Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Unblocking the Bus Lane on Chestnut

1500 block of Ionic. I would not want to make a delivery on this block.
Once upon a time there was a bus lane, but it wasn't really a bus lane. At least nobody treated it like one. Cars drove in it. Delivery trucks stopped in it. The only thing that the buses didn't have to contend with very much were the bicyclists. That's because most of them were too terrified to ride on the street, even though the lane was explicitly for buses and bikes.

This stub of Ionic is perhaps 100 feet from the Union League.
The delivery trucks in particular created some truly gnarly snarls, and the buses were slowed in the completion of their daily rounds. The little old people, possibly headed to a political demonstration at Senator Toomey's office, didn't care as long as they had a seat. They would just sit and chat with themselves and other passengers, and occasionally even divert the time-bound from consultation with their wristwatches.

It was Chestnut Street in old Philadelphia, in the time of Trump, and the problems may now seem quaint, but at the time there were people who actually cared about traffic jams, and tried to do something about them.

And these people made a wonderful discovery. There were almost always solutions. You just needed to look carefully. And then getting the solutions adopted was a whole other story.

One researcher decided to take a close look at a particularly problematic stretch of Chestnut Street, running from Broad Street west to 19th. And he found something very interesting. The vast majority of buildings had rear access, and didn't need to have delivery trucks stop in the bus lane on Chestnut and make deliveries through their front doors. 

The rear access was through little alleys named Ranstead, and Ionic, and Stock Exchange Place. This last name was for a business that had once been located in the area, but had long since moved. Philadelphians, however, are noted for their attachment to the past.

On some blocks the little Ionic Street or Stock Exchange Place did not exist, but on these blocks the buildings tended to be very large and extend south all the way from Chestnut to Sansom, where they would have rear access.

And on the north side of Chestnut, Ranstead would also disappear from time to time, most notably for the Liberty Place complex in the 1600 block. But Liberty Place also came with its own huge underground loading zone off of 16th Street. Neither the shops nor the offices of Liberty Place had any need to stop and unload on Chestnut.

The researcher did note a number of buildings that appeared not to have rear access. He wondered a bit about what the fire department would say if there was actually no second means of egress, but he also knew that the number of these buildings was so small that, if they lacked rear access, they could get their deliveries on Chestnut Street without blocking the bus lane. All the City needed to do was take the existing truck loading zones on Chestnut and expand their hours past 10 a.m.

As the researcher put it in his report, "It would be nice, of course, if all the deliveries could take place before 10 a.m., but clearly that is not happening. We need to see people as they are, not as we would have them be. And then we need to design accordingly, remembering that the two top priorities for this street are deliveries and keeping the bus lane free of obstructions."

Since this is a fairy tale, the needed changes were quickly made, and all was well on Chestnut Street. The merchants got their goods, the bus riders rolled merrily across town without obstruction, and most of the shoppers arriving by car parked in a garage.

Morning on Chestnut, a few minutes after ten.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Focus on the Short Trips

Bus stop, Rittenhouse Square.

I'm hearing that the commute from Center City out to King of Prussia is becoming increasingly excruciating, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the drivers trapped in that traffic. I used to commute from Center City to Delaware, and most of the time it wasn't terrible, but when it was bad it could be very bad. I remember one day when my half-hour drive to the office took two and a half hours.

I think there's a growing understanding that the problems of congestion and crashes on the Schuylkill Expressway will not be solved by letting people drive on the shoulder, or building an elevated road on top of the existing one. I even think the search for solutions is now bringing at least some people to the conclusion that we need to rely more heavily on rail transit than we have for the last hundred years or so.

I heartily applaud this evolution in the communal consensus. The work will be hard and long and expensive, but in the end I think it will get us to a better place.

Let me now tell you what I'm really interested in. It's not the commute from Center City to King of Prussia. It's the short trips. I think there are big gains to be made here - quickly and inexpensively.

First some numbers. In the United States, half of all trips are shorter than three miles. For this number I rely on an article from the League of American Bicyclists, who in turn are relying on the National Household Travel Survey. (See National Household Travel Survey - Short Trips Analysis.)

The article notes that 72 percent of trips less than three miles are made by privately owned motor vehicles, as are 60 percent of trips less than a mile. (The poster above highlights the 60 percent figure. It was an ad for the Clean Air Council's 2017 Greenfest Philly.)

Increasing the number of these short trips that are made by walking, bicycling, or transit would, to my mind, tend to decrease the number of cars that are wandering around on our streets. This in turn should relieve traffic congestion and also decrease competition for parking spaces. Maybe even make the air outside your front door a little cleaner.

When I mention the short-trip numbers to people, they often express surprise. I think we tend to focus on the long commutes, neglecting the short commutes and the short intraday excursions for shopping, lunch, and so many other things that just pop up.

And it's true that there are a lot of long commutes, and that's where many of our vehicle miles traveled and much of the gasoline burned are to be found. The Bike League article notes that 37 percent of all trips are five miles or longer. When I was commuting to Delaware, my drive was 21 miles each way, and in America that is not a particularly long commute.

As I said above, I think it's very important to deal with these long trips, but I think a lot of our short-term gains could come from focusing on the short trips. I think the way to encourage people to get out of their cars is pretty straightforward - implement Complete Streets and Vision Zero. Improved sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, protected bike lanes, the usual agenda.

I also think that buses and rail transit will play a very important role, and I think the key issue here is how long you need to wait for the next bus.

For the last few months, a friend and I have been commuting from the Rittenhouse area down to 2nd and Chestnut for something called Tuesdays with Toomey. We take a bus down on Chestnut and back on Walnut. Routes 21, 42, and 9 all go down Chestnut and back up Walnut, and we rarely wait more than five minutes for a bus. It's quite lovely. Now if we just had a little electronic sign at the bus stop, telling us when the next bus is coming - the way they do in Paris.

See also Cars & Bikes: The Back Story, Getting Kids Back on Their Bikes, Transportation Should Not Trump Destination.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Getting Kids Back on Their Bikes

In 2012, Professor Peter G. Furth penned the following words: "It is this writer's opinion that the turning point will be when children begin again riding bikes to school in large numbers. When bicycle infrastructure and children's safety become intertwined, funding for bicycle infrastructure will be secure."

This is in an article he contributed to a book called City Cycling, which was edited by John Pucher and Ralph Buehler and published by MIT Press. The quote is on page 135.

I think Furth is right, but I also think there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. How do you get large numbers of kids riding to school without a network of protected bike lanes?

With decent bike lanes, you can get a lot of kids on bikes. We know this. The Europeans have been doing it for years, and even in this country there is the occasional bright spot. In Davis, California, 43.4 percent of high-school boys and 30 percent of high-school girls commute to school by bike. (For more on this, see Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?)

But what about a place like Philadelphia, where we do not have a network of protected bike lanes and where the anti-bike forces in and out of government are mounting a very effective campaign of resistance to bicycling.

It's interesting. Even in Philly kids are getting to school by bike. Parents are riding their small kids to school in cargo bikes, tagalongs, and child seats affixed to bicycles. And older kids are riding their own bikes, either accompanied by a parent or by themselves.

I don't have any numbers for this, but all you really have to do is use your eyes. The numbers are not huge, but despite the utter inadequacy of our cycling infrastructure, children are riding bikes to school.

We'll never see numbers like Davis without a significant upgrade to the built environment, and I think that means we may never cross Professor Furth's threshold.

So we'll plateau, the same way we have in adult bicycling in this town. And people on bikes will get hurt unnecessarily. And some of them will be children.

There's a way out of this impasse. Build the protected bike lanes. They're not terribly expensive.

Message to City Hall. The bicyclists are not going away. Make a space for them on our streets. Life will get better for everybody.

For an overview of the decline in walking and biking to school in the United States, click here.

For a story on how parents in Philadelphia are teaching their children to ride bikes, click here.

See also Intraday Biking, Is It a Curve or Is It a Turn? and Running of the Bulls on Lombard Street.

Monday, November 6, 2017

City Beautiful Sprouts on Cypress Street


If the Center City Residents' Association were to give out a prize for most improved street, I would nominate the 2400 block of Cypress for the 2017 award. Last year I wrote a story about this block and the neighboring blocks of Delancey and Panama. The other two are in great shape; I think they're among the nicest blocks in Philadelphia. The trick is they're being treated as small streets while poor Cypress is being treated as a service alley. Which it is. This is the land of the garage doors.

But people do live here, and many of them would like Cypress to look nicer. So a group of neighbors on the south side decided to go for color, painting their respectably white facades a variety of very nice colors. Also adding a few shutters. And a potted plant or two.

2106. Note the houses on the left, before they were painted.

All of a sudden the street has come alive.

There are further opportunities for improvement.

Let's take the north side of the street first. It's a respectable row of garage doors (see the shot from 2016 above). The problem is that the doors aren't tall enough to provide a sense of enclosure, and the street space dribbles out over the parking pads and back yards, bleeds over the back facades of the buildings to the north and basically evaporates into the sky. Not what you want in a cozy little urban street.

I don't think we need to put false-front second floors on these garage doors, but we need to do something to arrest the eye. Perhaps the suggestion of a screen - you could string LED lights above the doors. That might work.

Or maybe you just need to fill the space with some trees. Here's what things look like on the 2100 block of Cypress. You'll notice the rear facades of the buildings almost vanish in the presence of these trees.

Trees take a while, of course. A good reason to get started soon.

2100 Cypress.

I don't have any other ideas, but I expect an architect could come up with a few. Maybe a class at an architecture school would like to take this block on as a project.

Finally, a tough nut - the street itself. The City should repave the street and restore the sidewalks, not because I think people will walk on them but because the sidewalks will provide visual definition to the street. If a city street and its flanking buildings are an outdoor room, the floor is a critical organizing element. (See Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor.)

I understand that this is a low-traffic street, and I also know that the City currently lacks the money, the equipment, and the trained workforce to mount an adequate repaving program for our streets. However, efforts are under way to change that situation.

And if some daylight does open up, I think this block should be on people's minds. It is certainly one of our more ramshackle streets, and it is right next to the Schuylkill River Park, which has seen large amounts of public and private investment in recent years.

This area is a gem, and the 2400 block of Cypress may be the only remaining flaw.

The residents of this street can paint, and string LED lights, and plant trees, but they can't repave the street. Only the City can do that.

Here's another thing that only the City can do (at least legally) - tow away this derelict car at the corner of 25th and Cypress. A resident of the street asked me to mention it. The car has apparently been there for months. Recently it sprouted a ticket from our friends at the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The ticket is dated October 16. There have been many contacts with various City departments, but so far no tow truck. I'd say the thing is inoperable and abandoned, but of course that is just my layman's opinion.

Let's not end this story on that note. It's too much of a downer.

Let's have a look at what's behind one of those garage doors on the north side.

As I said, people live here. They're doing what is within their power to do. The City, in my opinion, should do its bit.

(See also Alleys, A Tale of Three Alleys, This Isn't Just Any Alley.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Looking Three Ways at Chestnut Street

Driving, Walking, Biking

Graffito, Chestnut bike lane.

The new parking-protected bike lane on Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia has been the subject of some controversy, and so I decided to spend a bit of time with it. Let's take driving first.

The bike lane extends from 45th to 33rd Streets. I've driven this stretch several times since the bike lane was installed, and while this is at best a convenience sample, my impression is that there are fewer abrupt lane changes, and speeds are generally slower. I'm guessing there may be higher speeds at night; I did notice one very wrecked car in the parking lane on one of my trips. Overall, from my point of view as a driver, a distinct improvement over prior conditions.

I also walked next to the lane on a pretty day, making sure to cross Chestnut Street several times (the various construction sites provided useful prompts).

Before the redesign, this stretch of Chestnut had three bustling lanes of automotive traffic. With the removal of one of those lanes, there are only two main vehicle lanes to cross, and that makes life a lot easier for the pedestrian.

In addition, the placement of the bike lane next to the curb means a pedestrian can walk out from the curb and across the bike lane and stand protected by the cars in the parking lane, which separates the bike lane from the main traffic lanes.

Divide and conquer, if you will. Standing at the island of safety with the bike lane behind me and only two lanes in front of me had an almost intimate feel, like being on Walnut or Chestnut in Center City. Not nirvana certainly, but way better than Market or JFK, where I sometimes feel like I'm being asked to walk across a football field during a kickoff return.

I rode the lane on an Indego bike (there's a bike-share station at 44th and Walnut and another at 33rd and Market). I think this is a simply lovely bike lane. One of the best things about the lane is that it's not blocked by cars, as other bike lanes in the city so often are. Even Uber drivers seem reluctant to  drive through the parked cars to get to the space by the curb.

The bike lane needs to be extended west of 45th Street, and we need to rebuild the older lane that runs on Chestnut east of of 33rd Street. I have a feeling that both of these things will happen, perhaps sooner rather than later.

Bike Count
On the morning of Wednesday, October 18, I finally got around to doing a bike count. I sat outside of the Starbucks at 34th and Chestnut and counted 97 bicycles in 90 minutes, running from 7:55 a.m. to 9:25 a.m. This is hardly the volume we see on the South Street bridge during the morning rush, but it is more than one bike per minute, and the lane is still less than two months old.

I counted all bicycles at 34th and Chestnut that entered or exited the intersection on Chestnut. (There was a fair amount of traffic that entered from 34th and continued south on 34th. I did not count that.)

I broke the flow down into ten-minute subsets. The peak came at 8:45-8:55, with 18 bikes. The low point was 8:15-8:25, with four bikes.

Of the 97 total bicycles, eight were in the main vehicle lanes rather than the bike lane. Five were on the sidewalk, two heading west and three heading east. There were five Indego bikes, and one scooter in the bike lane.

Only eight bikes turned right from Chestnut onto 34th. I had expected to see more turning traffic, because there's a bike lane on 34th that takes you to the bike lane on Spruce, which takes you over the South Street bridge. If I were commuting to Center City from this area, that is the route I would take.

Performing as Designed
This bike lane is in the district of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who originally favored the new lane but started to backpedal when constituents complained. The Councilwoman has been remarkably non-specific about the nature of the complaints. Is it possible that none of them are from pedestrians or bicyclists, and all of them are coming from irate drivers?

Some drivers, not all. And what makes these unhappy folks unhappy? Are they dissatisfied because the street is performing as designed, and speeds are slower, and there are fewer opportunities for abrupt lane changes?

Let me close with an old bromide from Marketing 101: Complaining behavior is a skewed indicator of customer satisfaction.

Cargo bike, Chestnut Street.
See also Intraday Biking, No Turn on Red.

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.

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


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.