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From Planning for Cars to Planning for People

A CASE FOR CENTER CITY PHILADELPHIA

By Gillian Xuezhu Zhao
and Qi Si

Xuezhu (Gillian) Zhao, originally from Beijing China, is a Master of City Planning candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Passionate about urban informatics and cultural heritage, she is enthusiastic about the possibility of leveraging data analytics to promote vibrant and sustainable communities, especially in the realm of economic development and transportation planning.

 

Qi Si originally from Zhengzhou China, is a Master of City Planning candidate at the University of Pennsylvania concentrating in sustainable transportation planning. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Geography with a focus on GIS from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her study area focuses on transportation data analysis and she is also enthusiastic about environmental planning.

The pandemic has pushed cities to reimagine themselves in several ways, one of which is the possibility of wider, safer, and more attractive streets for people. In Philadelphia, streets made more pedestrian-oriented by closing off roadways to cars and converting traditional parking spots into street eateries. Even before the pandemic, the yearly Philly Free Streets event demonstrated that the city has the capacity to prioritize people over cars at a low cost with a great gain. This is especially true for Center City, where more than 35% of residents commute by walking and even more do so during events and festivals. [1]The demand for walking made Center City a strong candidate for the implementation of people-oriented street designs, an experiment that has proved to be a success. With the success of these pilots, the city should be more proactive in establishing pedestrian-oriented policies.

CENTER  CITY  STREETS  CAN  BE  FRIENDLIER  BY CLOSING  SOME  STREETS  TO  CAR  TRAFFIC

Philadelphia’s Center City is known for having narrow streets. Narrow streets and sidewalks prohibit social distancing during the pandemic and also prevent pedestrians from moving safely and comfortably in non-pandemic times. [2] Without enough width to allow for landscaping and buffering, closing narrow streets with high foot traffic to most car traffic might just be the best solution. COVID has enabled cities to establish bolder pedestrian safety measures than under normal circumstances, but the benefits do not have to be limited to the pandemic. There are ample opportunities to maintain these measures indefinitely.


To provide enough space for physical distance, several cities have closed traditional car lanes for active travel and outdoor activities. For example, Philadelphia closed MLK Drive on March 20th from East Falls Bridge to Eakins Oval so that people could remain beyond 6-feet while commuting or exercising.[3]  Consistently converting underused car lanes into pedestrian trails during special hours is a great way that Philadelphia could easily add width for active travelers. Walnut Street in the Center City District often holds special events during weekends, such as the 2021 Rittenhouse Row Festival near Rittenhouse Square. During the festival, shops were set up along Walnut Street, which greatly reduced the space where pedestrians could walk safely. Closing down Walnut Street during special events like this should be seen as a win-win solution for both pedestrians and automobiles. Pedestrians can then walk safely on spacious streets, and vehicles will also avoid waiting too long for the crowds to cross the roads. Wider space for pedestrians will likely be in increased demand as the pandemic continues to linger. Even during normal times, commercial streets accessible by foot and bike traffic are found to be great for retail sales. Although, according to a Smart Growth America research, large-scale street redesign can be costly and inequitable—complete streets cost $2.1M—on average street closures are much more affordable. Closing streets off to private car traffic is cheap and has equal benefits for pedestrian safety, walkability, and a lower carbon footprint. The city currently takes applications for street closures, but they should be more proactive in initiating them. Furthermore, if the city simultaneously invests in improved public transportation infrastructure, people will have ample opportunities to get around the city efficiently.

[1] ACS 2019 (5-Year Estimates). A09005. Means of Transportation to Work for Workers 16 Years and Over , 2019. Prepared by Social Explorer.

[2] Beisert, Oscar. “Pedestrian Streets: Past, Present, and Future Footways.” Hidden City Philadelphia, January 30, 2014.

[3] Reports, Staff. “Safe Social Distancing: Should Philly Close More Streets to Cars during Coronavirus? | Pro/Con.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2020.

On a normal weekend day in January, I almost got hit by a car while
walking on the edge of a sidewalk in Center City. I was trying to
maintain a 6-feet distance to another person and it became untenable.
With social distancing required under the ongoing pandemic, sidewalks
have become uncomfortable and unsafe for pedestrians. Too often, we
are forced to walk too close to automobile traffic.

Image: Street eateries in Old City, Philadelphia.

Source: John Boyle
“Closing streets off to private car traffic  is cheap and has equal benefits for pedestrian safety, walkability, and a lower carbon footprint.”
figure2.jpg
Image: The dancing traffic light in Lisbon, Portugal helped 81 percent more pedestrians to stop and wait for the green light than before.

Source: Flickr

CENTER  CITY  STREETS  CAN  BE  MADE  SAFER  BY ADDING  BETTER  VISUAL  AIDS  FOR  DRIVERS  TO  KEEP OTHERS  IN  MIND

 

Transportation planning in North America has been prioritizing cars for decades and roadways have been designed and implemented with quantitative models and computerized software such as VISUM and VISSUM to maximize automobile traffic flow. With this in mind, instead of slowing down at yellow lights, cars will often accelerate through an intersection or stop on the crosswalk and become a barrier to pedestrian flow. This has been done so often in Philadelphia that it has become a norm, posing itself as a huge risk towards accidents.

Ideally, the city should invest in visual aids that will encourage a cultural change and put pedestrians and cyclists first. However, these measures can be hard to put into reality because most transportation planning methods rely on quantitative data and statistical evidence to drive these changes. It can take two or more accidents for an intersection to be determined as high risk, whereas people using it every day can easily tell stories about how dangerous it is. The close-calls, like the case mentioned in the beginning, are not recorded in any accident dataset. These events should play an important role in transportation decision making. Hence, although models and data are very helpful, planners should not forget about the qualitative evidence that might not be obvious in data and models. The core methods need to be more expansive. Community outreach can support easier interactions. Field surveying and audits can gather detailed feedback.

figure1.jpg
Image: Cyclists biking on a car-free road.

Source: Flick
“With a focus on people, streets become quality spaces that represent the city, which will boost pride and enhance the quality of living.”

The use of visual aids is not to only to directly prevent accidents, but to remind drivers that they must be considerate to other users of the road. Several successful examples include the use of colorful, eye-catching artistic painted crosswalks to draw extra attention from drivers so that they decelerate sooner than later.[4Installing radar speed signs is another type of visual aid to warn drivers when they over-speed. These installations should be first introduced to denser populated areas, especially the area bounded by Walnut St, South St, 7th St, and the Schuylkill River. Moreover, not all intersections have count-down timers. It has been proven that traffic signal countdown timers can enhance driver responses and slow down when needed more effectively. [5] Adding these small-scale visual nudges can help drivers drive more cautiously.

CENTER  CITY  STREETS  CAN  BE  MORE  ATTRACTIVE WITH  FUN,  INNOVATIVE  IMPROVEMENTS.

 

Transportation planning is often too focused on destinations while minimizing the emphasis on experience, especially for pedestrians. However, just like architectural design, form and functionality can co-exist. By putting more focus on people, streets can incentivize other modes of travel. Streets, as a subset of public areas, used to be places where kids could play and people would interact, and this trend has been revisited by a lot of cities today. For example, an intersection in Lisbon has introduced a Dancing Traffic Light to incentivize people to wait for the greenlight to cross the street. [6] 

 

Foot traffic, as compared to car traffic, is also better for social interactions and local business activities, and the pandemic has shown us some creative ways of utilizing existing assets to further support this. Street eateries are outdoor seating areas typically located on pre-pandemic parking spots. [7] With decreased travel and parking demand, conditions allowed for the conversion of some on-street parking in Philadelphia and many other places into outdoor seating to aid local dining. In addition to providing a safe place for people to eat, this strategy creates scenes of people talking and eating which gives the street a lively ambiance. With decreased parking occupancy in Philadelphia, we see more and more opportunities for this and other creative uses of parking spots as permanent establishments. 

Having people-centered streets will not be without opposition from drivers. However, what many may not realize is that people-centered streets are not at odds with drivers; rather, they provide everyone with more options for transportation. Furthermore, we anticipate improvements in both the quantity and quality of public transit under SEPTA's new 5-year masterplan. Philadelphians will reap the benefits of taking public transportation as well as driving, without having to pay for car ownership, maintenance, parking, and gasoline. To say the least, with numerous functioning auto-oriented streets, those who need to drive can always drive, but those who wish to walk, bike, or other means can do so safely, happily, and proudly.

Complete streets can be costly and can require a lot of effort, but the strategies introduced in this piece, such as closing streets or taking over parking spots, are cost-effective and easy to implement. They will also return more Philadelphia streets from cars to people. Without centering on people, streets are dull paths taking people from origins to destinations. With a focus on people, streets become quality spaces that represent the city, which will boost pride and enhance the quality of living. Philadelphia should maintain its efforts, expand planning methodology, and create more people-oriented streets easily with these strategies.

[4] Pyzyk, Katie. “Creative Crosswalks: Street Art Meets Safety Enhancement.” Smart Cities Dive, June 26, 2018. 

[5] Oregon State University. “Traffic Signal Countdown Timers Lead to Improved Driver Responses.” Life at OSU, February 7, 2018.


 

"Streets, as a subset of public areas, used to be places where kids could play and people would interact, and this trend has been revisited by a lot of cities today.”

[6] “Dancing Traffic Light Entertains Pedestrians and Improves Safety.” New Atlas, May 2, 2015.

[7] The Inquirer Editorial Board. “For Philly, It’s Time to Put People before Parking Spaces: Editorial.” . The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 2021.