Can Speed Cameras Fix Philly’s Death-Trap Road?

A brief history of Roosevelt Boulevard, the scariest thoroughfare in Philadelphia.

There must have been nine of us in the two-door sedan, and we were driving on the Boulevard.

I don’t really think anything happened to us — we were teenagers, and we were mostly skinny — and my friend Joe had a plan if the cops pulled us over: “Just say we’re headed to the circus and sing that song!” (That would be Entry of the Gladiators.”) If I remember correctly, though, this story had a happy ending: We turned off the Boulevard to drop someone off, and very slowly dwindled in numbers on our way home. But the point remains: We were nine teenagers in a car designed for at most five people, driving haphazardly on Roosevelt Boulevard.


Growing up a couple miles from it, I rode in cars a lot on the Boulevard as a teenager. I drove almost as often, heading to the enormous Tower Records north of Welsh Road, to a friend's house in Oxford Circle, to Charlie's Pizza, to nowhere in particular. I was (am) not a very good driver. I never got into an accident on the Boulevard, but there are thousands like me. Clearly some of them are a little more reckless or a little less lucky, and they crash. Or they hit someone attempting to cross the street. The Boulevard is an incredibly useful road that opened up the Northeast; it's also one of its most dangerous.

Roosevelt Boulevard was the brainchild of Samuel Howell Ashbridge, Philadelphia's mayor. He was nicknamed "Stars and Stripes Sam" for his patriotic speeches — although, as Lincoln Steffens noted, "much of what he said is not remembered today." Stars and Stripes Sam pushed the then-unnamed road through Philadelphia's 135-member Common Council in 1902. A 1987 Philadelphia Inquirer article notes council opponents cried out in opposition: "A boodlevard. Who'd want to settle in boondock country?" In the early 1900s, the Northeast was Philadelphia's backwater country.

The road originally went from Broad Street to the city's Torresdale neighborhood, and was called the Torresdale Boulevard. Once lengthened, it became the Northeast Boulevard; finally, in 1918, it was named after former president Theodore Roosevelt. (An informal survey of Northeast Philadelphia natives reveals most people think it's named after FDR.) In 1926, it became U.S. Route 1 and by the late 1950s, it reached the Bucks County line, turning the Far Northeast from farmland to the weird suburb-city hybrid that it is today. (There's even a Levittown — the city's Normandy section — just off the Boulevard!) In 1961, the road was connected to the Schuylkill Expressway.

Since the 1960s, the road has taken on another moniker: The most dangerous in Philadelphia. (Okay, in the 1990s the sewers were known for backing up into huge lakes during rainstorms, but the city went on an extensive sewer-cleaning program on the Boulevard in 1987, and things are better.)

PennDOT now has control of Roosevelt Boulevard, and it is a monstrosity: six 12-foot wide lanes in each direction. The huge road pretty much splits the residential communities of Northeast Philly on either side of it. The 1987 Inquirer article notes the Northeast Chamber of Commerce noted the "Dead Man's Curves" sections to be among the most dangerous in the country — in the 1960s! Drivers routinely travel much faster than the posted speed limit of 45 miles per hour. Two of the road's intersections — Red Lion and the Boulevard, and Grant and the Boulevard — were infamously named the second- and third-most dangerous in the nation by State Farm. People — especially late at night — frequently turn into the wrong three-lane stretch of traffic and travel the wrong way on the highway for blocks at a time.

Check out the Roosevelt Boulevard tag on Action News: It's nothing but stories of terrible crashes. "3 injured in crash on Roosevelt Blvd." "Vehicle flips, crashes on Roosevelt Blvd." "1 critical after airborne crash on Roosevelt Blvd." "6 injured in Roosevelt Blvd. crash." And so on. The Daily News reported this summer that 17 pedestrians were killed in 5 years on the Boulevard.

Search similarly through Philly.com's newspaper archives and you find various calls at a solution. "Firm hired for study of Roosevelt Boulevard," 1990. "The Deadliest Road Crash Course In Death In Wreck-filled City, Roosevelt Boulevard Is Biggest Nightmare," 1997. (An excellent summary, Daily News.) "Quick help needed on Roosevelt Boulevard," 2006. Apparently that quick help didn't come. In 2008, we got a new effort to tame Roosevelt Boulevard." Roosevelt Boulevard's entry on Phillyroads.com contains plenty of plans to change Roosevelt Boulevard — a Vine Street Expressway-style depressed highway in the center, an extension of the Broad Street Line up the Boulevard — that, given the current lack of political and financial capital for infrastructure projects like them, seem unlikely to happen.

The issue of a dangerous Boulevard came up over the summer when a woman and her three kids were killed. The latest plan? New speed cameras, proposed by Sen. Mike Stack. The Boulevard already has red light cameras as several intersections; these new cameras would photograph the license plates of drivers going more than 10 miles over the speed limit and mail them a $100 ticket.

Is this likely to pass? Eh, who knows: Drivers have a large lobby, and more driving restrictions for the general public are usually treated as if the government attempted to re-institute prohibition of alcohol. (The National Motorists Association has already come out against the Boulevard idea, citing concerns with the cameras' reliability.) But there's not much else. Last year, a good Inquirer editorial cited the success New York had with Queens Boulevard, getting pedestrian deaths on the road down to zero in 2011. Copying off New York's success — many of it done with simple measures, like fencing and increasing pedestrian crossing time — should certainly be done.

But this seems to be a never-ending debate. In Philadelphia, the Boulevard will be incredibly dangerous and scary indefinitely.

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  • June Goodwin

    Speed cameras will not work. PENNDOT already times lights to slow down traffic. Average speed on boulevard with timed lights is roughly 30 mph. Those who speed only burn their own brake linings and get nowhere once stopped with the other cars by the red lights.

  • Transportation Planner

    An event to study this issue is being held next week by the group Pennsylvanians for Transportation Solutions (PenTrans) with Senator Mike Stack as the moderator:
    http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event;jsessionid=342BB6BC3454707DE3C404C4E6D75DC1.worker_registrant?llr=eux5u9bab&oeidk=a07e8qwg81u0d288f69

  • Anton Reisner

    It has been proven when the UK turned off speed cameras deaths went down compared to when they were on. Recently in Baltimore, they had to spend $600,000 in termination fees with a private vendor when they decided that the speed cameras were not effective.