Inquirer Editorial: Roads not taken in the modern metropolis

Voting with their feet: Pedestrians crossing Chestnut Street in University City.
Voting with their feet: Pedestrians crossing Chestnut Street in University City. (File)
Posted: August 20, 2013

No doubt reports of the demise of car ownership in Philadelphia and other metropolitan areas are premature - just ask any driver idling away a rush hour on the Schuylkill.

But the gathering evidence that driving is being seen as something less than a required rite of youthful passage should be welcome in Philadelphia and other cities that offer so many ways to get around - and in regions whose air quality can only benefit from a drop in the number of people behind the wheel.

Driver licensing among 19-year-olds has fallen 20 percent over the last two decades, and nearly half of that decline took place in the last few years. So it's no wonder researchers are popping the hood on this trend and trying to understand it.

A study released by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute this month showed that many young Americans say they can get around without a car. They even prefer taking mass transit, hopping on a bicycle, or walking. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has reported similar findings.

For a walkable city that has experienced a downtown residential boom, the studies underscore the value of public and private initiatives to promote cycling and car-sharing services, keep Center City and nearby neighborhoods clean and safe, expand recreational access along the Delaware River and Schuylkill, and upgrade major public spaces, like City Hall's Dilworth Plaza.

Certainly the prospects of the city's planned bike-sharing program look more promising as more city residents eschew driving. Its launch, expected in the fall of 2014, can't come too soon. Some 35 other cities already offer bikes for short-term rental, linking commuters with transit stops and tourists with historic and other sites.

In the coming months, Mayor Nutter's aides should be seeking bids for the bike-sharing system. City capital dollars have been allocated, and there's every reason to expect that state and federal grants are part of the mix of funding needed to assure an ample fleet of bicycles and convenient docking stations around Center City and beyond.

Work also needs to continue on the fledgling bike and pedestrian path along the Delaware to catch up with the Schuylkill River Trail, which is being extended southward.

For all that, the transportation backbone of a city where it's possible to live without a car will remain SEPTA's extensive train, bus, and trolley network. The agency's operating budget and maintenance are facing an uncertain future, however, in the absence of a comprehensive solution to Pennsylvania's statewide transportation funding problem. Plans have been on the drawing board in Harrisburg for several years, so it's long past time for Gov. Corbett and Republican legislative leaders to map out a plan to pay for roads and transit.

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