Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

After receiving applications from 28 neighborhoods, Philly officials selected two Slow Zone pilot areas: a section of Fairhill between North Second and Fifth streets and Allegheny and Glenwood avenues, and the community around Willard Elementary between Somerset and Clearfield streets and Kensington and Frankford avenues.

Each city section will receive $450,000 to test out traffic calming changes, set to be implemented by September 2021.

In a city where no one can agree on anything except their support of a football player’s large package and a mascot that’s purposely weird, Philly neighborhoods seem to have agreed on one surprisingly contentious point:

They want people to drive slower. A lot slower.

It’s been almost two years since Philadelphia adopted a program called Vision Zero, aimed at reducing traffic-related deaths to zero by 2030. As part of the program, the city is now working to set up a couple of Slow Zones.

Implemented already in cities like New York and Boston, these zones have speed limits lowered to 20 miles per hour and traffic-calming devices like speed cushions and corner clearances near crosswalks. They work to reduce the overall velocity of cars traveling through residential neighborhoods with one ultimate goal: killing fewer pedestrians.

“There’s a need for traffic safety improvement in our neighborhoods,” Charlotte Castle, the city’s Vision Zero and neighborhood programs coordinator, told Billy Penn. “This is our first effort at improving low-volume, residential streets.”

Officials are basically sold on the idea, but the changes needed cost big bucks, so they’re starting small. The $1 million state grant Philadelphia got for a pilot will pay for Slow Zones in just two neighborhoods.

There’s an application process to narrow down the contenders, in which individuals and neighborhood associations can set forth arguments as to why they need slower streets more than anyone else.

Apps aren’t due until Jan. 18,  but more than 20 Philly neighborhoods have already contacted Castle to proclaim their interest.

From protesting speed cushions to begging for them

Communities all over the city are fighting to win over Vision Zero officials. Here’s a small sample of the neighborhoods applying:

“There’s fairly wide interest in this program across the city,” Castle confirmed. “The residents are really excited about this idea.”

It makes sense that neighborhoods would want drivers to slow down — compared to other metro centers, Philadelphia streets are relatively unsafe for pedestrians. In 2018, the city saw at least 89 people killed in traffic incidents, including seven children, according to Bicycle Coalition tracking. And while the number of fatalities has gone down year after year statewide, it continues to increase in Philly.

Even so, the widespread interest is surprising, given that Philadelphians are generally reluctant to drive more slowly. Just three years ago, East Falls neighbors actually protested when speed cushions were installed on the main roads around their block.

“We had some controversy here when we put in speed cushions on Queen Lane and Schoolhouse Lane,” said John Gillespie, chair of the traffic committee for the East Falls Community Council. “They felt they hadn’t been sufficiently informed.”

So what’s with the sudden buy-in?

Perhaps the application process generated competitive spirit among Philly neighborhoods. Or perhaps, argued one applicant, city residents are on board with traffic safety… as long as it feels like it’s their idea.

“It seems like asking the neighbors to initiate it themselves makes it much more palatable,” said Kyle Hearing, who’s applying on behalf of the Harrowgate Civic Association. “It’s our initiative, it’s not someone coming in and planning for us.”

Community-designed solutions

Hearing has a point — unlike many traffic initiatives in the city, the Slow Zone program is centered around community input.

In the application, residents get to choose specific square-quarter-mile sections to pilot the program. There are only a few restrictions. For example: the area can’t include streets that have painted center lines (although those streets can serve as boundaries).

A sample map that residents have to submit in their Slow Zone applications Credit: Via Vision Zero Slow Zone Application Form

Applicants are encouraged to point out any community hubs located within their enclosure — think schools, libraries, parks and religious institutions. They also need to provide a letter of support from their city councilperson and signatures from their neighbors.

“The application itself is not too hard, it’s just trying to do the legwork of meeting with everyone and getting letters of support,” said Kate Mundie, who’s applying for two separate sections of East Passyunk. “That’s what ends up being difficult.”

Harrowgate’s Hearing agreed: “The biggest lift is going to be collecting all the petitions that have been distributed.”

But for the two neighborhoods that are chosen, the payout will likely be worth it. They’ll get the opportunity to walk through the pilot areas alongside Vision Zero officials, recommending the ways they’d like their neighborhood to be made safer.

“We’re going to have meetings with the public — the residents in the Slow Zones that have been selected — to work with them to do design workshops leading up to construction,” Castle said. “We want to find out the problems they’re having and come up with a solution that meets their needs.”

What’s next?

In Harrowgate, Hearing brought up the idea for the second time last week at a regular civic association meeting.

To his surprise, his neighbors remain on board with the idea.

“People were receptive,” he said. “I was definitely prepared for some folks who were not super interested in the idea of lowering speed limits, but that wasn’t the case.”

Applications from Hearing and other neighborhood reps are due in a few weeks. Semi-finalists will be selected by March 1, after which officials will tour those community meetings to make sure everyone is still on board with the program.

When will winners be chosen? Unclear. The grant requires everything be totally done by September 2021 — but other than that, there’s no set timeline.

And for the losing neighborhoods, Vision Zero officials will continue to seek funding to establish Slow Zones all around the city. In the meantime, Castle encouraged folks seek speed cushions and independent solutions through their local Council offices.

It’s not a moment too soon for city residents like Mundie, who worry every day about the fate of their loved ones due to traffic issues in their neighborhoods.

“My husband was hit by a driver in May, which he was able to walk away from,” she said. “But my kids are out walking and biking. This is important to me.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...