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.


  1. I am also surprised to suddenly see so many bikes at that light. But I have known it was inevitable, given American trends since ca. 1990 or so (i.e. nominal median birth year of today's working class).

    I recommend an edit to this blog (despite it being a more informative and literate long-form blog than most non-sponsor-funded ones!).

    It is summer break from the full academic year at Penn, and perhaps at Drexel too – these combined are by far the largest employers in the city, and many bus riders, pedestrians and cyclists who cross this/these intersections work at one of these universities.

    So one might expect a weekday going2work load might be a bit lower than during the academic year. Note that an extremely small portion of this massive employment bloc (a fraction of a percentage I would guess) are actually gone just because it is summertime. Summer is when the universities get caught up, make & Issue admissions decisions, do virtually all disruptive departmental moves, renovations & reorganizations, do as much construction as it is possible to do simultaneously, and prepare for the autumn session.

    But ... there are markedly fewer students & adjunct faculty on campus!

    So the line of cyclists awaiting a light change is likely being seen at its lowest period of the year.

  2. The slowness of the WB traffic lane onto I76 means the WB bike lane doesn't need to be protected, except at its west most end. The traffic is pretty much always slow.
    EB is a different story, and we need to consider more permanent solutions to making better protection near CHOP and 27th.

  3. I think the problem here goes even further up the line, to the NB Chestnut St off ramp. If we close that, then the NB South St on ramp can go onto its own lane, with no merging and I76-NB functions better as a through road, which is what we want it to be. Center City access from the south is made more difficult, but this is a feature, not a bug.

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