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Our Response to Philadelphia Magazine’s ‘Traffic Apocalypse’

In their March issue, Philadelphia magazine published a first-person piece about motor vehicle gridlock, mostly using the company’s chief content and strategy officer’s personal commute as anecdotal evidence that Philadelphia is currently experiencing a “traffic apocalypse.”

It used to take writer Tom McGrath “two, maybe three Tom Petty songs” to go 33 blocks through West Philadelphia after arriving in the city from his suburban home. Now, according to the writer, because of more people, construction, delivery trucks, ride sharing and, yep, bike lanes, traffic in Philadelphia sucks.

There are other examples: It takes McGrath’s friend, the Graduate Hospital-based Joan, “double the time it used to to get to work in the morning,” according to the piece. And Mayor Jim Kenney was late for a Philadelphia magazine event last fall, for which the mayor blamed traffic.

But the piece isn’t all complaints. McGrath actually seeks to figure out his problem through the course of the article. In speaking to city planner Jonas Maciunas and other “traffic geeks,” McGrath learns a few things about the history of our streets, and how they work.

The author later concludes that people like him probably need to be convinced to not drive in the city anymore—because, you know, they don’t have to. This is good! McGrath even admits there’s public transportation in his town that could take him into the city. Still, because of his own “culture,” he’s not willing to.

Anyway, that’s the basic gist of the story. And in lieu of spoiling the whole thing for you, the Bicycle Coalition figured we’d clear a few things up. We were not contacted for the story — even though we were mentioned — and, therefore, didn’t get the chance to provide some of the public statistics that would have made for a data-driven, not anecdote-based, conclusion.

Traffic Data

Data regarding the actual volume of motor vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users and delivery vehicles is always carefully considered before any change in roadway space allocation is made. Anecdotal stories can inform the process, but traffic engineers will always revert back to data before recommending a change in a street’s design.    

And in looking at data, it’s easy to see that — first of all — Philadelphia’s traffic is not that bad. We’re the 5th-largest city in the United States, yet we rank 17th for traffic. INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard ranks Philadelphia 108th out of 1360 cities worldwide, below 17 other American cities. Santa Cruz, California, is 18th.

Second, there has never been any evidence—other than anecdotal, in-the-moment observations, usually by motorists with a bone to pick—that bike lanes have caused more traffic in the City of Philadelphia. To wit:

Spruce and Pine

The Spruce and Pine Street bike lanes are cited as taking “away space for cars to travel in,” but when compared with what Spruce and Pine were before the bike lanes, there’s little to no evidence to support such a conclusion. A 2012 traffic study on Spruce and Pine found that the buffered bike lanes that each replaced a travel lane were successful in reducing speeding, increasing bicycle flow, and did not adversely impact traffic flow.

The buffered bike lanes also (and this is more important) made travel safer for all road users. Car-on-car crashes were way down after the bike lanes went in and fewer motorists went to the hospital. Similar results were found in New York City and Minneapolis.  

Chestnut Street

The new West Chestnut Street protected bike lane was specifically mentioned in the article as having caused the writer emotional pain. But it should be noted that the Chestnut Street transportation project was the result of years of planning and evaluation by the City’s Planning Commission, Streets Department, and Office of Transportation & Infrastructure Systems to create a safer street for everyone, including people like McGrath.

As part of that planning, maintaining travel flow was considered and prioritized.  The standard for reducing the number of travel lanes is very high; so when it happens, it means that the engineers have determined that fewer number of travel lanes can handle the traffic flow with minimal impact on travel time.

The project was designed to accomplish multiple objectives.  Primarily, it was to make the street safer for everyone.  In 2015, the Streets Department conducted a traffic study along the 45th to 34th Street corridor.  It found that W. Chestnut Street as a whole:

  • Had the highest crash rate per mile among all city streets
  • Was among the top 10 locations for pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries
  • Was among the top 5 locations for bicycle crashes

It also found that 75 percent of the crashes occurred between 45th to 34th Streets on Chestnut Street. And while the speed limit was 25 miles per hour, the average during peak hours was 32 miles per hour, and some cars were clocked at 47 miles per hour. The Streets Department study found that reducing the number of lanes from three to two would have minimal impacts on motor vehicle travel between 45th and 34th during peak hours.

Since then, things have worked out as expected.

A Google traffic data analysis of Chestnut Street indicates that for the 12-block length of bike lane, drivers experience a median delay of less than three minutes during the morning rush and no delay during other times of day. That’s well within what the 2015 traffic study predicted.  

This traffic data also took place during a closure on Spruce Street in West Philadelphia, and other construction projects that have blocked lanes—so, those delays are likely temporary.

Also, the aforementioned bike lane is attracting more bicyclists and incentivizing better behavior. University City District found an 81 percent increase in bicyclists using Chestnut after the installation of the bike lane at 4400 Chestnut.   

Based on manual counts by Bicycle Coalition volunteers before and after the bike lane was installed, we found wrong-way riding decreased 38 percent while the proportion of bicyclists riding on the sidewalk decreased 47 percent.  

And pedestrians are finding the road safer, according to UCD-based on surveys. So, while some may be driving in their car a few extra minutes, the benefits are worth it.  

And, all the other bike lanes

Philadelphia has had over 200 miles of bike lanes for nearly 20 years. They didn’t appear overnight. They were added at 5-10 miles a year as city streets were repaved, starting in the 1990s.  

And before they were added, certified transportation engineers who work for the Philadelphia Streets Department put them through a rigorous evaluation to ensure that they would not unreasonably constrain traffic flow, also known as “travel level of service.”

Congestion

One of the weirder conclusions the piece comes to is stating that congested streets cause a decrease in safety, citing the crash that killed Emily Fredricks in late 2017 as proof.  

Just because 2016 had a higher number of reportable crashes than the previous five years does not mean that congestion is causing more crashes.

There are other contributing factors such as distracted and aggressive driving, speeding, illegal parking, increased number of stops by delivery trucks and Transportation Network Company cars.  

Greater data availability of traffic movements would help shed light on the change in congestion because there is no standardized tool to measure congestion that is readily available to the public.  

But, here’s what we do know: Traffic volumes have decreased slightly at many Center City locations and crashes have decreased marginally since 2000 according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and PennDOT.    

The crash that killed Emily Fredricks in late 2017, which was cited in the article, was not about congestion causing conflicts between bicyclists and motorists. It happened early in the morning when traffic was relatively light.

Lastly, and this is just for Philly Magazine: We were surprised you did not ask us for comment or at least come to us for background for this piece, especially since we’re usually given that courtesy by your reporters. So, please, next time you decide to cite the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia as “pushing,” give us the courtesy of asking for an interview or comment. We don’t bite.

Sarah Clark Stuart, Megan Rosenbach, and Bob Previdi contributed to this blog post.

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Topics: Biking in Philly, Featured, Vision Zero

2 comments on “Our Response to Philadelphia Magazine’s ‘Traffic Apocalypse’

  1. Lance Lau

    This just in: traffic in Philadelphia sucks because of cars. Leave them in the suburbs, take the train into the city; you can read during your commute and you save yourself the horrible emotional pain of traffic congestion and looking for parking!

  2. John Baxter

    This is interesting and I hope the data is accurate. Still, frankly, I am skeptical if, indeed, there is a 3-minute increase in travel time at rush hour on Chestnut. What the data suggests is that those traveling near 30 mph likely were not causing a dangerous situation at all. Much data suggests that the average motorist knows exactly how fast to drive. I am not against lane elimination where there is excess capacity. But, this street was set aside for commuters in order to minimize delays. Even a 3-minute delay for those driving safely is hardly the ideal compromise. A much better compromise would have been to find a way to slow only those running well above the 32 mph speed. Nobody bothered to analyze the crash data and find where the threshold of danger is when it comes to speed, and that is the problem. This alteration was not as harsh as some, but it’s clear that lane elimination on busy commuter routes is to be avoided if at all possible. Finding a better, more selective way to prevent truly dangerous speeds would be a far better compromise.

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