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How did Philly handle Pope Francis’ historic visit? A report card

So the pope came to town, spoke a few times and kissed several babies. And our city shut down to accommodate him and the pilgrims who came to watch. Was Philadelphia successful? What went right? What went wrong?

Here’s a rundown of how the papal visit went for Philadelphia with letter grades, from mass transit to crowd size to Pope Francis himself.

Infrastructure

A

No phrase carried more infamy heading into the weekend than “traffic box.” Cars were not allowed in this sprawling section of Philadelphia that extended well beyond Center City starting on Friday and those closest to Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin Parkway would be towed if they weren’t moved. National Guard and police seemed to be stationed on every block throughout downtown.

But the whole thing turned out fine. Crowds inside the traffic box weren’t chaotic and it didn’t scare too many people away. In fact, the empty streets enticed plenty of walkers and cyclists. Foreign visitors expressed delight about our improvised street fairs. The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron wrote that Philadelphia should open up a downtown street or two for pedestrians and cyclists only all the time. Before mass even ended, barriers were being removed, and the city was on its way back to normal.

And if you were in Center City Friday, before the big event but still under the restrictions, you got to experience the entertainment of a “dry-run for the apocalypse.”

Event management

C-

Not everything went perfectly. Likely thousands of people missed the papal mass on Sunday, waiting in line for hours but not able to get past security. The people forced to wait so long included ticket and non-ticketed people. Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 featured the same problem, so these things do happen. But for a papal event that had been planned for months and was expected to bring 1.5 million people and only brought in about half of that, this is a massive error.

On the plus side, the other public papal events at Independence Mall and the Parkway ran smoothly, as did other aspects of the event. There were no widespread complaints of long lines at the numerous port-a-potties, and the city heard people’s complaints on social media about a view-obscuring tent at the mass and took it down.

Cellular coverage was not a major issue, either. A warning from NBC on-air personality seemed to be a bad sign, but it wasn’t indicative of a widespread problems, according to spokespersons from Verizon and AT&T. And the omnipresent view of smartphones when the pope drew near and ensuing placement of photos and videos on Facebook and Twitter suggested people’s phones were behaving just fine.

Crowds

B

The World Meeting of Families estimated 750,000 people would come the Festival of Families Saturday night and 1.5 million for the mass on Sunday. The early estimates for the actual events are 700,000 for the Festival of Families and 860,000 for the Parkway mass. Though 860,000 is well off the estimate, it’s hard to say the city or the Secret Service scared people away. That — 860,000 people — is still a ton of people. The bigger problem, as mentioned above, is that not everyone could get into the mass even though fewer than expected showed up.  

Transit

B+

For a city in which cars weren’t allowed to enter and transit lines were adjusted, it was sure easy to get into Philadelphia. Especially on Saturday. Patrick Kerkstra of Philly Mag, wrote of near-empty trains and driving in West Philly to the edge of the traffic box without any trouble.

Maybe the most disappointing aspect of transit was the surprisingly low quantity of people who used Regional Rail. While PATCO saw higher rate of passengers, SEPTA saw a lower than expected volume. It had about 62,000 total weekend passengers.

Pope Francis

A+

He delighted the city from the moment he arrived, giving a thumbs up to the Bishop Shanahan band playing the “Rocky” theme and “Don’t Stop Believin.’” He kissed at least 10 babies while rolling in his popemobile. He accepted a bear hug from an inmate at CFC. He blessed the special needs child of Shanahan’s band director. Francis did everything that has made him the ‘cool’ pope. It would’ve been nice to see him visit a neglected area of Philadelphia for a surprise detour — as he’s done in other countries and in his hometown of Rome — but his jaunt to St. Joseph’s was a nice surprise for the students of Philadelphia’s only Catholic Jesuit university.

Success for local businesses

D

And the only thing preventing this grade from being an F is the possibility of restaurants teaming up with organizations benefitting the homeless to give extra food to those in need.

Nutter and city officials tried to get businesses to buy in to their #OpenInPHL and “I’ll Be There” mottos after some concerns expressed by the business community. They should’ve been realistic. Restaurants that stayed open, except for some that offered special deals on the sidewalks and streets, saw few customers. To make it worse, some had ordered extra supplies thinking the weekend would be a windfall.

A leading-economist spoke to Billy Penn several weeks ago and predicted the city would see zero economic impact from the papal visit, despite suggestions from the city and the World Meeting of Families of an impact up to $500 million. The lack of business that got done is one reason why. The economist also had a suggestion of a tax agreement that should be made between Philadelphia and the businesses that suffered. If Philadelphia made $500 million as projected, there should be enough tax revenue it can share with restaurants and businesses to make up for the losses they sustained.

Philadelphia people

A

We were really nice. Nutter complimented residents during his post-papal-visit address Sunday night, and examples of goodwill were easy to find. 

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