Could Chestnut Street turn into a car-free roadway, easing Center City access for buses, bicyclists and folks on foot? Word from the city about this potential fix for the constantly traffic-clogged strip is…probably not.
“Not at this time,” Streets Department spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco told Billy Penn. “Right now we are focused on making the existing configuration work better.”
That’s not stopping one local resident from trying — even though the idea has been attempted and dismissed in Philly before.
Banning private cars on central urban roadways is a growing trend. Parts of Times Square in NYC became a pedestrian plaza over a decade ago, and New York recently followed up by turning 14th Street into a bus- and bikeway. San Francisco just did the same along its Market Street thoroughfare.
After getting stuck in traffic on his drive home from Wissahickon Valley Park, Jeff Stern was inspired to take congestion-related matters into his own hands. He posted an online petition to eliminate personal vehicles from Chestnut Street and made it easy to find at CancelCars.com. So far, nearly 400 people have signed.
The motivation is to create more space for pedestrians — and speed up existing bus networks. In New York, the move was lauded as “transformative,” turning the lower Manhattan corridor from a congested mess into a usable public transit line.
“Since they made the change, buses are getting down the street in half the time,” Stern said. “Improving bus times would be an amazing benefit, and improving foot traffic on the sidewalks could help local businesses.”
Philadelphia does have one similar project already underway. The 1100 block of Filbert adjacent to Reading Terminal Market is being rejiggered so it can flip from car-free to regular trafficway and back.
The optional pedestrian plaza was supposed to be up and running by this spring, but the date has been pushed back to summer, according to a Reading Terminal Market spokesperson.
When it’s ready, that block of Filbert will be fronted by retractable bollards that, when raised, make it impassable to cars. There will also be widened sidewalks that flow into the curbless street, and areas that welcome removable seating.
The Streets Department is still drafting the memorandum of understanding. The next step, happening any day now, will be to send out the RFP for construction. Officials said they hope to have everything completed by RTM’s annual Ice Cream Scoop event on June 27, but it might take longer.
Memories of the 1970s ‘Transitway’
Stern isn’t the first Philadelphian to suggest shutting down Chestnut. In fact, it actually happened — under the oversight of famed city planner Edmund Bacon.
Opened in 1975, the so-called “Transitway” turned Chestnut Street into a pedestrian plaza from 6th to 18th. The thoroughfare had wide sidewalks and two bus lanes running in either direction.
“Because it was a product of the ’70s, when cities were struggling to compete with suburban shopping, the Transitway was really an urban mall in transit clothing, featuring elaborately paved sidewalks, lots of pedestrian seating, and futuristic traffic lights called ‘Transitrons,’” according to Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron.
But the Transitway totally flopped. Business owners blamed it for trash on the sidewalks and an unruly Easter Parade, when folks busted shop windows in 1985.
To be fair, this happened during a time when Philadelphia was experiencing a downturn. As the city lost 22% of its population and hundreds of thousands of jobs vanished, the innovative Chestnut Street project was targeted as one of the scapegoats.
Waning support for the project led the city to scale it back, at first allowing cars in the evenings — and eventually dismantling the project altogether and turning it back into a regular roadway.
Stern thinks the project is worth pursuing again. “The ’70s are 40 years ago,” he said. “I think the city operates very differently. It’s a new generation of people.”
Chestnut is the right pick, Stern said, because it’s a business corridor set on a relatively dangerous roadway for pedestrians. It’s among the 12% of Philly streets where half the city’s traffic deaths and injuries happen, per data compiled by Vision Zero. It also boasts the useful 42 bus route which is often relegated to stand-still traffic.
His petition would allow for commercial and personal vehicles to use the roadway for a block at a time for drop-offs, a change he added after speaking with reps from the 5th Square urbanist PAC.
“Everyone has an opinion on this — you either love the idea or you’re terrified of change,” Stern said. “Just the fact that people are talking about this and thinking about what it would be like to live on a street without cars, that alone is really cool.”