Changing Skyline: Pedestrian safety is becoming a focus

At the busy corner of 15th and Chestnut Streets, scaffolding for a building facade project further complicates matters for pedestrians on the sidewalk.
At the busy corner of 15th and Chestnut Streets, scaffolding for a building facade project further complicates matters for pedestrians on the sidewalk. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)

City officials are starting to look at it as a quality-of-life issue. But how best to improve it?

Posted: June 21, 2014

More than a month later, the horror of Zachary Woods' death still sends a chill down a pedestrian's spine. The 27-year-old Wharton student was walking along Walnut Street toward the Penn campus on a bright Tuesday morning when an out-of-control motorist slammed into another car at the 30th Street intersection. Spinning like a top, the car jumped the sidewalk on the south side and sent Woods plunging over the railing into Penn Park, 38 feet below.

While news reports called it a "freak accident," you can't help wondering if it was entirely unpredictable. That part of Walnut Street is an elevated viaduct that dates from the days when engineers believed their highest calling was to move traffic quickly. The sidewalks are skimpy by Philadelphia standards, the roadway broader. It appears that Woods was struck as he crossed the part of the intersection where there are no parked cars to serve as a protective barrier.

Philadelphia likes to think of itself as a pedestrian-friendly place, with good sidewalks and short, lively blocks, and yet its safety record for pedestrians still leaves something to be desired.

On one hand, Philadelphia came in fourth nationally in this year's Walk Score rankings. Thanks to new countdown signals at intersections, fresh striping at crosswalks, and traffic cameras to deter speeding, crashes involving pedestrians have dropped 10 percent since 2007.

But pedestrian fatalities in Philadelphia still account for a far higher proportion of traffic deaths than they do elsewhere in the United States: 32 percent here vs. 14 percent nationally. Philadelphia has the highest number of pedestrian fatalities of any county in Pennsylvania, and the total rose by three in 2013, to 37, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The most gruesome was the death of Samara Banks and her three children, mowed down by a speeding motorist as they hurried across 300-foot-wide Roosevelt Boulevard.

So, yes, we could be doing better, acknowledges Andrew Stober, of the Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities.

Until recently, pedestrian issues hardly registered on the city's radar. Beat cops frequently turned a blind eye to speeders careering through neighborhoods. Philadelphia drivers can still make illegal turns with impunity.

Policy-making agencies haven't done much better. The Zoning Board has been all too willing to compromise the city's gracious sidewalks by slicing them up with garage driveways, setting up dangerous conflicts between walkers and drivers. The Department of Licenses & Inspections rarely demands that developers provide safe passage for construction projects. And it's unheard-of to get cited for a broken sidewalk.

Part of the problem is that pedestrians, unlike bicyclists, never have banded together as a group to fight for rights and respect. Even though everyone walks at one time or another, pedestrians don't have a sense of identity, says Deborah Schaaf, a retired Philadelphia city planner now trying to reinvigorate the pedestrian-rights group Feet First Philly. "Pedestrians are really tough to organize," she concedes.

But there's some evidence that the pedestrians' moment may have arrived.

Now that the decades of decline and runaway crime seem to be over, and Philadelphia's population is growing again, police are finally starting to see pedestrian safety as a quality-of-life issue. Stober says his office is working to sensitize the department to the issues and encourage them to ramp up enforcement. In late April, days before Woods' death, his department secured a $525,000 federal grant to promote pedestrian safety on several of the most dangerous corridors in the city.

The question is, how should they do it?

In some cities, police have sought to reduce pedestrian injuries by cracking down on jaywalking. For a while, the Los Angeles police were even ticketing pedestrians who dared to step off the curb before the light changed. Such zeal is misguided, because it assumes that pedestrians - and not cars - are the problem.

In Europe, there's even a school of thought that responsible jaywalking is a good thing. It sounds counterintuitive, but the more obstacles that a street presents, the more carefully people will drive because they have to apply their full attention. Challenging street conditions may even discourage the scourge of texting and driving. Of course, jaywalkers are still obliged to yield to motorists and avoid tapping on their own phones.

In his book Walkable City, Jeff Speck singles out the complex, X-shaped intersection near Passyunk Avenue and Wharton Street - epicenter of the Pat's Steak/Geno's competition - as a great example of "human traffic calming" caused by complex conditions. Such design goes against conventional traffic-engineering wisdom, which seeks to eliminate all outside obstacles.

Stober agrees that issuing jaywalking tickets is the wrong approach. His department plans to spend most of the federal grant on an advertising campaign aimed at fighting "distracted traveling," reminding both drivers and pedestrians to put down their phones. Some money will also be spent to create training videos for police.

Our notions about pedestrian safety are changing. While it's still common to call crashes like the one that killed Woods and Banks "accidents," pedestrian advocates such as are pushing for new words that shift more responsibility to drivers. New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, even ran for office on a pledge to cut pedestrian fatalities to zero.

It will take more than education and language changes to reverse Philadelphia's car-centric habits. Just this week, the Zoning Board approved four more garage-fronted rowhouses on Bainbridge Street, even though they are outlawed in the code. Nor have any charges been filed against the motorist who caused Woods' death.

There was a suggestion that the motorist suffered a seizure. Police say they are still investigating, and trying to figure out what caused the "freak accident" on Walnut Street.

Changing Skyline: Top 10 Corridors for Pedestrian-Involved Accidents

1. Market Street from City Hall to Eighth Street.

2. Chestnut Street from 22d Street to 16th Street.

3. Broad Street from Oregon to Snyder Avenues.

4. 52d Street from Baltimore Avenue to Sansom Street.

5. Allegheny Avenue from G Street to Martha Street.

6. Market Street from City Hall to 20th Street.

7. Chestnut Street from Broad Street to Eighth Street.

8. Broad Street from Allegheny Avenue to Cumberland Street.

9. JFK Boulevard from 15th Street to 20th Street.

10. Broad Street from City Hall to Vine Street.

SOURCE: The Mayor's Office of Transportation and Utilities.

215-854-2213 @ingasaffron

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