Friday, June 08, 2007

Blocking Progress?

Traffic congestion in Philadelphia is finally getting some attention, even if the outrage seems a little premature. The headline on last Friday's Inquirer report certainly overstated the problem when it declared "Heart of Phila. Near Standstill." Yes, Center City's streets are more congested than they used to be. But I would argue that the problem is primarily confined to rush hour. Most times of day, it's still too easy for motorists to drive cross-town in Philadelphia. Maybe that's why I'm always running into people from Old City or Queen Village who drive to their Market Street jobs.
But when you're stuck in a car on Chestnut Street, creeping along below strolling speed, it's easy to become convinced that Philadelphia is being consumed alive by car traffic. Maybe Chaka Fattah had a few brushes with such jams before he offered his silly congestion tax proposal during the mayoral campaign (See my February posts here). Fattah wanted commuters to pay a driving fee similar to the one that exists in swinging London and is being proposed for high-density New York. Languid, low-rise Philadelphia has a long way to go before it takes that route.
That doesn't mean the city shouldn't start planning now to keep Center City traffic from getting out of hand. The 'duh' idea, of course, is for the city to stop concentrating big garages on certain streets, like Sansom and Callowhill. In fact, city officials should reexamine entirely ZBA chief David Auspitz's oft-repeated notion that Center City needs more parking. It could do with less.
The condo towers built atop 300-car garages clearly contribute to the congestion problem, too. While it might be hopeless to try telling developers not to include parking in their projects, it's clearly time that Philadelphia stopped mandating one parking space for every new housing unit.

Another good way to cut down on rush-hour congestion is even more of a no-brainer: Outlaw truck deliveries and double-parking during the morning and evening rush hours. New York does. I'm always amazed at the number of Fed Ex, UPS and food purveyor trucks parked in the right lane of important through streets, like 15th Street, at the height of rush hour. Philadelphia already has narrower streets than most American cities. When you consider all the lanes that are currently blocked by construction projects, there are streets where there is only a single open lane for cars, creating major bottlenecks. During a trip along 15th Street at 6 p.m. yesterday, I noticed that it took me almost 10 minutes to get from Market to Locust Street. And I was on a bike. The street looked a lot like the photo above. As worked my way south, I counted eight parked vehicles - including people sitting in their cars waiting to pick someone up - in the right-hand lane of those four Center City blocks. Just think, by clearing the right lanes of Philadelphia's through streets during rush hour, you double the traffic carrying capacity.

And imagine how easily the traffic would flow if Philadelphia could get its transit system right.

21 Comments:

Blogger Albert Yee said...

one way to reduce the number of parking spots per gigantic high rise - PhillyCarShare. and take that suggestion with a grain of salt as i work for PhillyCarShare. BUT it does help :)

12:28 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

We need to do more to convince people to take public transit. I know it needs some help and all, but honestly more need to use it NOW, and not later...

10:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the Phillycarshare idea...I'm not even a member! I wouldn't worry too much about this all anyway...as the price of Gas has gone up and up...soon they won't be able to afford to drive their GINT SUV's and such through the tiny streets of Philly. Stay in the suburbs! Get a bike and lose some weight...

12:41 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Very good analysis. Less than a year ago I did a quick survey on Google Maps for a posting on own blog. I counted 531 parking facilities in Center City (defined as including Arch Street on the north and extending to South Street on the south, which seems reasonable). That is surely enough. There are entire blocks in Center City that are parking garages with a few shops and restaurants in the bottom—or no shops at all, just blank walls.

I agree we don't need a congestion tax, but we do need to look at the long term. Better transit, creative measures to encourage walking and biking, and car sharing all need to be in the mix.

As, by the way, do green vehicles like the proposed green taxis in New York. Philadelphia taxis are not only the most expensive I have ever seen. They are the opposite of green.

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

phillycarshare is great - been a member for a year now - when i need a car, which is about once a month - i have one at my disposal. i live and work in CC. usually walk to work (12 blocks) but when it's super cold or hot, i grab a west bound Walnut St. bus, of which there are many.

had a knee injury this winter and took a cab to work for three months - lemme tell ya, go around city hall from market to jfk, don't even try to get across town on 16th, 18ht, 20ht - too many trucks double parked!

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely. Center city is absolutely dominated by parking garages and even worse - surface parking lots. I haven't seen so much valuable space taken up by surface lots in any other city I have visited.

It is absolutely time to rethink the 1 to 1 minimum for new construction. Other cities are starting to impose maximum parking restrictions and Philadelphia is just as walkable.

I think PhillyCarShare is the best thing to happen to Philadelphia since soft pretzels. (when was that anyway?)

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The number one "no-brainer" here is to effectively enforce the traffic and parking laws. Double parking is already illegal at any time and any place. A single illegally stopped or parked vehicle can block an entire lane. This reduces capacity by 50% on many Center City streets.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Alex said...

We need to make transit more accessible and user friendly as well. Perhaps if SEPTA adopted some sort of refillable smart card that could be topped up at any convenience store, more people would take public transit. Another idea would be to syncronize the traffic lights with the busses so when a bus doesn't have to remain stopped at an intersection. Finally, if we busses stopped at every-other block on certain streets it would make travelling accross center city much quicker.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

I'll buck the tide here a bit. Yes we need more public transportation - lots more and with good schedules.

But as someone who for physical reasons - not sufficient for a handicap permit, -needs to drive into town I can attest to the fact that street parking has been nearly halved in the past 30 years. There is a continuing reduction in on street parking due to "loading zones" - where the owners of business park their own cars for free and "valet" spaces where businesses take away the streets from the people of this city. I see this over and over. This does seem to benefit the large parking businesses...

So those of us who truly cannot afford $10 an hour to park while doing charity work and who cannot get back and forth from our residences by means of a reliable public transit system are left circling the block for what seems endless periods.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

This is for Davis above me...

I dont understand exactly what you would have the city do in this case? Loading zones are nesseccary, the valets, however, I can give you as maybe being excessive. But I dont see a solution to your problem since it seems as though you have a normal city inconvenience on your hands. Even with the best transit system in the country a dense city will still rarely have on street parking. Honestly, those handicapped meters are not really helping the situation. I understand a desire to provide handicapped access, but I also see no reason those spots should be anymore accessible than the rest of the curb, and most go unused for most of the day....

7:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with SEPTA is not just making it easier to use. Basically, SEPTA, especially the rail network, just doesn't go places where middle-class people in the 21st century go. The routes were designed for a 19th century industrial city. Most SEPTA stops are desolate, unbuilt or low-rise places where there's nothing except a transfer to a bus at best. Why doesn't the city (instead of a tax rebate for construction anywhere) concentrate its building incentives to high-density projects at places where the trains stop, like Broad and Spring Garden, Wayne Junction, Temple U., etc?

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Davis said...

Anthony, I certainly understand the need for loading zones- if they were used as intended they might indeed cut down on congestion. I know of some restaurants which have "loading" zones which are indeed used as parking lots for the owners while trucks unload by double parking.

The parking authority is corrupt.

You're right of course about there never being sufficient on street parking, but there has been a concerted effort by the streets department to eliminate street parking while they encourage large parking lots - very expensive ones.

The best solution is indeed public transportation, but I doubt I'll live to see any real improvement in it.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a note just touched on in the article. Did you know the Streets Dept. charges a fee of $0 for a dumpster to sit in front of your house a year? I'm not sure what the fees are downtown, but I'm sure they aren't much considering how many dumpsters are sitting around. I wonder how the dumpster rates for Philadelphia compare to other cities.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Niel said...

That Inquirer article about congestion was frustrating - barely a mention of transit at all, and no mention of SEPTA's impending budget disaster. If Harrisburg doesn't come through with a stable funding source for SEPTA, the traffic we've got now will seem like a drive in the country compared to what'll hit us in September.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If congestion is only a problem during rush hour, then why not have a congestion charge that applies only during rush hour. The London system is not 24/7. It applies M-F 7am - 6pm and not at all on the weekends and selected bank holidays. A system for Philly could be 7:30-9:30am and 4pm-6pm, or whatever the rush hour actually is. The money raised could be used to improve SEPTA service, providing a greater incentive to use it. Virtuous circle.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous phillygirl77 said...

I agree with the person who said that first, we need to enforce the laws that are already on the books. If double-parkers and folks who "block the box" are actually ticketed for doing this, maybe these behaviors would finally stop, and traffic could begin to flow more smoothly. Also, isn't the right lane in many CC streets supposed to be bus & bike only? Of course, you can't blame people for driving in that lane if someone's parked in the other one...

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Blair C Saxman said...

"The 'duh' idea, of course, is ... city officials should reexamine entirely ZBA chief David Auspitz's oft-repeated notion that Center City needs more parking. It could do with less."

Could there be a dumber suggestion for solving this issue? You're basically suggesting that we solve one problem (maybe - there's no data to support your thesis anyway) by exacerbating another. talk about "duh"...

Not only should all new housing be required to provide parking for it's tenants, so too should all new businesses. And to the extent it's possible, all OLD housing and businesses should be required to retrofit their properties in the same fashion. Parking is an equally large problem in the city, and certainly one that's been around a lot longer.

As for traffic: In Center City at least, the main driver to that problem is the type of building that's been allowed to go on for the last decade. It's all massive new 'high rise' type development. All the older, quaint, and often historically significant buildings and sites are being sacrificed at the alter of 'progress' (and profits). Unfortunately, that type of building is also more 'population dense' in nature. Couple that with the immutable fact that the streets downtown aren't going to get anymore numerous, or wider ...

There may be no going back, but there is something to be said about how you go forward, and the traffic situation in Center City will get nothing but worse if we citizens and leaders of Philadelphia don't start getting smarter about what we're building in one of the most culturally and historically significant areas of the United States. That in and of itself would solve a lot of problems of course, but one of the more obvious would be our traffic woes.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little bit of a dinosaur roar here. How do you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been?

To gain insight on the problem, I would suggest readers visit NBC 10’s video archives http://www.nbc10.com/videovault/3920528/detail.html and view a special from 1961 titled “Dead End 1975. The show ran on Monday, June 5, 1961 and was produced by WCAU's Community Affairs Department. 53-minute "Dead End 1975? Topics included in the show include “can we fix the traffic-jam mess” and “solving the financial problems of the local transit lines?”

7:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with this debate, and all the solutions offered, is that parking and transportation improvements are always a Catch-22. Clear the streets and you will only encourage more driving. Add parking spaces, and more people drive in. We are almost better off ignoring the problem, because anything else becomes an arms race between the drivers and the streets department - build more lanes, I'll bring more vehicles.

But there is still a better way to reduce unnecessary vehicle trips.
Change the parking rate structure so that those who need to drive in and park are encouraged to do it all in one day. For example, $40-$50 for a day of unlimited parking anywhere in Center City. This way, I'll take the train in most of the time, but once in a while when I have too much to carry I'll bring the car. Make it high enough to discourage driving but useful enough to encourage thoughtful trips. Encourage people to visit the doctor, the dentist, the grocer, and the dry cleaner in one trip. Reduce the rate for those who have disabilities that prevent their use of transit.

This will cut back on some of the needless Old City-Market St trips. And for crying out loud, let the parking revenue fund the transit system!

4:04 PM  
Anonymous scott b said...

The Old Urbanist approach to congestion is to widen the streets. The result is faster moving traffic, then more of it, then more congestion. So congestion is good. Think of Germantown Av in Chestnut Hill compared to Germantown Pike in front of Plymouth Meeting Mall. Keep the congestion! But give me a parking space, too.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Sandy Smith said...

Is everyone sure that the one-space-per-unit rule applies to all new multi-unit structures too?

Right next to the building where I live -- a building dating to 1988 and which has parking, but only about half as many spaces as there are units in the building -- a new condo is being built in and on top of the old Western Union Building WITHOUT any parking at all.

The new condo at 11th and Spruce that replaced the Central Apartments has no parking.

So do those new Old City structures that are too tall for their narrow, rowhouse-width lots.

Perhaps there are some exceptions to the rule? And if so, how can they be exploited and expanded?

Or does the rule apply only to houses and not apartments or condos, as I suspect?

10:37 PM  

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