Walking in Downtown Philadelphia

In January 2012, I accept an invitation to serve as keynote speaker for a forum entitled “Walkability: Philadelphia Strides Into the Future.” I give the presentation on a Thursday night at the Academy of Natural Sciences on Logan Square.

I am told my presentation was “inspiring.”

My message, in part, is that while the city is already one of the best in the nation for walkable quality (largely due to its high density and proximity of destinations), the city needs to engage in transformative tactics to get to the next level. That the greatest cities share a common trait: they are all world-class places for enjoyable walking.

“It is not about providing more space for pedestrians (such as building new or wider sidewalks),” I point out. “It is about taking away space from cars (via road diets, removal of off-street surface parking, and so on), so that cars are assigned more of their fair share of space, rather than be allocated an excessive amount of space. It is about increasing the cost of driving, so that motorists are paying their fair share of the costs they impose on society. It is about increasing the inconvenience of traveling by car, so that cars do not unfairly inconvenience other users of streets.”

I also note that the pedestrian must be the design imperative. That everything else – cars, transit, the handicapped, even bicycling – come second. When buildings and streets are designed, in other words, the first and primary objective is that the design improves conditions for walking. Only then do we look at providing for other forms of travel, and then only in such a way as to not impede or reduce pedestrian quality. Doing so ensures that the community has maximized its quality of life, its economic health, its civic pride, and its sustainability.

I walk for several miles throughout the Philadelphia town center to get a better sense of the walking conditions. Immediately, I notice that the City has converted nearly every downtown street into a one-way street. So thorough, jarring and unpleasant is this conversion that it hits me over the head like a two by four. It is instantly clear to me: for Philadelphia to dramatically improve its walking quality, it must follow the lead of the large and growing number of cities throughout the nation that are converting their one-way streets back to two-way operation.

Philadelphia had made the unfortunate change to one-way streets back in the 1920s.

Why are one-way streets ruinous? Because they inevitably increase car speeds, motorist anger and impatience, and motorist inattentiveness. Streets quickly become a raging, peddle-to-the-metal racetrack of hurried, high-speed cars. Retail shops and residences start fleeing from the newly hostile street. Bicyclists are increasingly pushed onto sidewalks because of the immensely uncomfortable danger of trying to share the street with the hurtling cars (bicyclists also find themselves increasingly riding the wrong way on one-way streets, as do some motorists). Those shops, homes and offices that remain on what are now a form of downtown highways start setting themselves back from the hostility of the street, or turn their backs by boarding up windows, pulling entrances to the side or back, and creating the immense, unfriendly blank walls that are now found on so many of downtown Philadelphia’s streets.

The incompatibility of bicycling and one-way streets in Philadelphia is evident in at least a few ways. Not only the frequent bicycling on sidewalks I observe, but also the fact that the City has decided to remove on-street parking on many downtown streets in order to install in-street bicycle lanes. Healthy downtown streets have on-street parking on both sides, which slows cars and obligates more attentiveness by motorists. Car speeds tend to be slow enough that most bicyclists are comfortable sharing the street with car traffic, and on-street bicycle lanes (which are harmful to creating a human-scaled street environment, and probably increase car speeds) tend to be unnecessary and inappropriate. But when Philadelphia converted to one-way streets, this bicyclist comfort was lost, thereby obligating the need to degrade the pedestrian (and retail) quality of many streets by removing much on-street parking.

Worst of all, the experience for the pedestrian becomes awful with one-way streets. The ambience is quite loud (high-speed cars are the leading source of noise pollution in ciites), and seemingly unsafe (high-speed cars seem very dangerous to the pedestrian, and often ARE dangerous due to the tiny reaction times high speeds provide). Impatient, inattentive, hurried motorists conditioned to be that way on one-ways also do not tend to be in the mood to offer the needed courtesy to pedestrians trying to cross or otherwise navigate on streets.

I acknowledge that many one-way streets in Philadelphia will be very difficult to revert back to two-way, as most streets are quite narrow. Probably only those streets that are three- or more lanes in size can be converted back to two-way, or two-lane streets that have low traffic volumes.

My hat is off to the city of Philadelphia on siren use reduction by police and fire trucks. In my 2.5 days in downtown Philly, I hardly heard a single siren. This siren reduction is an enormous boost to the quality of life, the sense of calm and serenity, and the overall well-being of the city. This siren reduction is in striking contrast to most American cities, where emergency vehicle sirens are nearly constant, 24/7 attacks on eardrums that powerfully create the impression that the city is under siege, or in an active war zone.

This link is a YouTube slide show of the photos I shot during my walking tour of downtown Philadelphia:



Categories: 2011-Present, Miscellaneous, Pennsylvania | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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