Inside Take: Modern Streets Require a Modern City Government

Complete streets are huge assets to communities, but they're not easy for a strapped city Streets department to manage.

Shared streets, like this proposed project in Seattle, make room on the roadway not just for cars, but for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders as well. | Rendering by Mithun.

Shared streets, like this proposed project in Seattle, require much more than pouring asphalt. | Rendering by Mithun.

(This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

Like many future urban planners, I grew up reading The Power Broker, the biography of Robert Moses, the famous chair of the New York’s Tri-Borough Bridge Authority (yes Virginia, even bridge authority chairmen can be famous). Moses built seven bridges, two tunnels and over 400 miles of parkway in his lifetime. I admired his ability to get infrastructure built through sheer will power, and lamented his literal bull dozing of neighborhoods in the name of progress. I also believed in the “big man” theory of urban planning, that big projects were built on the back of big personalities.

When I started working for the City of Philadelphia for my first job out of graduate school, my new role models weren’t the chair of any authority or the executive director of an agency. Rather it was folks like the Assistant Chief Traffic Engineer who became my inspiration. It was because of the unsung people working in the bowels of government, who managed projects and solved administrative problems, that I could take SEPTA everywhere growing up and a testament to the fact that I still don’t have a driver’s license at age 34.

Our local government has changed since these project managers started, and those working in our government face new challenges and new opportunities. Over the past decade not only have city streets seen an explosion in alternative modes of transportation like bicycles, but communities are demanding more from these streets, fighting for bike lanes and building parklets and pedestrian plazas. Folks who have spent most of their careers designing bridges and making the city safe for motorists are now being asked to accommodate a much wider array of users.. Those mobile parklets popping up in the parking lanes of neighborhoods from University City to North Philly are as new and alien to them as my smart phone would be to my grandparents.

Today, its not enough to have a street, communities want “Complete Streets.” Complete Streets may sound like planner jargon, but its meaning is pretty simple: streets should serve all modes of transportation, they should be safe for travellers no matter how they choose to get about. Complete Streets, be they complete by virtue of a bumpout or a bike lane, have been shown in study after study to be safer and to reduce  speeding.

Complete Streets that include pedestrian amenities such as parklets or pedestrian plazas are known to support small businesses and enliven commercial corridors.

Our laws are slowly but surely catching up with changing attitudes. In 2012 City Council passed Councilman Squilla’s Complete Streets Bill, which requires the City to review new development and changes to the street to ensure they are safe for travelers using any mode of transportation, be it cars, bikes, transit or on foot. Updated environmental regulations encourage tree trenches in the sidewalk abutting new development to soak up stormwater and green our city.

Yet even as the Streets Department is called to do more and more to improve Philadelphians’ quality of life in this complex new world, the size of the Streets Department has shrunk as a portion of the city’s overall budget. According to a recent Bicycle Coalition report, this is a department whose operating funding as a share of the City operating budget has shrunk from 1.14 percent of the City’s budget in 2003 to .69 percent by 2013. The picture improved in 2014 — back up to .95 percent — but it’s looking like the Streets budget will remain less than 1 percent of total city spending next year. Those cuts, combined with the department’s growing responsibilities, have had a clear, negative impact. There are fewer staff to review permits, less cash to fix pot-holes. Projects take longer to complete. The report notes that Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Chicago all spend more than Philadelphia’s $16 per resident, per year, on City streets. Moreover what money the Streets Department does receive comes increasingly from grants such as the federal TIGER and PennDOT’s multi-modal trust fund — which are competitive programs, where grants are not guaranteed — instead of from the city’s own funds. The Streets Department needs more capacity, not less — not just to maintain its current infrastructure, but to meet the growing demands of developers, departments, and the community as a whole.

We need a Complete Streets Office within the Streets Department, one whose job is not only to help the department manage and grow its support of neighborhoods and communities through safety investments and pedestrian enhancements, but to develop grant funding from non-traditional sources.  By building the capacity for a nimble unit within Streets, we free up the capacity of other units to take care of the bread and butter issues that impact Philadelphians every day. It’s not just that the folks in Streets are inundated with requests and find a hard time figuring out new solutions to new community demands, all the while tackling a huge backlog of pot holes and projects. Its that we need people in the Streets department who measure their success by how these projects support vibrant, safe, and green neighborhoods, and not just the old metrics of miles-of-road-paved, and so on.

We need a Complete Streets office that can work across city agencies and leverage the investments not only of the Streets Department, but of PennDOT, the Water Department, and SEPTA. A team within Streets to manage community outreach, grant development, and complete and green street initiatives would have more impact than writing a new executive order or passing a new ballot initiative. Such a team will ultimately rely not only on technocrats within the system, but the politicians and elected officials who represent the public as well.

Investing in safer streets requires investing political. organizational as well as financial capital in the agencies that manage and maintain our infrastructure.

Ariel Ben-Amos is a lecturer in the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.