Urbanists, Rejoice: Philly Is Getting Its First Complete Streets Commissioner

Mayor Kenney is adding the position to his staff. It shows just how much power bikers and urbanists have gained in recent years.

Image by Bryan Hanes and Parsons Brinkerhoff

Market Street reimagined as more multimodal. | Image by Bryan Hanes and Parsons Brinkerhoff

Need proof of how far urbanists have come over the last few years? Mayor Jim Kenney is creating a brand-new position in his administration called the “Complete Streets Commissioner,” Citified has learned.

The National Complete Streets Coalition was founded more than a decade ago to ensure that roadways are not only designed for automobiles, but also for cyclists, pedestrians and transit users. Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt says the Complete Streets Commissioner will be tasked with “making sure our streets are as multimodal as possible, including advocating for protected bike lanes.”

This is the same Jim Kenney who, as a City Councilman in 2009, introduced legislation to increase fines for bikers who ride with headphones. I don’t point that out to suggest Kenney is not genuinely supportive of the Complete Streets movement, but rather to show how much things have changed politically in the last few years. On the same day in ’09 that Kenney unveiled his proposal, then-Councilman Frank DiCicco introduced a bill to require cyclists to register their bikes with the city. In 2012, against the cries of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Council gave itself the power to veto bike lanes. “The entire ‘mobility’ agenda … has long provoked epic eye-rolls whenever raised with the city’s political class,” Patrick Kerkstra wrote on Citified last year.

And now? Bikers and urbanists are a recognized political constituency in the city, deemed deserving of virtually their own commissioner.

That doesn’t mean cyclists won’t disagree with Council ever again, but it does mean that they’ll show up to the battleground with more power. The Bicycle Coalition is a big part of the reason this shift has occurred. Last year, the group released a platform for mayoral and Council candidates, which included establishing a Complete Streets Office. It is also organized a mayoral forum, where every Democratic candidate said they supported the “Vision Zero” goal to put an end to traffic deaths.

Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, says she is “very heartened” that Kenney is adding a Complete Streets Commissioner to his staff. “We called for an Office of Complete Streets to be created,” she says, “so we’re very excited Mayor Kenney followed through.”

Along with advocating for more multimodal roads, Hitt says the Complete Streets Commissioner will implement what the Kenney administration is calling its “dig-once” policy, which seeks to cut back on the number of times that the city’s utilities rip up the streets. The idea, says Hitt, is that “when we have to dig for one project, let’s make sure we’re doing any other scheduled [or] needed work that would require tearing up the street at the same time.” The administration is still looking for candidates for the job.

Kenney is creating the position of the Complete Streets Commissioner at the same time that he is phasing out the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. That may make some readers wonder if the Kenney administration is simply renaming MOTU, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Hitt says Kenney is eliminating MOTU as part of his shift toward a strong-managing-director form of government. Deputy Managing Director of Transportation and Infrastructure Clarena Tolson’s office “is the closest thing to a replacement for MOTU,” she says. “In this role, Clarena oversees Streets, Water, Complete Streets and interacts with related transportation and infrastructure agencies, like SEPTA, Philadelphia Energy Authority, etc.”

Stuart, too, says this is a “more than an office name change.”

“Creating a commissioner who is thinking about and looking at all transportation modes, and how to make them safer and work better for everyone, that is new,” she says. “And what that signals is that there is a dedicated, high-ranking official who is assigned the responsibilities to marshall citywide resources and set policy toward the goal of making Philadelphia’s streets safer for everyone.”

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  • Khoury Johnson

    Congrats to the Bike Coalition for getting this done. Wish I was still interning there lol

  • Earl J

    Hopefully the czar will look first at 22nd, between Spring Garden and Fairmount which is a cluster that Greenlee created.

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  • crankset

    I’m hoping someone from the BCGP can write an explainer article on why we should be excited about this. From the outsider’s perspective, MOTU seemed like a really productive and dedicated group that was spurned time and time again by the role City Council has given themselves in transportation planning. How is this Commissioner going to have more agency when it comes to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure projects?

    • kclo3

      Other than bikeshare and the Porch, there is really nothing MOTU can claim as an initiative of their own volition. Interdepartmental cooperation is needed in itself more than just as a function of the Mayor.

      • crankset

        Thanks for a bit of perspective. I think maybe I’m letting my irritation with people like Greenlee in the 22nd street debacle get mixed up with the bummer of stuff like MOTU’s Rittenhouse test lanes that seemed to disappear without a word.

        I’m just a little wary of the way that it seems like the bikePHL internet seems to be in support of this without critique. I’d like to hear from someone who understands the power structure exactly what we’re gaining if we’re losing MOTU. How is this position going to be more effective than the Bike/Ped coordinator at representing bike/ped interests in the case of the mired Washington Ave restriping, for example? Does this position mean the BCGP might get to report on some new bike lanes outside of the Northeast again?

        • Poindexterism

          THANK YOU! People who only experience city government through Twitter and comment boards probably don’t realize it, but MOTU has been essential to the collaborative relationship between all the agencies that work on transportation issues. (Transit First Committee!) Just because their work isn’t blog fodder doesn’t mean they’re not valuable.

          • Khoury Johnson

            I completely agree

    • BCGP

      Hey crankset, we did a couple follow-ups to this, including why this position will be so important for Philadelphia moving forward (http://bicyclecoalition.org/why-a-complete-streets-commissioner-is-so-important-for-philadelphia/#sthash.dglTTixO.dpbs) and a list of our priorities for the Kenney Admin (http://bicyclecoalition.org/kenneys-commitments-on-bikepedtransit-issues/#sthash.27oV73Lp.dpbs)

      • crankset

        Thanks for being so responsive, BCGP. Bob’s analysis is just what I was looking for. I’ll still miss MOTU, but I can see that this isn’t the giant step backwards that I had initially interpreted it as.

  • FULaw

    Bicyclists who ride with headphones are a danger to themselves, other cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians. We don’t say that lawmakers that work to pass laws that fine or increase fines to drivers for driving without seat belts are motor vehicle unfriendly. The other examples make your point much better.

    • Jen

      Then people should no longer listen to music in their cars because it’s “too distracting”. I can tell you haven’t been a bike commuter ever.

      • FULaw

        Jen, I commute to work on my bike every day and travel by bike all over the city. When I do drive, I don’t put headphones in (because it is also illegal in Pennsylvania), I listen to music over the speakers. When I’m riding my bike, I do the same through my phone’s speakers.

    • Ben

      They were simply increasing the fines, when it is something that is barely/never enforced as it is, like most traffic laws in Philly.

      • Tell the Truth II

        Just what I said to punish 4 wheelers for the mistakes of Millennials with headphones in their ears without helmets and when a 4 year degree gets washed down the drain the army will come out to punish 4 wheelers! While the children of the hood will duck bullets from school and play!

  • Gabriel Farrell

    Great news! Certainly a step in the right direction.

  • Tell the Truth II

    The facts are the streets in some locations from parked car to parked car are about the same with as the height of a official basketball hoop! With that said he wants a bike lane on every street in Center City for the Millennials with headphones and when one runs a foul with a 4 wheeler or if a 4 wheeler crosses the white line he will recommend where the troops need to be for aggressive enforcement and revenue raising$! And when the fire department needs to was a 4 year degree down the drain! There he will recommend huge increases in fines and drop speed limits to 0 to combat the mistakes of a millennial on a bike without a helmet!

  • Julius Errrrrrrrving

    This is a great thing provided the City hires the right person to lead this office. If it is yet another retread, I would assume that far less would get done. Clarena is already one step in the wrong direction. Let’s not make that kind of mistake again.

  • John M. Baxter

    Everybody wants to criticize Greenlee for putting a stop to eliminating a car lane in favor of a bike lane on 22nd street. I spoke with him and my impression was that he is just a man who wants to do the right thing for a majority of his constituents. Did he really do something wrong, or is the problem that “complete streets” advocates don’t realize that at least 95% of road users on busier routes still drive cars? I have my serious doubts that bicycle/pedestrian advocates are objective or see the bigger picture. A case history in Long Beach, California where 95% of actual road users were punished so a bike lane could be created for a tiny minority proves my point. I certainly will agree that streets can and should be improved. But, the idea of reconfiguring streets as the only way to improve conditions or stop traffic deaths, while neglecting individual responsibility and education, is simply absurd. We live in major cities most easily accessed for those in surrounding counties, as well as for many in the cities themselves, by car. Devoting an excessive number of needed car lanes to a tiny minority of bike riders just because they are well organized is simply making Philly a ship of fools.

    • crankset

      Greenlee and 22nd street get bike advocates riled because his opposition flies in the face of the purpose of Complete Streets. The fact is that the section of 22nd Street in question is undersized for two travel lanes, and oversized for one travel lane, based on the guidelines in the Complete Streets Handbook that was approved by the Council (including Greenlee) in 2012. It should have been a simple matter of the Streets Dept going out and restriping a travel lane that technically doesn’t even exist as a bicycle lane. Greenlee intervened for whatever reason, and the rest is history.

      It’s a shame because that’s a tough area to ride, and there’s a lot of good research that suggests that adding a bike lane would have calmed traffic to make the stretch of roadway safer for everyone.

      • LinuxGuy

        Traffic flow should be expedited for safety, not calmed. That would make stuff worse.

        • crankset

          Expediting traffic through this corridor would in fact make things worse.

          • LinuxGuy

            So let’s set the speed limit at 5 mph and have single lane. Then people can divert to all the side streets not designed for the traffic flow. That should be very safe, indeed. We can also put bike lanes on the busiest roads, rather than encourage bikes to use the side streets.

    • Julius Errrrrrrrving

      The public sector, in this case the City and in some cases PennDOT, manages the space from building-to-building in a right of way. Within that right-of-way includes the street, the sidewalk, and any other amenities. I challenge the idea that on most corridors, particularly in Center City, cars and their drivers/passengers, represent 95% of the users of that corridor. This simply isn’t true.

      The idea of complete streets is to allocate spaces for users based upon their existing and presumed use. The City bends over backwards to make accommodations for vehicles, most often at the expense of the majority of Center City right-of-way users (pedestrians and cyclists). The effort to rebalance the allocation of space based upon use is both fair and logical. We need far more bike lanes, far more pedestrian amenities, and far less asphalt and highway lane-miles. Drivers need to slow down and do far more to co-exist because in many corridors and intersections, drivers are the minority, not majority, of users.

      • LinuxGuy

        Speed limits should be set to the 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed, so slowing down as you suggest would increase crash rates. Most limits are too low now.

  • John M. Baxter

    Mr. Errrving, I guess you wrote that first sentence wrong. I would agree that, where a majority of users is in a category other than car drivers, the streets probably should be re-configured. In any case, all modes should be properly served. But, the numbers in each category and their needs should always be considered. My concern is not with the very concept of trying to improve things, including the allocation of space, it is with the distinct possibility that car drivers’ needs will not be adequately considered because they are not as organized as bicycle and pedestrian advocates; and because bike and pedestrian advocates are anything but objective and willing to compromise.

    • Julius Errrrrrrrving

      If you believe that all modes should be properly served, then we should substantially reduce the space allocated for cars in many ROW segments. Within a city, cars and their users take up a disproportionate amount of space and often poorly co-exist with other modes. The combination of on-street parking and travel lanes represent too much space within the ROW essentially unavailable for use. By that very reality it is fiction that drivers lack advocates. The existing allocation of space should tell you that the needs of drivers is elevated over the needs of other ROW users, with often tragic results.

      • John M. Baxter

        Mr. Errrving–please define ROW for me. And, I’m not sure what you mean by your cry for more space for other modes. For one thing, cars take up more space than bikes or pedestrians and so need more space. When it comes to parking, I probably better understand your plea. We probably need to centralize them in multi-story parking and open up streets. But, it also seems to me that you lack appreciation for the car’s role in the modern world. Philadelphia is an integral part of a thriving regional economy, not an entity unto itself. Not only do a majority of commuters and visitors drive into the city, everything you own or buy comes by truck. Anything that drastically constricts traffic flow will have a negative effect on that economy, and may well increase air pollution. Plus, the implication that the tragedies are the result of the fact that we have cars makes little sense to me. In a world where crosswalks have unbalanced signage that lures pedestrians into thinking their right of way when crossing is absolute when that is not even true in a legal sense, I believe what we need, in addition to some sort of reasonable re-allocation of lanes for biclcylists (that recognizes the small percentage of traffic they actually represent), is smarter rules with a much higher level of public awareness and social consciousness. These are the kinds of things city officials, the police, and SEPTA executives discussed at the conference.

        • Julius Errrrrrrrving

          By ROW, I loosely mean the space that exists between the buildings. It isn’t the technical definition of ROW but adequate for this discussion here.

          I think I fully appreciate the role that vehicles play in the modern economy. But they play an outsized role within the City, resulting in hazards for the significant (and growing) numbers of cyclists and pedestrians in Center City.

          The law should favor pedestrians over automobiles in areas where they come together because when cyclists and pedestrians act dangerously, people get annoyed but not killed. When drivers act irresponsibly, people get killed.

          Many cities such as Madrid and Bussels are contemplating banning cars from their city centers and London imposes a congestion charge to minimize the presence of autos. NYC has removed huge sections of Broadway from its city center with no loss of economic activity.

          • John M. Baxter

            Obviously, where pedestrians and cyclists abound, re-allocation makes sense. But, what many forget is that what leads to bad driving is often frustration. Making it easier to drive in the city will actually be productive in terms of reducing accidents. In terms of penalties, one might reasonably argue that they should be higher for the car driver. However, in terms of responsibility, it should at least be even,. Bottom line: the pedestrian can do much more to save his own life than the car driver because he can stop instantly and wait to cross until traffic is clear, which is in the law. When a driver is operating even at a conservative speed, it may take him a significant distance to stop.

          • John M. Baxter

            I’ve been to London, been caught in the bloody traffic. Philly, thank God, is not yet in the same category.

  • LinuxGuy

    So with Vision Zero, can we expect more red-light cameras, speed cameras, low speed limits, short yellow lights, etc? This would tend to lead to more crashes, safe drivers cited, congestion, road rage, etc. Then add in the many errors these devices make and tickets for barely over the limit, split-second violations, etc. What a deal, sign us up!

    You can check out the National Motorists Association for ideas about how we should be moving forward, which is NOT via Vision Zero.