One of the worst parts about hearing a DUI driver killed two sisters on Roosevelt Boulevard last week was that it seemed a common story, especially given the stretch of road. The Boulevard has long been a nightmare for Philadelphia. About 10 motorists and pedestrians die each year on that stretch, in 700 crashes.  

“It’s a road,” said Andrew Stober, former chief of staff for the mayor’s office of transportation and utilities, “that doesn’t work for anybody.”

The Boulevard is essentially a suburban road in an urban environment, with complications abounding on its 12 lanes. Can it ever get better? This is how Roosevelt Boulevard got to be a mess and how city planners want to clean it up.  

How it became so unwieldy

Roosevelt Boulevard was supposed to be Philadelphia’s beautiful country road when first envisioned in the early 20th century, a way to connect the rural Northeast to the rest of the city. For a while, it was. The Boulevard had minimal traffic until the 1930s and 1940s, when the Northeast began sprawling into what it’s become today. As the Northeast grew, the city had to keep adding to the Boulevard.

In the 1950s, Philadelphia began a project to connect it to the Schuylkill Expressway. Legendary city planner Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin!) referred to it in a 1950 press release as “this great highway which this city so badly needs.” The connection to the Schuylkill pumped the Boulevard full of cars; for decades the city generally accommodated the growth by adding new lanes. The Boulevard was originally designed to be massive so it could be this beautiful country road. When it began serving close to 100,000 trips per day, it needed to use the width to fit all the vehicles.

“It didn’t build all at once,” said Angela Dixon, director planning for the office of transportation and infrastructure systems. “There wasn’t this comprehensive vision. [It was] ‘let’s add another lane.’”

It was originally thought the city and SEPTA would alleviate some of the congestion by adding better public transit options. In the late 1960s, about $1 million was spent on building a Broad Street Line subway station at Roosevelt Boulevard and Adams Avenue. But the BSL was never extended that far, and the station has gone unused. A study in the early aughts again proposed extending the BSL but soon federal funding for projects like that dried up, and nothing came to fruition.    

Why it’s failing now

When Stober said Roosevelt Boulevard is a road that works for nobody, he was right: People who walk, drive or take public transit are all pretty badly screwed.

  • Driving is complicated AF: Despite being 12 lanes wide, Roosevelt Boulevard is still not big enough to accommodate the amount of cars it sees during rush hour. Things get further complicated because of local and express lanes that require drivers to switch lanes often and basically have no idea what they’re doing.

“It really is overwhelming,” Davis said. “People do not feel comfortable when they’re on the Boulevard.”

Then at night, when traffic ends, they get too comfortable. Roosevelt Boulevard is once again an open road, closer to that country road it was nearly 100 years ago. That’s also a problem because the wide open space leads to racing and speeding.

“These roads are really designed for more than 45 (mph),” said Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “They’re designed for people to drive 70. You have highways going through residential neighborhoods.”

  • Walking is dangerous: The areas along the Boulevard may not be as dense as neighborhoods closer to Center City, but many people still live within walking distance of stores and restaurants. Despite the demand for walking, six miles of the Boulevard lacks sidewalk, leading people to jaywalk to get to sidewalk. And when they have to cross, they have to cross long distances because of the width of the road and turning lanes that have been carved out.
  •  Buses are too slow: Because the BSL was never extended up to Roosevelt Boulevard the lone option for public transit is the bus system. There are five routes, with the longest one going eight miles on the 14-mile Boulevard. This route, when traffic isn’t bad, takes about 45 minutes to complete. A car covering the same distance on the street takes about half the time.
  • Biking is impossible: You’re pretty much taking your life in your hands if you try. The report stated “The Boulevard is regarded as prohibitively unsafe for cycling.”

How they hope to change it

Roosevelt Boulevard has been overhauled a ton. About $8 million worth of PennDOT funding went into adding things like red light cameras, countdown timers at crosswalks and new signs in recent years. The result: The Boulevard is still Philadelphia’s worst road, experiencing about the same number of crashes as before the recent changes, but not quite as deadly. Before the changes, closer to 14 people per year died on the road.  

Yet last year, Philadelphia received a federal grant of $2.5M so experts could produce another study and eventually make changes to the Boulevard. So can anything be different this time?

Davis said the plan for these improvements will be looking at the Boulevard as a whole, rather than just going for piecemeal changes. The top priority — and the focus of the grant application — will be public transit. SEPTA and the city want to find a way to reduce the time it takes buses to travel on the Boulevard, which would hopefully lead to more people using public transit and reducing traffic.

“If you can make transit preferable to driving, you’ll do two things,” Stober said. “Get people out of cars and onto transit. And two you’ll help promote development and higher density development.”

This year, several community meetings will be held in which improvements can be discussed. But the latest overhaul of Roosevelt Boulevard won’t come quickly. The goal is to make it a better road by 2040.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...