(PHILADELPHIA) – After almost 10 years of studies, evaluations, planning meetings, promises and commitments to make Washington Avenue safer, Mayor Kenney’s Vision Zero commitment to reduce traffic violence on city streets has been dealt a huge setback. What started out as a safety project devolved into a repaving project for a significant section of the corridor that makes bicyclists, pedestrians and all road users outside of motor vehicles more vulnerable and at a higher risk of being hit than they are currently.
Sometime this summer, the entirety of Washington Avenue will be repaved, but contrary to all the commitments made over the past 9 nine years, only 7 out of 22 blocks will be made safer. In fact, eleven blocks will be repaved without any new treatment and thus will remain as a five lane roadway. Those blocks could become even more dangerous because of the lack of friction on the road and the absence of any traffic calming.
Never has a safety project that held so much promise ended up on the ash heap of Philadelphia politics like Washington Avenue.
In 2013, the City of Philadelphia began the process of evaluating how to reduce traffic violence on one of the most dangerous roads in the City by taking the opportunity offered through a repaving project. This wasn’t an academic exercise. Four people had lost their lives in the span of 6 years, including 83 year old Sarah Wood, 29 year old Sheena White, and 11-year-old Samantha Nguyen-Ortanez. And the data shows that a person walking or biking on Washington Avenue is much more likely to be hit than on other Philadelphia streets. There was and is a compelling case to tackle this road; it is considered part of the High Injury Network (the 12% of Philadelphia’s roads where 80% of the fatalities and major injuries occur), by reducing the number of lanes and adding bus islands, a protected bike lane and other traffic calming elements. This project offered so much hope and promise to serve the corridor’s many different users, including bicycle commuters, children, the elderly and physically challenged residents who use the street every day.
There were two phases of community engagement and planning conducted by City agencies between 2013-2015 and 2020-2022. They included public fora, corner meetings, input from businesses, Registered Community Organization(RCO) meetings, digital and paper surveys and petitions. In 2020, three options were proposed for public input (3 lanes, 4 lanes, or a “mixed lane” configuration). The configuration of three lanes garnered the most support from the public and that option was declared the final selection in Fall 2021. Then blow back occurred from community opposition. There was more meetings and another paper survey. The three lane configuration still came up with the most support. But, nevertheless, it was discarded as too controversial for some community members and a watered down “mixed lane” configuration was selected as final in March 2022.
Whichever configuration was selected, ultimately, the successful execution of the plan depended on a change in how parking was regulated. District Council Members Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson needed to submit ordinances altering parking regulations to create more loading zones and shortening the parking hours. While Council Member Squilla submitted his ordinance (thank you @cmmarksquilla!), Council Member Johnson waited until the very last possible City Council day to reveal his refusal to submit an ordinance for the part of Washington Avenue that fell within his District, citing the preference of his constituents for keeping the corridor at 5 lanes, in spite of receiving hundreds of emails from district constituents asking him to choose either the 3 lane or mixed lane configuration. The end result is that 11th to 4th streets will be repaved with the city’s “mixed lane plan” and 16th street to Grays Ferry will be repaved as is: a 5 lane road with no protected bike lanes, no curb extensions, no speed slots, no safety measures. (The intersection around Broad St. is controlled by PennDOT and was always planned to remain at 5 lanes). The section that gets no treatment included 17th Street, where children have to cross to get to Stanton Elementary on Christian Street.
After wasting 9 years of engagement and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on consultants and city staff time, Council Member Kenyatta Johnson ignored a huge swath of his constituency who supported making the corridor safe for all and instead listened to a small number of constituents who reject any change to Washington Avenue. Despite even the compromise offered up by Mayor Kenney, in which he gave up his original plan to go from five lanes to three, Council Member Johnson rejected safety in favor of a status quo that serves no one. His failed leadership keeps Washington Avenue on the High Injury Network and will harm the very constituents he purports to represent. It’s a known fact that Black and Hispanic Americans have higher traffic fatality rates per mile traveled than White Americans across the transportation system, and Council Member Johnson’s decision simply serves to perpetuate the disproportionate impact of traffic violence on Black and Brown communities.
As a city and nation, we have a lot of work to do to address the historical abuse of low income and majority minority neighborhoods. This abuse causes righteous outrage over America’s housing displacement that we cannot dismiss.
Opponents of the road diet and safety measures had sincere issues with the inequitable process, community input, and years of disinvestment of their neighborhoods. Their overall lack of trust of the City, data, and conclusions is rooted in a variety of factors including the racism of many past urban renewal projects.
These issues must be addressed and remedied, both locally and across the country. However, we believe that road safety and disinvestment are connected. And Council Member Johnson had the opportunity to invest in a roadway and save as many lives as possible.
This isn’t the first time that a Vision Zero or traffic safety project has hit the buzzsaw of hyper local or even national politics. And it won’t be the last.
Philadelphia’s car culture and the standard operating procedure of deferring to the position of near neighbors, especially those near neighbors who are politically connected, remain a significant hurdle.
All too frequently, local transportation safety projects get watered down to make them acceptable to neighborhood civic associations like RCOs or blocks of neighbors. What’s frustrating is that this plan was watered down and still fully rejected anyway by Council Member Johnson. And Mayor Kenney never publicly defended and advocated for his own plan. Both elected officials let their constituents down. And, the chain of events around Washington Avenue did serious damage to the level of trust that many had in the City’s attempts at community engagement and in the leadership of their elected representatives.
While the Bicycle Coalition views this outcome as a serious setback for Vision Zero in Philadelphia, we have not given up on the policy. Many of our members, supporters and partner organizations (5th Square, Clean Air Council, SOSNA and others) who organized and attended meetings, signed petitions and sent emails undoubtedly feel let down and not heard by Mayor Kenney and Council Member Johnson. Nevertheless, we must not give up on prioritizing the redesign of Philadelphia’s streets so that they are safe for all. It is the key to saving lives and reaching the goal of eliminating traffic deaths. While all of us are keenly disappointed that Council Member Johnson failed to lead his community and Mayor Kenney didn’t fight harder for this policy on Washington Avenue; we want to be hopeful that future leaders will use their political capital to reach the goal of Vision Zero.