Opinion: If Philly cares about safety, we should ban cars from Chestnut Street

Somewhere out there, a world exists where we don’t blame SEPTA for being late.

Chestnut Street in Center City, June 2019

Chestnut Street in Center City, June 2019

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
lobasso

Randy LoBasso is the policy manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. This piece reflects his opinions.


Philadelphia should outlaw private cars on Chestnut Street. That’s become increasingly obvious to anyone who’s sat in a bus on that street, driven on it, walked it, or experienced the Center City corridor by any other means of travel.

The idea of a car-free thoroughfare in the middle of the city has a lot of people talking right now.

City dwellers across the country have watched in awe as New York City and San Francisco have given their streets back to people. Over the last four months, New York City has banned private vehicles on 14th street in Manhattan, and San Francisco has gotten rid of cars on Market Street. Officials in both cities have heeded the calls for more people-first corridors.

In Philly, safer streets advocates and urbanists have been circling the wagons on the issue, and getting the word out on how to make it happen. Resident Jeff Stern recently created a petition encouraging the city to #CancelCars on the downtown street this summer. It’s since garnered more than 600 signatures via Change.org.

“We, the citizens of Philadelphia, are ready for this. We see the car bans happening around the world as nothing short of revolutionary,” Stern wrote in his petition.

The city has been quick to shrug the revolution off. Responding to the petition, a spokesperson told Billy Penn that a car-free Chestnut Street is not in the current plan.

But it should be. Keeping private vehicles off this street would speed up the well-used bus route and increase ridership. It would provide a pedestrian-friendly zone for city dwellers and visitors, and, most importantly, it’d make the corridor safer.

Crashes way down, bus speed up

To understand how a car-free Chestnut Street would benefit Philadelphia, we can look at data obtained from New York’s 14th Street busway project.

According to an analysis by Streetsblog NYC, crashes have shrunk by more than half since installing the busway in October 2019, when compared to the same data from a year earlier.

That change comes in addition to bus speeds increasing 35% and ridership going up 17% over the same time period. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority in NYC found that 5,000 more people have been riding the bus on 14th Street each weekday since the car ban started. This is a corridor that had previously seen 21,000 vehicles pass through each day.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or a mayor! — to see what’s going on: Removing cars has enhanced safety for all road users,” noted Streetsblog editor Gertz Kuntzman, in his report on the decreasing vehicle violence.

In all, total crashes on 14th Street, between Third and Ninth avenues in Manhattan, have decreased 53%; injuries are down 63% compared to a year earlier; and crashes that resulted in injuries are down 68%.

Philadelphia hasn’t seen these sorts of reductions on any of our streets, anywhere, since implementing its Vision Zero Program in 2016.

Fewer cars = fewer crashes

Private vehicle dominance over Philadelphia’s 2,575 miles of streets has created a smoggy, congested, pothole-ridden, unsafe city, where we endure 1,000 hit-and-run crashes per month, and roughly 100 people die in traffic each year.

Many of the city’s ongoing Vision Zero projects have had positive effects; it’s just that as long as people are driving cars next to vulnerable road users, bad things are going to happen.

We spend all this time petitioning, planning, taking part in contentious meetings, and (eventually) building, to create safe streets. Wouldn’t it be easier to just leave the streets as is, while removing the single most dangerous variable?

Reducing the number of people driving cars in the city will go a long way toward the city’s Vision Zero goals. Fewer cars mean fewer chances of an incident happening — simple fact. A car-free Chestnut would also increase the opportunities for citizens to ride public transit downtown without showing up late to wherever they need to go.

Due to a number of factors, bus ridership in Philadelphia plummeted 8% between 2017 and 2018. In addition to the “Connect” bus network redesign underway, it may be time to try something completely different. Somewhere out there, a future exists where we don’t blame SEPTA for being late.

Banning cars and reducing usage is the future of the American city.

Whether it’s for cleaning up congestion, creating a more efficient bus system, or reducing traffic crashes in the city, this is an idea whose time has come. Philly should get on board.

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