The Transitway, Roundly Criticized, Is Under Scrutiny

Posted: April 13, 1986

When the Chestnut Street Transitway opened 10 years ago, Philadelphians wondered just what to make of it.

For more than a decade, they had been hearing talk of converting the city's premier shopping street into a pedestrian mall - a festive, colorful promenade, sans autos, that would bring back the shoppers who were shunning Center City in favor of the burgeoning suburban shopping centers.

But what was unveiled as the city began the Bicentennial celebration in 1976 was something quite different - an asphalt street flanked by brick sidewalks with strangely designed street lamps and traffic-signal posts that looked like an architect's vision of the street of the future. It was not a mall at all, but a federally funded transitway, and 1,000 SEPTA buses a day were soon rumbling along its pavement.

Now, a decade later, the city is reassessing Chestnut Street. With the lifting of federal restrictions on use of the 12-block transitway, city officials are considering dramatic changes in the street that nearly everyone agrees has failed to fulfill its promise.

A city task force, formed by the Goode administration last year, has launched a major study to re-examine the much-maligned transitway and suggest ways to improve it. And officials emphasize that all options are currently under review - everything from removing the buses and creating a full pedestrian mall to allowing cars back on the street during the day.

While no final decisions have been made, task force members and the project consultants indicate that they expect to propose a middle course - removing full-size buses from the street and replacing them with smaller, lower- polluting shuttle buses that would be "human-scale" and less threatening to pedestrians.

In addition, the consultants are already recommending that the futuristic furnishings - from the hulking traffic-signal posts, which were christened transitrons by their creators, to the drab, bulky planters that often contain more trash than greenery - be scrapped in favor of streamlined amenities that would encourage people to linger on Chestnut Street rather than to hurry by.

"We now have a chance to remake Chestnut Street," said Alphonse Pignataro, executive director of the Center City Association of Proprietors and a task force member.

"It's just a shame that Chestnut Street never became what I think everyone expected it to be 10 years ago - a friendly, convenient place for people to walk on," he said. "I know that's what I expected. I feel gypped. I never expected it to be a place where you'd have to be afraid of getting hit by a bus.

"Now we're getting a second chance. And this time, I think we have to do it right."

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Doing it right, city officials and business leaders agree, requires more than just design improvements and smaller buses. What is also needed, they say, is the kind of diligent maintenance - from cleaning the sidewalks to weeding the flower pots - that can be achieved only by greater cooperation between Chestnut Street merchants and the city.

The task force has been considering instituting a mall-management program under which property owners along Chestnut and neighboring streets would be assessed a special tax. Revenues from the tax would go to a separate fund, possibly administered by a quasi-public organization, which would be used exclusively for improving and maintaining the transitway.

As part of its mission, the proposed organization would attempt to reverse what many task force members regard as a disturbing trend - the proliferation of drugstores, stereo shops and video arcades along the transitway. By working with property owners, the group would seek to attract the kind of upscale retail stores that once flourished on Chestnut Street.

"What happened with Chestnut Street," said Barbara Kaplan, executive director of the City Planning Commission, "is that you tried to simulate a suburban shopping mall, but you didn't have the package of controls in place to make it work. You can't create a mall or a transitway, and then try to treat it like any other city street. It simply won't work."

"Chestnut Street needs to be completely rethought," said Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit group based in New York City that has studied malls and transitways in cities across the country. "I think Chestnut Street is an example of a mall that nobody really understood the use of when they designed it."

In fact, from the day it was formally dedicated a decade ago, the Chestnut Street Transitway has tried to serve a dual function as both a transit route for SEPTA buses and a shopping mall for pedestrians. At times, even the transitway's most ardent advocates concede, those purposes have been in conflict, as unsuspecting pedestrians - lulled by a sense of being on a mall rather than a street - have ventured off the brick sidewalks and into the path of a 13-ton bus.

That was hardly the original intent of the city's planners. As early as the late 1950s, they were talking about converting traffic-clogged Chestnut Street into a full-scale pedestrian mall as a way to keep the downtown competitive with the ever-increasing suburban shopping centers.

The 1963 master plan for Center City envisioned a landscaped mall running the full length of Chestnut Street from the Schuylkill to the Delaware River. Instead of buses, the plan proposed light-rail trolleys or jitneys intended to "create a festive atmosphere" and help Chestnut "become one of the great streets of the world."

The idea remained on the planners' drawing boards until the mid-1970s, when the necessary funds finally became available from the federal government.

But since most of the project's $7 million cost was to be paid for by a grant from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, the concept of a pedestrian mall with jitneys or "people-oriented" trolleys had to be revised to give priority to mass transit. The city's main shopping street was now to become a transitway, with its primary purpose being to move buses more smoothly and rapidly through crowded Center City.

"That's always been the conflict with Chestnut Street," said David Fogel, transit planner for the city Department of Public Property. "It was funded as a bus street, yet it serves so many other functions. . . . The city was glad to take the (federal) money. But the restrictions went along with it."

Instead of extending from river to river, as the planners had proposed, the transitway was limited to between Sixth and 18th Streets. Sidewalks were widened and repaved in brick, Belgian blocks were laid across the mid-block crosswalks, and specially designed street furniture - which one critic suggested might have been "left over from the 1964 World's Fair" - was installed along every block.

The mid-block transitrons, soon to be plastered with posters promoting everything from political candidates to rock concerts, were obsolete even before the transitway opened. Originally, plans called for bus stops in the middle of each block, as a way to prevent buses from barreling down the street. However, at the 11th hour, the mid-block bus stops were scrapped, leaving the transitrons without a purpose.

Under terms of the federal grant, Chestnut Street had to remain a transitway with high-volume bus traffic for at least 10 years. That restriction expired in November, leading the city to start examining alternatives.

In the eyes of Edmund N. Bacon, former executive director of the City Planning Commission, a reassessment of the transitway was long overdue.

Bacon, who helped devise the original concept of a Chestnut Street mall before leaving city government in 1970, said in a recent interview that the project that ultimately was completed "failed miserably" in creating the kind of atmosphere he had envisioned. The full-size SEPTA buses are ''intimidating" to pedestrians, he said, and the street furnishings - from the benches to the transitrons - are "just abysmal."

John Hart, a consultant working on the city's study of Chestnut Street, agrees with Bacon that the street furnishings should be removed and ultimately replaced.

Hart, project manager for Norman Day Associates, noted that the wooden benches - many of them now broken and smeared with graffiti - were designed with concrete-and-granite walls behind them that cause trash and debris to get trapped underneath. The mammoth granite planters occupy too much sidewalk space and often end up being used as trash receptacles, he said.

Hart pointed out that the furnishings were placed at the same location in every block, without regard to the different uses along the street. Noting that Chestnut Street "is not an homogeneous strip," he suggested the improvements and paving material vary in each block. For example, he said, perhaps blocks that are routinely crowded with pedestrians, such as the 1500 block, should have no benches and a minimum of amenities that obstruct the sidewalk.

While emphasizing the study is not completed, Hart said he anticipated the consultants would recommend that the city extend the transitway west four blocks, to 22d Street. Such an extension was desirable, he said, because expansion of office development west along Market Street has created an increase in pedestrians on those blocks.

Richard Orth, the traffic engineer coordinating the study, said he expected to propose using small-scale shuttle buses along Chestnut Street and rerouting all or some the current SEPTA routes onto Walnut and Market Streets. The use of shuttle buses, which could be built low to the ground so riders could look out at store windows, was favored by both merchants and shoppers in a recent survey by his group, said Orth, who is a partner in Orth-Rodgers & Associates.

The shuttle-bus idea has been opposed by SEPTA officials, who say that they cannot afford to buy new vehicles and that rerouting regular buses would only add to traffic congestion on adjacent streets.

"What we would not like to see," said Robert Wooten, SEPTA's assistant general manager for public affairs, "is an attempt to improve the aesthetics . . . at the expense of smooth and reliable transit service."

Although the transitway was created primarily to improve bus service, the data collected as part of the city study has raised questions about how well that mission has been accomplished. Statistics compiled by the city's consultants indicate that SEPTA buses travel no faster along the Chestnut transitway than they do along parallel blocks of Walnut.

Wooten said such statistics can be misleading, since removing buses from Chestnut would only slow down traffic on Walnut or other streets where they would be rerouted. In addition, he noted, the flow of buses on Chestnut could be improved if the police would be more vigilant in preventing illegally parked cars and trucks from clogging the transitway bus lanes.

City statistics also show that accidents involving pedestrians have not decreased on the 12-block stretch of Chestnut since the creation of the transitway, despite the daytime banning of cars and trucks. (Since 1981, cars have been allowed on the transitway between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.).

According to city records, the number of incidents of pedestrians being struck by autos at cross-street intersections along Chestnut has actually increased since the transitway opened. Orth believes these statistics can be explained by the fact that pedestrians strolling on the transitway's brick sidewalks tend to forget they are returning to a regular street when they reach an intersection.

To make matters worse, he said, motorists on north-south streets often do not realize they are crossing the transitway. He suggested paving the intersections in a different material, perhaps cobblestone, to alert drivers that they are nearing a special street.

Certainly, it currently is difficult for the passing motorist to distinguish Chestnut from other Center City streets. Between 1981 and 1983, police issued an average of 150 traffic tickets per month along Chestnut, the majority of them to drivers who illegally turned onto the transitway. Police officials acknowledge that at least some of those motorists probably did not realize they had entered a prohibited street.

Nor is Chestnut Street distinguished by the quality of its business establishments. Once known as the city's prime shopping street, Chestnut has been overrun with quick-stop shops, such as drugstores, discount stores and fast-food joints.

"You've got Rite-Aids and Health-Aids, all kinds of aids. Just what are they doing to Chestnut Street?" said Albert Pearson, who, along with his brother Jack, has operated Pearson's Sporting Goods at 1128 Chestnut since 1937. "This is a street that used to be considered one of the finest shopping streets in the country because of the stores that were here, stores with class."

City planners and business leaders question whether the transitway has been a major factor in the changing retail face of Chestnut Street.

Far more significant, they say, has been the overall development trend in Center City, particularly the construction of office towers on Market Street. According to the planners, this has caused Chestnut to become a "service street" for office workers from Market Street or JFK Boulevard who want to pick up a bottle of shampoo or a sandwich on their lunch hours.

"I really don't think that creating the transitway or not creating the transitway had very much to do with the problems that are affecting Chestnut Street," said Kaplan of the Planning Commission.

Tackling Chestnut Street's problems, the planners and many leaders in the business community agree, requires the kind of maintenance and management that the city alone cannot provide. The merchants and property owners along Chestnut must participate, they say, perhaps through the creation of the special tax district and the quasi-public agency that would use the tax revenue to manage the transitway.

"Right now, Chestnut is a street trying to define itself," said developer Willard G. Rouse 3d, whose Liberty Place office-retail complex is planned to include the north side of the 1700 block of Chestnut.

"There's no question there needs to be some type of public-private partnership to make the street live up to its potential," he said. "We just have to find the right formula."

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