city, curbside occupancy rates tend to be low, and the parking is free. As parking guru Donald Shoup puts it, if you don't have an access problem, you don't need meters.

The Five-to-Eight Zone
A problem arose near the beachfront. Parking is paid on the first two blocks west of the boardwalk - the 100 and 200 blocks. Residents of the third block in - the 300 block - were experiencing increasing difficulty finding convenient parking spots when they returned home from work or some other trip. The problem was worse in the summer, and especially on weekends. Parking on most 300 blocks was free, and the city was not ready to switch it to paid parking, so we came up with what we called the five-to-eight zone.

On selected blocks, one side of the street was placarded for resident-only parking between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. Residents of the 300 zone who purchased a permit had exclusive access to these spots at night. During the day, anybody could park there.

Why not make the spots exclusive both day and night? Our concern was that many residents would be away during the day, leaving many empty spots very close to the beach, and we wondered what beach visitors would think about not being allowed to park in those spots. On the other hand, we thought it reasonable to ask visitors, if they wished to stay after 5 p.m., perhaps to have dinner or go to a show at the Stone Pony or the Wonder Bar, to move their cars into the paid zone, where there would be spots for them.

The zone has worked pretty well. Resident complaints are down, at least on this topic, and visitors have not made a stink. Plans currently call for the metered area along the beach to expand into more of the 300 zone, at which point the overnight spots may go away. But it's been an interesting experiment.

Why Things Are Different
In Asbury Park, parking management is smart, well-informed, and nimble. Why are things in Philadelphia so different? I think the answer is simple: the mayor and the city council. In Asbury Park the city's leaders understand that access comes first, and then the money will come after (call it doing well by doing good). In Philly, as far as I can tell, everything starts and stops with the money.

How do we get Philly to do better? I don't know.

Sunset Lake, Asbury Park.
See also Parking Permits and Musical ChairsThe Pavements of Asbury Park, The Supreme Court and Parking, What Streets Can Learn From Boardwalks.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Finding Our Way to a Parking Policy

Boardwalk, Ocean Grove.
I prepared this crib sheet for a meeting on parking in Philadelphia. I thought I would share it here. - wkw

PARKING PRIMER

2 Books

- Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (2011).

Shoup, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from Yale, has a very simple idea. He wants to replace our current, largely administrative, parking system with a market. The price of a parking spot will go up or down depending on demand for the spot. This is called "dynamic pricing."

The goal will be to maintain a peak occupancy rate of 85%, so people will be able to find a parking spot when they want one. The buzz word here is "access."

- Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic (2008).

Professor Norton looks at the question of why we have so many cars in our cities. It turns out that key decisions were made in the 1920s to build a monomodal ground transportation system focused on the private car, rather than a multimodal system that employed different types of vehicles as appropriate. Basic shortcomings of over-concentration on cars - such as congestion and crashes - were well known at the time and continue to be intractable.


3 Kinds of Parking

- At the curb. Cars are big and parking them on the street quickly swamps the street. Large garages are more efficient and effective.

Example: All the cars parked between Broad Street and the Schuylkill River on Spruce (11 blocks, 186 spots) and Pine (13 blocks, 215 spots) would fit comfortably in the nearby garage at 17th and South (546 spots).

- Large garages. Many urbanists don't like large garages because their blank walls are "street killers." Maybe they shouldn't have blank walls.

- Small garages. The classic example is the garage placed in a rowhouse where the living room should be. If the required curb cut eliminates a parking space, there is no net gain in parking spaces.

Some argue that there is a decline in net parking space, because the in-house garage is likely empty much of the time as the car gets used. An empty space at the curb or in a large garage can be occupied by another car.

Parking minimums for residential construction, in addition to being spatially inefficient, also drive up the cost of construction and make it that much harder for regular people to afford city living.


Shoup's 3 Recommendations

- Set the right price for curb parking. Numerous communities, most notably San Francisco, have successfully adopted dynamic pricing.

- Return parking revenue to pay for local public services. Shoup points to Old Pasadena: "Spending more than $1 million a year of meter money on new public services helped convert what had been a commercial skid row into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southern California." (Shoup, p. xxviii.)

- Remove minimum parking requirements. "Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920s, minimum parking requirements do more harm than good and should be repealed." (P. xxxi.)

See also Measuring the Health of a Parking System and The Supreme Court and Parking.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Is It a Curve or Is It a Turn?

Making the turn, child in tow.
I've been looking at the intersection of 27th Street and Lombard Street in Philadelphia. It's a key part of the westbound access to the South Street bridge. The one thing I know for sure is that it is not an intersection. There is no westward extension of Lombard, past the intersection; and there is no 27th Street north of the intersection. 27th here is a one-block stub leading south to the bridge. There's another one-block stub of 27th just the other side of South, which feeds cars onto the bridge from Schuylkill Avenue.

Lombard and 27th are effectively one street that bends awkwardly at approximately 90 degrees, at the point where the nomenclature changes.

So this 90 degree thingy, is it a curve, or is it a turn? The people who designed and built this little stretch of road seem to have been genuinely conflicted by this question.

Lombard and 27th Street come together.
Here's another way of expressing the dilemma: Is it a city street, or is it an access ramp to the bridge and the Schuylkill Expressway, aka I-76?

Points in favor of ramp. There's no traffic light at Taney, the cross street just before 27th. (I think the ramp vibe starts at Taney.) There is also no traffic light at 27th, where there is, admittedly, no cross traffic. But the lack of a signal at these locations is a signal.

As you come to the turn, you'll notice the designers have gone to considerable effort to at least make it look like it's not a full 90 degree turn. The road widens substantially at the corner and the curbs don't form right angles, but instead present gentle, wide curves. On the inner side of the turn, this effect is enhanced by the judicious use of paint. All this encourages people to act as if they're swinging along on an interstate access ramp.

Finally, there are no crosswalks at Lombard and 27th. I personally think you'd have to be insane to try to walk across the street here, crosswalks or no crosswalks. But it's another little clue that this is not a city street.

(There are no crosswalks across Lombard at Taney either. People do walk across the street in this area with some regularity. Remember, there are lots and lots of people walking on the bridge, and they have to get there somehow.)

Points against ramp. If the turn at Lombard and 27th actually was an interstate access ramp, the curve would be banked.  A banked roadway makes it easier for cars to turn; it also means that all drainage goes to the low side of the bank, which in this case would be the left side of the road.

Instead, the street at this point has a crown in the middle and drains to both sides. This means that people on the right side of the road are turning on a surface that has reverse camber.  The problem with reverse camber in a turn is that it tends to throw you off the road. Which is why curves are generally banked.

Not surprisingly motorists tend to steer through this area slightly to the left of the crown, where the camber helps them turn. When they do this they need to avoid a large storm drain located in a depression in the pavement. They can do this by going to the right of the storm drain, or by straddling it. You don't want to put a wheel in that depression.

A storm drain for the motorists.
My friend Bill Marston thinks the drain probably started life next to the curb, but then the curb moved several feet closer to the building. If we accept this line of thinking, the streets engineers wasted their time moving the curb, because the bulk of the traffic is going to the right of the drain, and the motorists who are straddling could easily move to the right. So you have the appearance of a wider street, but not the reality. (The gap between the curb and the grate is 6' 6". I measured it.)

What's going on? I think the cartway's profile here is driven less by the needs of drivers and more by some thorny issues of drainage. The intersection of 27th and Lombard is at the bottom of two hills, one running down Lombard and the other coming down 27th from the bridge. When it rains, this intersection is definitely collecting storm water from a pretty wide area.

In addition to watching motorists, I've been watching bicyclists navigate through this area. They're hardly ever in the bike lane at the corner. They're to the left of it, I think for two main reasons: First, the higher route allows for a gentler curve. Second, there is a fearsome storm drain designed to catch the wheels of bicycles and eat them, and it's located at the curb in a particularly infelicitous spot. (I've also heard comments about gravel gathering in this spot. I wouldn't be surprised, since it's at the bottom of two hills. I just didn't see it.)

Storm drain in the bike lane.
I don't have solutions for any of these issues, but as we redo the bike lane in this section, I just wanted people to be aware of some of the design challenges.

Riding the curve.
See also Morning on Lombard Street, No Turn On Red, Put Traffic Lights on the Schuylkill Expressway.

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Life in Fairmount Park

Stas in the Vltava River. Prague, 2013.
I've run ten marathons. Paris twice, New York three times. I trained by running in Fairmount Park. I would run out Kelly Drive to the angels or the Kelly statue and back to my house on Lombard Street. Or I would run the loop out Kelly, across the Falls bridge and back on MLK Drive. That was the counter-clockwise route. Sometimes I would run clockwise. Sometimes I would do two loops. And sometimes I'd run out MLK Drive to the water pumping station on Montgomery Drive, and then over to the Belmont Plateau for some hill work. Nice view from the top, if you still had binocular vision.

A significant component of my training was on a bicycle. When I was too tired to run, I would bike. I have happy memories of MLK Drive, and the lights under the Strawberry Mansion bridge, before dawn on a February morning. There was nobody else there. I felt safe, and I was happy, even though parts of me were quite cold.

The only part I didn't like was the crossing of the bridge at the beginning of MLK Drive. It was acceptable when I was running, but when I was biking I always knew fear.

I started writing about biking in Philadelphia in 2012. I wrote about the MLK bridge. I approached various people. I spoke with my City Councilman's chief of staff. I have subsequently spoken with many powerful people.

The MLK bridge looks just as it did in 2012. Five years have passed, and many wonderful things have happened in my life, including the birth of my first grandchild. But nothing has happened on the MLK bridge.

That's not my fault. I've done my bit. The failure lies with our city fathers and mothers.

Vaclav Havel. Prague, 2013.
"Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." - Vaclav Havel

See also Uncorking the Bottleneck and The Bottleneck on MLK Is Still There.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Furness Buildings in Rittenhouse

Well Known and Lesser Known

Bates house, 1801 Delancey, 1867-1868.
I'd been walking by the building pictured above for decades, but it was only recently that I discovered Frank Furness had had a hand in its design. Which explains a lot about the Bates house at 1801 Delancey Place, on the northwest corner of 18th and Delancey.

As Michael Lewis puts it, "The house was an unconventional townhouse design for Philadelphia, where custom placed the rowhouse to the front of the lot, leaving a space for a private yard to the rear. The Bates design reversed this: a garden was created in the front, screened by a brick wall, a very eccentric feature." The result was "an unexpected suburban enclave on a street of stiff late Georgian townhouses." (Michael J. Lewis, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind, 2001, p. 63.)

Not that Furness and his firm were averse to working on the gorgeous Georgians of Delancey Place. Records indicate the firm did alterations in 1820, 1821, 1823, and 1830 Delancey.

At the other end of the 1800 block of Delancey, just across 19th Street, is the famous Horace Jayne house, from much later in Furness's career.

Horace Jayne house, 1900 Delancey, 1895.
I'd been aware of the Jayne house and the Thomas A. Reilly house up on Rittenhouse Square. (The neighbors are having some work done.)

Thomas A. Reilly house, 1804 Rittenhouse Square, 1891-1892.
But mostly I'd been aware of Furness as a posthumously tragic figure whose unique style went out of style and whose buildings had an uncanny affinity for the wrecking ball, particularly in the years just before the rise of the historic preservation movement in the 1960's.

I'd never really looked into Furness. However, when I was working on my story about creating a large piazza to the west of Philadelphia's City Hall, I found myself checking books on Furness out of the library. I got what I needed out of them, finished the story, and then I kept reading.

A lot of Furness's best stuff did get hammered into dust and chunks, particularly the banks down on Chestnut near Independence Hall. It's a shame. We could be reusing those banks now for restaurants and museums. (Museum of the American Revolution, anyone? I guess we missed our Musee d'Orsay moment.)

I think there's a subtext, even today, to the conventional wisdom about Furness - that his buildings are so quirky they can't possibly work well. And that take is a mistake. Furness was, among other things, a master at moving people through space; his Broad Street Station, which used to stand just west of City Hall, was a prime example until it was knocked down.

A number of masterpieces remain - particularly the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on Broad Street, north of City Hall, and the Furness Library out at Penn. And, in the area around Rittenhouse Square, where I live, it turns out that we have a substantial number of surviving Furness buildings.

Some of these are institutional: His dad's old congregation, the First Unitarian Church, and his addition to the building that housed the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, now Dorrance Hamilton Hall of the University of the Arts. Hamilton Hall, by the way, is across the street from Furness's childhood home at 1426 Pine Street.

But most of what we still have in the Rittenhouse area is residential (we lost two major train stations, the Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station near City Hall and the Philadelphia Depot of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, 24th and Chestnut).

I'd heard the Thomas Hockley house was by Furness, but I didn't really know. It is. When you think about it, the corner entrance, the pigmy columns, and the chimney that leaps out of the wall are certainly hints.

Thomas Hockley house, 235 South 17th Street, 1875.
A bunch more, almost all of them buildings I have walked by many times, I simply had no idea were by Furness.

I'm not even going to try to list them all - it would be too long a list, and I know I'd miss something - but here are a few Furness houses that can round out a walking tour of Furness in Rittenhouse.

Let's start up on Walnut Street, with the John Rice rowhouses. 2106 on the left has fared better than 2108 over the years. 2108 is currently undergoing a vigorous gut rehab, but it appears that what is left of the historical facade will be preserved. And then there's that new construction to the right. We can hope for the best.

John Rice rowhouses, 2106-2108 Walnut Street, c. 1870.
Next we can hop down to the E.B. Warren rowhouses at 2102-2106 Spruce Street.

E.B. Warren rowhouses, 2102-2106 Spruce Street, c. 1871.
A little while later the firm supplied a similar facade for the Rudolf Ellis house at 2113 Spruce. Having some work done here as well.

Rudolf Ellis house, 2113 Spruce Street, 1873.
On 17th Street north of Walnut, we have a more commercial neighborhood and a nice row of buildings known as the Caroline Rogers houses (124-132 South 17th Street). Originally there were five, but the northern two were lopped off, and now there are three; 128 is no longer recognizable as a Furness building, so that leaves us with 130 and 132, and they could use some work. The iron beam over the doorway is echt Furness.

Caroline Rogers houses, 124-132 South 17th Street, 1887.
If you're interested in exploring further, allow me to send you to George E. Thomas et al., Frank Furness: The Complete Works, 1996. The catalog there supersedes the checklist in James F. O'Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness, 1973, which nonetheless remains a valuable resource.

I need to warn you that going through the catalog is a bit like reading the casualty lists from the Battle of the Somme in World War I. So much has been lost.

Let's go back for a minute to the little Thomas A. Reilly house at 1804 Rittenhouse Square. It had a big brother next door, the William West Frazier house at 250 South 18th Street, built in 1881-1882. It occupied the area from 1804 Rittenhouse down to the corner of 18th Street, and the front door was actually on 18th.

This site is now occupied by a large apartment building of which I am rather fond. But along with my fondness for the present, I must recognize that we lost one of Furness's signature works here. As Thomas et al. note (p. 230), "This was one of Furness's most important commissions located at the corner of Rittenhouse Square - one of the most visible sites in the city and Philadelphia's premier square."

I spend a fair amount of time in Asbury Park, a city which has also seen its share of devastation. A few years ago some intrepid techies put together an app that provided 3D images of structures along the boardwalk that aren't there any more, or that have changed greatly. As you walked along the boardwalk with a tour guide, you pointed your cell phone or tablet at a site, and up popped a ghost building. For good measure you could see the SS Morro Castle where it ran aground next to Convention Hall in 1934.

The app is called Augmented Asbury Park, and although there are no more walking tours it appears there is an online version.

My thought is that some group of intrepid techies in Philadelphia might like to do a similar app for missing Furness buildings. The south side of Rittenhouse Square would be a good place to start. Call it The Furness Ghosts.

This chimney at 132 South 17th has seen better days.

Monday, August 28, 2017

No Turn On Red

Vision Zero Meets the South Street Bridge


Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.

Worst things first. The intersection at 27th and South, at the foot of the South Street bridge, presents ... some issues. The worst of these is the traffic that comes off the bridge and turns right to go on to Schuylkill Avenue. I understand that the City's traffic engineers want to get these darling motorists home and in the arms of their loved ones as soon as possible. But perhaps it would be wiser - shall we say more balanced - if they tarry at the light for a few seconds. There's a lot of pedestrian traffic on this bridge - much of it crossing with its back to the turning traffic. And there are various vehicles - both motorized and unmotorized - that come down 27th, cross South, and seek to go down Schuylkill Avenue.

I was there Thursday afternoon, August 24, and I saw three near misses in one hour.

If Vision Zero means anything in this city, it means a No Turn on Red sign at this intersection. Not next year. Not sometime before the next mayoral election. Right now. Make the call, Jim Kenney.

Okay, so let's back up. Why was I out there? Well, a little while ago I posted an article about the westbound traffic on the bridge, suggesting that the traffic that backs up Lombard Street in the morning rush might be alleviated by putting traffic lights on the Schuylkill Expressway. And it got me thinking again about the eastbound traffic. My main concern for the last few years has been the garage entrance for the new CHOP building.

No longer. The worst spot eastbound is the intersection at the eastern foot of the bridge.

Early Friday morning, the South Street Bridge at 27th.

There are other issues, but again, let's back up a bit. I went to the bridge three times in two days and did traffic counts.

A Few Surprises
On Thursday morning, August 24, between 10:45 and 11:45, there were 439 motor vehicles in the left lane crossing the intersection and proceeding east on South Street. In the right-turn lane, headed for Schuylkill Avenue and points beyond, there were 178 vehicles. Of these 178, ten changed their minds at the last minute, swerved across the bike lane, which at this point lies between the two car lanes, and proceeded eastward down South. (Total cars = 617.)

On Thursday afternoon, between 4:50 and 5:50 p.m., there were 370 vehicles in the left lane, heading east on South. There were 301 vehicles in the right-turn lane, heading to Schuylkill Avenue. Of these 301, 13 changed their minds and jumped over to South Street. (Total cars = 671.)

On Friday morning, August 25, between 7:50 and 8:50, 410 vehicles used the left lane to get to South Street. In the right lane there were an additional 201, with ten of those bolting to the left and proceeding down South. (Total cars = 611.)

The totals for each hour are similar, but the composition varies. The highest number of vehicles proceeding down South was on Thursday morning; the highest number of cars using the right lane was on Thursday afternoon.

My main learning here is the number of cars switching from the right lane to the left, and crossing the bike lane to do so. This follows the crossover, where the bike lane moves to the left and the right-hand motor-vehicle lane moves to the curb. This crossover is challenging in itself, but at least people are aware that it is going to happen. What they are unlikely to anticipate is that, approximately every five minutes, a car will cross the bike lane to get from the right lane to the left.

I think the current lane configuration at the east end of the bridge is fundamentally flawed, and not fixable by palliative measures. We need to see people as they are, not as we would have them be, and then we need to design accordingly. A human factors engineer in a good mood could write a very amusing report about this intersection in its current state.

Also observed but not recorded were several u-turns, a number of drivers violating the bike lane near 27th by moving from the left lane to the right and then proceeding to Schuylkill Avenue, and a number of cars stopped in the bike lane. It might be helpful if CHOP management urged its employees to pick up their Uber rides on Schuylkill Avenue, and not on the bridge. Finally, traffic in and out of the CHOP garage was light at all times.

Kill the Turn Lane; Add a Lane Westbound
My initial thought in doing these traffic counts was a desire to free up space for an additional westbound lane on the bridge. As it now stands, the westbound traffic on the bridge starts in one lane, which eventually blossoms into three. If westbound traffic backs up into the single-lane area of the bridge, which it frequently does in the morning, then traffic can quickly back up Lombard as far as 22nd Street. Adding a second lane here would allow westbound and southbound traffic to flow through, avoiding the queue for the northbound Schuylkill ramp.

I don't think adding the second westbound lane would solve all the problems here - the basic problem is the Schuylkill Expressway - but I think it would be a substantial help.

So should we kill the eastbound turn lane and add a westbound lane? Well, I'm for it. It would allow the eastbound bike lane to stay at the curb, avoiding both the crossover area and the bandits who violate the bike lane near the intersection. A No Turn on Red sign would make life much easier for the many pedestrians on the bridge, and overall the intersection should become much calmer. And the snake of traffic that we see so often on Lombard Street should become much shorter and appear less frequently.

The downside is that eastbound traffic will back up much further than it currently does. My observations at the end of August revealed plenty of back-up room on the bridge. It's true that traffic will be heavier after Labor Day. Perhaps someone who gets paid to do this stuff would like to go out and see if numbers from the fall invalidate my basic thesis, which is that there is room on the bridge to queue more cars, and that the bridge is a more appropriate location than Lombard Street.

Beyond that, however, is the question of safety. The current mayor has announced his commitment to Vision Zero. I believe my proposed configuration on the bridge would substantially increase safety for all bridge users. So, tell me how keeping things the way they are fits in with Mayor Kenney's commitment to Vision Zero.

See also Put Traffic Lights on the Schuylkill Expressway and Morning on Lombard Street.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Broad Street Cycle Track

This was originally posted on the Facebook page of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia on June 4, 2014:

Just to be truly radical for a moment, what about a cycle track on Broad Street in the median? We could also add parking lanes next to the cycle track, so that vehicular traffic would be reduced to one lane north, one lane south. These parking lanes would become turn lanes at intersections. The parking lanes lanes next to the sidewalk could then be more heavily dedicated to delivery and drop-off.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Put Traffic Lights on the Schuylkill Expressway



Waiting patiently for a green light on the South Street bridge. 

This idea came to me on July 6 of this year. It had taken me a while to get there. Last year I wrote a story called Morning on Lombard Street, which described the hellacious mess that Lombard Street can become during the morning commute.

On a bad morning, traffic can back up Lombard to 22nd. It turns out that this congestion has essentially nothing to do with the bike lane, although people continue to mention that possibility to me. The congestion is caused by the Schuylkill Expressway. When it backs up heading north, the northbound access ramp from the South Street bridge backs up and then the bridge backs up. If it's bad enough the backup goes across the bridge and then snakes back up Lombard.

If you'd like more of the nitty-gritty on this, read Morning on Lombard Street.

I'd never actually taken pictures of these backups, so last Friday, August 4, I went out in the morning to snap a few shots. It being a Friday morning in August, traffic was very light, and I found myself more interested in another phenomenon that many people seem blissfully unaware of. Cars do not own the South Street bridge. There are scads of bikes and pedestrians and dogs. I'm actually thinking of setting up a coffee stand on the bridge, just next to the northbound ramp to the Schuylkill. And I'll definitely include a free doggie water bowl.

On July 17 there was a community meeting about upgrades to the Lombard and South Street bike lanes. I'd been aware that there was a lot of bike traffic on the South Street bridge - Lombard feeds the westbound bikes onto the bridge, and South takes the eastbound bikes off the bridge - but I was actually surprised to learn that 15 percent of the vehicular traffic on Lombard is bicycles. Then you need to add in the pedestrians, and of course the dogs.

The South Street bridge is not an urban wasteland of concrete and cars.

Six people and a dog in search of a green light.

Even though the car volumes weren't there on Friday, it's interesting that the northbound access ramp still accounted for the lion's share of the cars, as it does on heavier days. The picture below gives you the idea. Westbound and southbound are running clear. The northbound ramp traffic is backed up almost to the CHOP building.

Do not take pictures while walking in a crosswalk.

Here's another shot, showing the Achilles heel of the whole thing. If the cars back up any further than this, you're into the area where there's only one lane. And that means that all the westbound and southbound traffic gets snarled up with the northbound traffic. And some days the snarl goes back up Lombard to 22nd.

The Achilles heel.

Last year, in Morning on Lombard Street, I recommended closing the northbound ramp. Among other things, it's a very dangerous place. You need to enter the Expressway in the fast lane, and the sightlines are not good. People with long experience in this matter told me that my proposal was not new and would never happen.

So here I am with another idea. I recently read that Market Street and JFK Boulevard were designed as "urban highways." They have traffic lights. Instead of treating the stretch of the Schuylkill around the South Street bridge as an interstate, let's call it an urban highway. It doesn't have cross streets, but it has scads of exit and entrance ramps, and the access ramps are pretty much all problematic. Let's put lights across the main roadway and also at the front of each access ramp. Then let people take turns. I'm thinking things will go  better.

When traffic is heavy, something close to this already happens on an informal basis. The cars in the main roadway slow down, and every once in a while they actually let someone in from one of the access ramps. I'm just suggesting that we use familiar, approved traffic control devices to formalize this dance, reducing the danger and frustration that are endemic to the current arrangement.

Waiting at the light by the Schuylkill access ramps.

Let me close with one last picture - I am a bicycle guy after all, and I believe there are more bicycles than cars in this picture. I've been waiting three years to see that. The future is here. It's on the South Street bridge. We just need our village elders to snap out of their Rip Van Winkle act and help us build upon what we can already see with our eyes.

See also Intermittently Terrifying.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Balkanized Politics

The Dependent Probability Trap

Esplanade by Fairmount Water Works
I suspect that the balkanized politics of Philadelphia has its basis in neighborhood resistance to urban renewal. What better way to stop unwanted change than to devolve power from City Hall to a series of small community organizations, any one of which can stop any change.

I'm afraid I don't know enough Philadelphia history to be able to prove this case; perhaps someone else can do that. What I do know is that Philadelphia politics is currently well designed to stop just about anything from happening.

And I'm going to show you how it works. Say you have a bike lane that is essentially the backbone of a citywide network of bike lanes. Say it runs through the bailiwicks of three registered community organizations. Say you want to make some improvements to the bike lane.

And here's what happens. The local city council members put their heads together and decide that they're okay with the plans, but that all three RCOs need to hold community meetings and get neighborhood approval. Everybody has to agree.

Let's say that your chances of RCO approval are actually pretty good - say 0.8 on a scale of zero to one.  But your job is to get all three RCOs to agree. And here we run into what I call the dependent probability trap. The probability of getting all three RCOs to agree is not 0.8. It is 0.8 x 0.8 x 0.8. Which is 0.51, or fifty-fifty. Add one more RCO and it is 0.40.

The only way out of this trap is for our elected officials to engage in something called leadership. They need to stop giving their constituents a veto. They need to listen carefully, take counsel, and then make decisions.

It's a much harder job than just ducking for cover anytime a decision looms on the horizon. But it is the job we pay them to do.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Pop-Up Railings for Crosswalks



Here's a little something that I haven't seen anywhere other than the hamlet of Avon-by-the-Sea in New Jersey.


It strikes me as a nice reminder to motorists that crosswalks are not for parking. Also discourages cars from driving down the yellow zone, as if it were a traffic lane. This particular crosswalk is right by the Avon Pavilion.

Here's a detail of the cone and the ring that holds the rail in place.


These pop-up railings are all over the place in Avon. Here's one that's closer to the Shark River.


And another angle. You can also see the little pylon in the middle of the street that reminds motorists to stop for a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Compliance is actually quite good on this street, which is called Ocean Avenue and is next to the boardwalk.


These little pop-up railings have a bunch of uses. Here is one that is separating people from a minor boardwalk repair in Asbury Park.


I was wondering whether these items might be useful around Philadelphia schools, during drop-off and pick-up. Yet another reminder to motorists that they should shift into school-zone mode.

See also A Poor Man's Bumpout.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Commuting by Boat

How about a water taxi between the Walnut Street dock and the Navy Yard? 


The esplanade by the Fairmount Water Works.
About ten years ago I was stuck at a hotel near the airport in Boston. The business conference I was attending was okay, but the evenings were starting to look like room service. Then one of my colleagues discovered the water taxis of Boston harbor. There was actually a dock right by our hotel (which did have a terrace on the water and a lovely view of downtown). We hopped in the boat and after a very pleasant nautical jaunt that was almost too brief, we landed at a dock and walked out to Faneuil Hall.

By the way, when was the last time you thought your commute was too brief?

I hadn't thought about this experience in years, and then a friend suggested I should do some reporting about ways to get more people onto the watery parts of the Schuylkill River (attracting people to the Schuylkill Banks doesn't seem to be a problem). And maybe write a story.

So I started talking to people. Bartram's Garden is doing some amazing stuff. Maitreyi Roy, the garden's executive director, introduced me to the Bartram's version of an ice cream float. In the good weather, the garden has kayaking and rowboating events for the local community every week. The season's pinnacle is the annual River Fest, when, among other things, the garden places a float out in the water. On the float is an ice cream stand. Row out to the float and get free ice cream. Or be a landlubber and buy a cone from the other stand, the one that's firmly anchored on dry land.

Fishing is also so popular at Bartram's Garden that Roy says they're looking into building more fishing docks.

In addition, there's the tour boat that has regular excursions from the Walnut Street dock down to Bartram's Garden. There's a lengthy layover so passengers can tour the garden, and then ride back to Walnut Street. Steve Narbus of Patriot Harbor Lines is very pleased with the Bartram's run, and he's also fond of the Walnut to Walnut ride, which takes people on a scenic tour from Walnut Street on the Schuylkill to Walnut Street at Penn's Landing, on the Delaware.

Walnut Street also has regular kayaking in the warm weather.

The Esplanade
An idea that's been kicking around for a while now focuses on the beautiful esplanade near the Fairmount Water Works, up by the Art Museum. A lot of people don't even know the esplanade is there. The idea is to place a dock, similar to the one at Walnut Street, next to this esplanade, and provide some kind of boat service between the Water Works and points downstream.

John Randolph, who heads the Schuylkill River Park Alliance, a community group that supports improvements to the river, has been toying with this idea for years - and he has not been alone. It seems like a natural. I asked John about access for the disabled - the stairs down from the Schuylkill Trail are impressive - and he told me that there was an elevator in the Water Works building, and a door from the building out onto the esplanade. How can this not work?

Next I spoke to Joe Syrnick, who heads the Schuylkill River Development Corporation, aka the Schuylkill Banks.  Joe and his organization are the people who manage the Schuylkill Banks, dealing with everything from graffiti to movies to the Walnut Street dock and the boat tours to Bartram's Garden.

During my conversation with Syrnick I occasionally felt like I was talking with the Robert Shaw character in Jaws. The Schuylkill generally looks placid, but all rivers are wild. Syrnick has a good stock of stories about what the Schuylkill can do when it's feeling frisky.

Some of the problems with the dock idea are straightforward. If you go to the esplanade and look down into the water, and the water is clear, you'll notice some really big rocks. Attaching a dock to this esplanade is not going to be a simple or inexpensive endeavor.

But that's just the beginning. There are questions about what construction of the dock would do to fish habitat along this part of the river. Also, there is the dam that sits just below Boathouse Row and next to the Water Works. Life downstream from a dam can get interesting. Just ask the fish who occasionally decide to go surfing over the dam.

Joe went through a number of these issues and then sent me on to Stephanie Craighead, who looks after these matters for the Parks Department. She told me Parks had conducted a very thorough investigation and come up with a price tag of $2 million for the dock, and also a list of unresolved issues. Parks decided not to proceed with the dock.

And then there's the question of who will use the dock. If a tour organizer put together a day that started with the Art Museum and then took customers down to Bartram's Garden, and maybe returned them to their hotels via the Walnut Street dock, then maybe this would make sense. Otherwise it's a large expenditure to build an underutilized asset.

Craighead told me that the Water Department had recently come up with the concept of a Learning Barge. The original idea was to moor the barge at the esplanade - the department's education program is housed at the Water Works - but after investigating, PWD is looking for other sites.

I still nurse the dream. The esplanade is a gorgeous place that most people never see. It would be nice to activate it. But you should never underestimate the power of water. Leonardo da Vinci certainly never did. He was fascinated by water, and having watched the Arno river flood on several occasions, the engineer in the artist spent a good bit of time looking at ways to control something that is inherently unruly.

There are a lot of reasons to want to put a dock at the Water Works. But we need to answer all the questions first.

The Learning Barge
Craighead then sent me on to Joanne Dahme at the Water Department to learn more about the Learning Barge. Dahme emphasized that the project is still at a very early, conceptual stage. The inspiration is a Science Barge located on the Hudson at Yonkers, N.Y. (There is a newer Science Barge in Miami, and a Learning Barge in Norfolk, Va.) All of these are environmental education centers that emphasize sustainability. The one in Yonkers seems to be mainly a vegetable garden. I'd thought they might be propagating oysters. It will be interesting to see what the Water Department comes up with.

Water Taxis
Beyond recreation and education, are there any other appropriate uses for the waters of the Schuylkill? Well, for a number of years I've been paying attention to the world of bicycling in Philadelphia. Not so long ago, this was a world that was almost entirely recreational. But recently there has been a large increase in the number of people who are using their bicycles to get to and from work, to drop the kids off at school, to go grocery shopping - you name it. Okay, I will: utility bicycling.

My experience with water taxis in Boston definitely sensitized me to the potential, but I hadn't really grasped how hot water taxis and commuter ferries have become in other cities recently. New York City in particular has inaugurated a new ferry service on the East River that ties together Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. San Francisco is expanding its existing public ferry system and also adding private water taxis to relieve the strain on land-based transportation. And Paris is looking at a new type of water taxi that makes no noise and no waves. It's called a Sea Bubble by its inventor.

So who wants to use the Schuylkill to commute?

I'm so glad you asked. How about the Navy Yard? It's not easy to get to, except by car, and the Schuylkill Expressway is never an idyllic experience. Are there people who live near the Walnut Street dock and work in the Navy Yard? Would they be interested in commuting by boat?

The answers are I don't know and I don't know. A good first step would be finding out.

I can say, though, that people seem to like the idea when I mention it to them. I had a very nice chat with Jennifer Tran, marketing director for the Navy Yard. She pointed out that, back when the Navy Yard was still repairing aircraft carriers, there was a ferry that ran between New Jersey and the yard, giving workers an attractive commuting option.

An Empty Niche
So what would a business plan look like for a water taxi service between the Walnut Street dock and the Navy Yard?

First, I think it should be a premium service. Mayor de Blasio in New York City is holding the price of the new East River ferry service down to the price of a subway ride. And the service is swamped. This tells me two things. First, there is substantial latent demand for water transport and, second, planners tend to underestimate that demand. At least in New York City. On the East River.

The way out of the swamp that New York finds itself in is to establish a premium service that will be viable with a relatively small passenger base. Then, in the short term, you can adjust the price to keep demand in balance with the number of seats available. And in the longer term you can add more boats, or bigger boats.

And, since this is the 21st century, I would sell reserved seats online. If you have a ticket, you should be able to get a seat on the boat. That's what Amtrak does now (it took a while). The analogy should not be the subway or Jersey Transit. The pictures and stories from the East River are not pretty.

Finally, recognize that you're serving a relatively limited geographical area. There's no substantial parking available near the Walnut Street dock. You could walk to the boat if you live close enough. And now that there's an Indego bike stand at 25th and Locust - about a block from the Walnut Street dock - you have an easy way to bike to the boat. That probably gets you up into Fairmount, out to West Philly, and east of Broad.

But it's still a niche product. Keep it small, know success, and be happy.

Philadelphia Navy Yard at South Broad Street.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Transportation Should Not Trump Destination

New city to the left, old city to the right.
Of the original five squares in Philadelphia, only one of them is not a square today. Instead, Centre Square (also known as Penn Square) is occupied by City Hall. There are a bunch of smaller open spaces to the west of City Hall, including Dilworth Park and two plazas on the far side of 15th Street, one of which houses Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin (1976).

I think we should unite these shards of land to the west of City Hall to create a true square in Centre Square. St. Peter's in Rome has its square. City Hall should have a square.

We do this by closing 15th Street from JFK Boulevard to South Penn Square. To do this we will need to rework traffic patterns across a fairly large area, but before I get into the traffic weeds, let's have a look at how we got to where we are.

A Rare Opportunity
The area west of City Hall didn't always look the way it does now. Until the early 1950s there was an elevated train viaduct called the Chinese Wall, which ran from the Schuylkill River to a terminal facing City Hall (see map below). The terminal (designed by Frank Furness) and the Chinese Wall came down in 1953, and the City had a rare opportunity to redesign a large vacant space in the heart of a city that was already 250 years old.

The Chinese Wall, 1913.
I think it's fair to say that things didn't go as well as many people had hoped. There are a number of issues, but I'd like to focus on two things that I think underlie the traffic problems in the area - the street grid and the demands of the automobile.

The Street Grid
William Penn's 1682 plan for Philadelphia, with its rectangular street grid, recalls the layout of Roman military camps. The grid is a durable concept because it's useful, but we should remember that it was invented primarily with pedestrians in mind. Most Roman soldiers got around by walking. A few had horses; it helped to have a good seat, because stirrups hadn't been invented yet.

We should remember how good the Romans were at squeezing remarkable achievements out of very limited technical resources. For instance, how would you, as a Roman engineer, go about building a military camp, or castrum, on a rectangular grid? You used the Roman version of a surveyor's transit, which was called a groma.

The groma was a pair of straight sticks joined at right angles and mounted on a staff. Looking down one stick allowed you to shoot a straight line. Then, if you walked around and looked down the other stick, you could shoot a right angle. You could only shoot 90 degree angles with a groma. If I were an engineer, I would find that a pretty good argument for laying out an army camp in a rectangular grid.

The Roman castrum always came with two large streets that divided the camp into quarters. Where these big streets met, in the middle of the camp, there was a large open area. This was the parade ground, and the unit commander's headquarters was located on this square.

In Philadelphia we call these big streets Broad and Market; the central square is the home of City Hall.

I suspect that the grid worked pretty well for the Romans. At each end of the big streets, there were gates. A commander could readily mass troops along those streets and in the central square and then sally forth through any of the gates.

The main shortcoming of the grid plan is the lack of diagonal movement. In early modern times this issue was addressed by adding diagonal boulevards to the grid. Major L'Enfant did this in his plan for Washington, D.C., and Baron Haussmann employed them extensively in his reconstruction of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century.

Haussmann did not build the most famous Parisian boulevard, the Champs Elysees, which has roots extending back to the late seventeenth century. And it is the Champs Elysees which provides the inspiration for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

It's important to remember that the boulevard concept, like the grid concept, was born in a world without cars. These streets were for pedestrians and also people who liked to ride around in horse-drawn carriages.

Cars Change Everything
And then came the cars. It's tempting to blame the beginning of our traffic woes around City Hall on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (built between 1917 and 1926). Or you can blame City Hall (built between 1871 and 1901). Or I suppose you could go back to the original William Penn plan and say that the two big streets meeting in the middle was a good idea for a Roman military camp, but that the intersection in the central square would clearly become a choke point when the concept was applied to a larger settlement.

Here's a map showing the central part of Philadelphia in 1859. Notice that the central square is already unlike the other four squares. In the outlying squares, the streets skirt the perimeter. In the central square they plow right through the middle, dividing the square into four pieces. A little over a decade later, City Hall started to arrive in the central square, at which point traffic was pushed to the periphery.

Market and Broad intersecting in Centre Square, 1859.
What would have happened to the central square if City Hall had not arrived? I suspect that it would have become a very large traffic circle, similar to Logan Square. We can only hope that the middle of the square would have an equally attractive water feature.

The street system is not the source of our problems. The problems came with the cars, and the problems came from the cars. After the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908, cars hit cities like a tidal wave.  Cars are big and heavy and fast. They needed more space to move than the streets had, and they needed places to park. Starting in the 1920's, cities began to rebuild themselves to accommodate cars.

Peter D. Norton, in his Fighting Traffic (2011), goes through what happened in magisterial fashion. (I have reprised some of his arguments in Cars and Bikes - The Back Story.)

The reconstruction was managed by members of the new profession of traffic engineering, many of whom had gotten their start in municipal water departments. They effectively reported to the American car manufacturers and their allies. There were two key goals - a bigger pipe, and faster throughput.  The engineers knew how to move water, and they knew they needed a big pipe and high speeds to satisfy a demand that skyrocketed every year.

From this basic situation you get the Interstate Highway System, based on limited access, many lanes, and high speeds. This system actually works well out in the cornfields of Iowa. Drop it into a city that was designed in the seventeenth century, and there are problems.

It's not that you can't do interstates in the big city. Look at the Vine Street Expressway. I wish it were covered, and I wish the traffic volumes and number of crashes were lower, but you can do this. We could actually live with automobiles, if the car lobby were reasonable.

But what doesn't work is trying to turn local Philadelphia streets into fake interstates. And that's what's happening on 15th Street by City Hall.

The Nitty Gritty
Okay. I told you I would get to this, and here we are. Let's have a look at 15th Street by City Hall. The traffic engineers took one look at 15th Street, and they said "big pipe." I won't go through the history, but here's what's going on today.

Here are the feeders for the big pipe on 15th Street, which for out-of-town readers runs south past the west front of City Hall.

Let's start at the north, with the Vine Street Expressway. Both the eastbound and the westbound exits land you on 15th.

The Ben Franklin Parkway comes in by way of a little two-way section of Arch between 16th and 15th, just north of Love Park.

Arch Street between Broad and 15th, by the Municipal Services Building, is one-way westbound (we'll come back to that) and it also feeds 15th Street.

Just south of Arch, the 810-car garage under Love Park has an exit onto 15th.

At John F. Kennedy Boulevard, just south of the Municipal Services Building, Broad Street feeds into 15th by running around the northwest shoulder of City Hall.

And then Market Street butts into 15th on the west side of City Hall.

All this takes place in the space of five blocks.

I've written a bit about 15th Street by Love Park (for instance, Crossing 15th Street), so I'm going to limit myself to a comment on the intersection of 15th and Market.

Who thought it would be a good idea to have five lanes of traffic merge at a T intersection with another four lanes of traffic and then immediately split into three separate streams, flowing to 15th Street (south), Broad Street (south), and Market Street (east)?

The Furness Plan
This was a conscious decision. Previously there were two separate streets here - the street by the west side of City Hall, and then 15th Street. When Frank Furness designed the Broad Street Station, he preserved 15th Street by having it flow through the building. Here's his plan.

From James F. O'Gorman, The Architecture of Frank Furness (1973) p. 183.
The later arrival of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway created further issues, which I think have never been satisfactorily resolved. However, traffic on the Parkway has decreased since the construction of the Vine Street Expressway, and I think it should be possible to make things better in this area, provided people are open to new thinking.

A Different Approach
What happens if, instead of concentration and high speeds, we ask our street designers to look at diffusion and low speeds? In other words, let the grid do something it's good at.

Let's start with two easy ones.

Make the 1400 block of Arch two-way. The Benjamin Franklin Parkway ends at 16th and Arch. You can continue on to the 1500 block of Arch, north of Love Park, but then you are required to turn south on to 15th. Why can't you keep going east on Arch? Because it's one-way westbound from 15th east.

I think we should make Arch two-way down to Independence Mall at least. Then it could effectively serve as a distributor for the Ben Franklin Parkway east of Broad. But for now I'm happy to concentrate on the 1400 block, where we have some work to do.

I'm actually a fan of Vincent Kling's Municipal Services Building, but it does have some problems, not least of which is the remarkably self-indulgent porte-cochere on Arch Street, which takes up two traffic lanes and spawns a wide sidewalk that almost nobody uses.

Sidewalk and porte-cochere at Municipal Services Building.
I'd demolish this porte-cochere - it's actually a free-standing structure - and narrow the sidewalk and let motorists go both east and west on this block.

Close the Love Park garage exit on 15th. These exiting vehicles cause a lot of craziness as they try to move left - the lane they exit onto is a right-turn only lane. This block is currently hell on wheels for pedestrians and motorists alike. I'm amazed that people actually ride bicycles on this block, but they do. There's another perfectly adequate garage exit on Cherry Street.

Okay. Now for the heavy lifting.

Close 15th Street from JFK Boulevard to South Penn Square. In Vietnam there was a road that French soldiers called la rue sans joie, or the street without joy. Greta Garbo starred in a film of the same name in 1925.

Fifteenth Street west of City Hall is a street without joy. There's no fixing it, in my opinion. So we should close it and allow Dilworth Park to expand and occupy the whole space from City Hall to the Clothespin.

How you do this is a little complicated, so please bear with me.

Make Market Street two-way from 20th to 15th. It's already two-way west of 20th and east of City Hall. I don't know why it's one-way on this stretch. Make a nice turnaround circle at 15th Street.

Provide similar treatments for the stubs of 15th Street and South Penn Square that would provide access to the buildings on the southwest corner of this new plaza.

My brother points out that you could marry up South Penn Square, 15th Street, and Ranstead, which extends from 15th to 16th. I think this is a nice solution, although I prefer mine.

Market Street will no longer be a through street in Center City. However, if you think about it, neither Market nor Broad have really been through streets in Center City since at least 1871. We've just been pretending.

Make JFK Boulevard two-way for its full length. Currently it is two-way from 30th Street Station across the bridge to 20th Street, and then one-way westbound between 20th and City Hall. We need to reroute Market Street's eastbound through traffic to JFK Boulevard. Motorists could make this move out by 30th Street Station, or on the east side of the Schuylkill at 20th, 18th, or 16th.

With no traffic on the west side of City Hall, the streets on the north, east, and south sides of City Hall all need to become two-way.

Here's some of the upside. A motorist coming from 30th Street Station can run straight down JFK to the east side of City Hall, make a quick right and a quick left, and then continue on Market Street to the Arden Theater for a reprise of Sweeney Todd.

Similarly, a motorist coming down Broad Street to City Hall can make a few quick turns and again be on east Market headed to Christ Church, one of George Washington's hangouts in Old City.

Currently, a motorist coming down Broad who wants to go east on Market has to go around three-quarters of City Hall and brave some of the nastiest traffic in the city.

Use Roundabouts. I think a number of the intersections under discussion - for instance, the intersection of Broad with JFK on the north side of City Hall - would benefit from the addition of roundabouts. These are basically very small traffic circles. I've seen them in action. In my experience they slow traffic, encourage polite driving, and in general work very well.

It's a Lot of Work. What's the Payoff?
A walkable city. As the headline of this story says, transportation should not trump destination. We need to have a there there, when people get out of their cars or off the train or bus, or when they dismount from their bikes or just show up by walking, which is what I usually do. And the there should not just be inside. We need outdoor public spaces, and frankly Philadelphia does them very well. It just needs to do more.

Things seem to be headed in this direction. Recently there have been suggestions in New York City that it is finally time to close Times Square to cars. We'll see how that goes. So much depends on elections.

But I think the Schuylkill Banks in Philly show that it is possible to blend hard-core transportation with bucolic recreation in a way that is highly successful for both. The early plans for the Schuylkill Banks called for the rail lines by the river to go away, but they didn't. And so we have a riverbank park that is easily accessible across rail lines that carry volatile petroleum and smelly garbage, and after years of settling in, and many, many snarky conversations, and the construction of some pretty amazing blast walls, things seem to be going reasonably well.

I'm not saying it's nirvana, but I am saying this is the way of the future.

The two most successful Center City parks, aside from the Schuylkill Banks, are probably Rittenhouse Square and Fitler Square. Although they don't have the industrial challenges of the Banks, they do have to deal with cars, which is the issue up by City Hall. And the answer is, if you have a nice park with greenery and a water feature and benches and maybe a few statues that kids can climb on, and the park is accessible across streets that are not terrifying, and if the din of the car traffic is low enough to meld with other background noises, and if maybe you have a certain amount of programming, then you've probably got yourself a successful park.

I think we could have a very successful park filling the open space on the west side of City Hall. People will say, if you build it they won't come. This is Philadelphia, and of course people are going to say that. But I don't believe them.

Plaque located in the northern arcade of the Municipal Services Building. It commemorates the Reyburn Plaza Bandstand, which was demolished in 1962.

The maps reproduced in this story are from the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network.

See also Fixing Arch Street at Love ParkGordon Cullen and the Outdoor FloorLove Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th StreetRichardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the AgesRoad Diet by Love Park - a Natural Experiment.