Making city streets safer for pedestrians

Posted: November 08, 2011

By Gustave Scheerbaum

Getting from one place to another safely and efficiently is a fundamental part of life. Philadelphia is fortunate in that a good portion of the population lives relatively close to the heart of the city, permitting many to get around by foot and bicycle. So how much should we value making transportation safer and more efficient, including walking and biking, and how should we balance that against our romance with cars?

The South of South Neighborhood Association tackled this question through a project called Better Blocks Philly, part of last month's DesignPhiladelphia festival. Better Blocks engaged residents, the design community, civic leaders, and city officials in a demonstration of traffic-calming, pedestrian-safety, and street-beautification techniques. It included a temporary functioning exhibit of these techniques on the 1700 blocks of Christian and Webster Streets.

The South of South neighborhood had the benefit of a 2009 City Planning Commission report that concentrated on walkability in the area, especially around schools. One key facet of walkability is safety.

Thousands of traffic fatalities involving pedestrians and bicycles occur around the country each year, most of them in cities, and there is a strong correlation between pedestrian survival rates and vehicle speed. As vehicle speed increases from 20 to 30 m.p.h., the odds of pedestrian death rise from 5 percent to 45 percent; as speed reaches 40 m.p.h., that figure reaches 85 percent. We must do what we can to decrease vehicle speeds in areas where people walk.

Better Blocks demonstrated some of the measures recommended in the Planning Commission study. Among them were mid-block pedestrian crossings that include a large Abbey Road-style crosswalk, a "yield to pedestrians" sign in the middle of the street, and temporary gardens on either side. The gardens slow vehicles by narrowing the area available to cars, enhance the visibility of pedestrians approaching the crossing, and improve the streetscape aesthetically.

Also demonstrated were chicanes, which are alternating diversions on either side of a one-way street. The diversions force drivers to steer to the left, then to the right, and so on as they move down the block, effectively reducing their speed. A series of chicanes was constructed using temporary plantings of trees, shrubs, and sod.

Such measures work because they don't ask drivers to slow down; they make it necessary for them to slow down. They also create a more interesting, interactive driving experience that is inherently safer.

As with many neighborhoods around the city, parking is at a premium in South of South. Even the temporary installations had an important impact in this regard; the mid-block crossings, for example, occupied about four parking spaces. But this is a worthwhile trade-off for pedestrian safety and walkability.

To be permanent, such features would require more planning, funding, and commitment on the part of the city and residents. Better Blocks' message for the neighborhood is that these concepts really could make residential blocks safer, more walkable, and more pleasant. Its message for drivers, meanwhile, is that they must slow down for pedestrians, including children walking to school or playing in front of their homes. And its message for civic leaders and city officials is that citizens want them to pay more attention to pedestrian-safety and urban-planning measures that can make the city a more desirable place to live and work.

Better Blocks was about "complete streets" that help people get from one place to another regardless of whether they are in a car. It is our neighborhood association's hope that others will join the effort to create complete streets around Philadelphia and beyond.

Gustave Scheerbaum is chairman of the South of South Neighborhood Association, a member of the Pennsylvania Transportation Advisory Committee, and a licensed professional engineer. He can be reached at

comments powered by Disqus