20 Smart Transportation Ideas Reshaping Philadelphia (and Your Life)

How this highly walkable, bus-riding, bike-loving, anti-car, multi-modal moment is going to change everything about the way we get around.

The original Open Streets PHL: Pope Weekend, September 2015.

The original Open Streets PHL: Pope Weekend, September 2015. Photograph by Cory J. Popp

Our city has reached a tipping point. Just look outside, in the streets, where rentable, shareable Indego bikes have come, conquered and multiplied. Meantime, regional rail ridership is at an all-time high, and SEPTA usage in general has been trending up. Philadelphians are driving less, and all over, parklets are winning out over parking. But the most visible shift happened last September, during the Pope’s visit, when thousands of people took to the car-free streets to revel and cavort and see the city in an entirely new light. It was a weekend that spawned a movement (Open Streets PHL), and a moment that marked the beginning of the end of the long, long reign of the automobile in Philadelphia.

Of course, the end of any regime always means some resistance, and plenty of bumps. But there’s too much momentum behind a Philly that’s less about driving and more about, well, everything but driving to slow down now. So here, we take a look at what’s happening on the streets of Philadelphia, what will happen, and what should happen to take us where we want to go.

1. #Open Streets PHL

Move over, pop-up beer gardens: The buzzy new urbanist obsession is going to cover a hell of a lot more ground. What started on Pope Weekend with Philadelphians frolicking through born-again roads has become the Open Streets PHL movement, supported by everyone from the 4,000-plus citizens who signed a petition for a repeat to Mayor Jim Kenney to Inquirer critic Inga Saffron, who hailed the carless wellspring as “a sudden glimpse into the future.”

Nate Hommel, member of Open Streets PHL and director of planning and design for the University City District, paints a picture of future iterations involving three open-streets events a year, with shutdowns grand enough to feel special (“two or three miles long”) but limited to specific commercial strips at their least-trafficked times of the week (most likely on Sundays) — nothing like the scope of Popeadelphia or the failed Chestnut Street Transitway experiment of the 1970s and ’80s. The aim wouldn’t be complete car-lessness, Hommel says — “We would have to allow delivery trucks and trash trucks to come in” — but fewer vehicles and more walkers, bikers and non-motorized activity … maybe even permanently. “The more we think of streets as public spaces, the more we’re likely to think that they’re wasted on cars,” Hommel says.

Likelihood: 10/10. Mayor Kenney is committed to the idea, and Open Streets PHL has a broad coalition of support in City Hall.

2. Surge Pricing for Parking Meters

Cheap downtown parking in Philly is both popular and insidious: The glut of circling drivers searching for $2-an-hour street spots means slower traffic, more road rage and worse air quality. The Parking Authority should take a page from the Uber playbook — as San Francisco and Pittsburgh have — and bump prices substantially, to around $7 for prime spots at peak times. This would change the supply/demand dynamic, leading to more open spaces. “Prices should be low enough not to discourage people who are coming in to go to a restaurant or shop, but high enough to discourage people from feeding the meter all day,” offers Rina Cutler, senior director at Amtrak and Michael Nutter’s former deputy mayor for transportation. For those all-day parkers? Off-street parking (a.k.a. garages and lots) with set half-day and day rates will take on a whole new luster.

Likelihood: 5/10. With the PPA’s mobile-payment app, meterUP, a form of variable-pricing-via-phone now exists. If it proves popular (and it likely will, if it works), there might be more political momentum for this idea.

3. Sidewalks You Can Actually Walk On

Philadelphia is constantly praised as one of the nation’s most walkable cities, but that designation has never taken into account the quality of our sidewalks — the long stretches of crumbling, cratered concrete throughout many city neighborhoods that are as unlovely to look at as they are treacherous to walk on (or steer a stroller, cart or scooter on). Their decrepit state — which does no favors for a city trying to shake off its Filthadelphia image — is partially due to the fact that their upkeep has, since 1951, been a responsibility, not of the city, but of individual property owners, under pain of … well, not much. If city inspectors notice an egregious walkway, the negligent owners receive a notice of defect, but no fine. If former streets commissioner and new Licenses and Inspections head David Perri has his way, Philly’s violation notices will finally have some teeth: He wants to make sidewalk repair a property-maintenance violation, which would mean a ticket of $150 for every citation. That’s still gentler (if maybe less effective) than the New York model, wherein the city promptly fixes broken sidewalks … and then sends offending property owners the bill.

Likelihood: 4/10. Kenney’s office says new L&I functions are unlikely until other problems within the department are fixed.

4. Adding an El Stop at 22nd Street

Number of el stops in the 10 blocks of Market Street east of 15th: five. Number of El stops in the 10 blocks of Market Street west of 15th: zero. So why should that change? Because what used to be a sea of vacant land and underutilized industrial buildings is now luxury condos, skyscrapers and a Trader Joe’s. Because PATCO could use another western hub in Center City in addition to the one at 16th and Locust. And because the extra stop would be a huge boon in transit convenience for both residents and commuters, and would also boost real estate values along resurgent Market West.

Likelihood: 2/10. The estimated $350 million price tag is a lot to ask when there are bigger transit headaches — especially since there is a trolley stop there.

5. Massive Public Transit Expansions

The last megaproject in this city’s transportation network was completed 32 years ago: The Center City Commuter Connection unified our regional rail system, connecting Suburban Station with Market East. It was a no-brainer in hindsight, but even Ed Bacon was reportedly a skeptic in the beginning, one of many who frowned on the project as too ambitious, too costly—$1.2 billion in today’s dollars—and too politically complicated. (Bacon later became a noted proponent.) Today, one could make the same complaints about nearly any major new transit expansion—but the reality is that a handful of potential projects in play could change life for the better for generations of Philadelphians, taking thousands of cars off clogged roadways, making it easier for people to get to work, even saving lives. “I’d say there are three big, doable transportation-expenditure projects,” says Andrew Stober, who was Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU). (He’s currently the VP of planning and economic development at University City District.) But, he adds, considering the expense of each and an austere landscape for federal funding, “It’s just going to be one of them that happens, probably.” So, what megaproject might we see? Here’s the breakdown.

Likelihood: 8/10. The feasibility of all three options has been studied for years; all need hundreds of millions in federal grants to materialize. Smart money says Roosevelt Boulevard has the edge, given that there’s already a $2.5 million federal planning grant under way.

6. Changing the Way We Sit on the El

The Market-Frankford line, the busiest on SEPTA, has gained a staggering 15,000 daily users since 2000. And there’s not much SEPTA can do about it right now: New, bigger subway cars are too pricey (upwards of $400 million), and even if they weren’t, longer trains wouldn’t fit on most elevated platforms. The immediate fix? Changing the existing seating arrangement — the two-by-two facing-forward model — to longitudinal benches, like your typical New York subway seat. Would the shift be popular? Undoubtedly not.

But standing capacity would increase by around 20 percent. Alternately, simply reorienting some of the seats into aisle-facing positions (as seen on the Broad Street Line) could increase standing room without losing seats.

Likelihood: 10/10. SEPTA is currently piloting the removal of some seats on six cars.

7. Cooler Concourses

With Center City real estate booming at ground level, the 3.5 miles of Philly’s well-trafficked subterranean real estate — our long-neglected, dungeon-like subway concourses — are primed for resurgence. Which is why, last year, SEPTA began the long process of a $54.4 million spruce-up, fixing cracked floors, crumbling walls and broken-down escalators. By 2020, SEPTA plans to be in full makeover mode for the Broad Street Line’s Walnut-Locust subway station and its adjoining corridors — a continuous walkway equivalent to approximately five football fields right below Center City.

“That whole space down there has a lot of opportunities,” says Jeff Knueppel, general manager of SEPTA, who teases some out: “You could figure carts with vendors. You could think of it almost as an urban park down there. You’re right by the Kimmel Center, so you could have music being played by different groups.” Knueppel’s not the only person reimagining a newly vital concourse — other ideas floating in the ether include a track, a skate park, a clay studio for UArts students, a playground, and designated bike parking.

There is, however, some worry about a built-up concourse diluting the resurgent street-level vitality on South Broad. “I wouldn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Market East,” says Greg Krykewycz, of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). “We aren’t Manhattan all the time. We don’t have enough pedestrian activity to support storefronts and create active pedestrian spaces at multiple levels.”
Yet there’s no question both riders and SEPTA have a lot to gain from better concourses: Improved connectability and a more hospitable passageway would lead to more discretionary users (tourists, suburbanites, infrequent riders), more transfers, and, with the addition of bike parking, a big swell in helpful “intermodal connectivity” between bicycles and trains.

Likelihood: 8/10. In addition to making practical and cosmetic changes, SEPTA has begun reaching out to property owners along South Broad in efforts to reopen building entrances leading directly into the concourse, for easier access.

8. Narrowing the Roads

So why, in a city whose drivers rank 192nd worst out of 200 big cities, where the street grid is already often painfully slender — why would anyone want to narrow the roads? Simple: Shrinking the street size — “road diets” in planner-speak — makes us safer. Studies on urban roadways have shown lower crash frequencies on multi-lane roads in which each driving lane is about 10 feet wide instead of the standard 12. And, somewhat counterintuitively, making wide streets skinnier doesn’t actually reduce traffic capacity at all — particularly on roads where drivers tend to change lanes a lot, such as Race and Market streets, JFK Boulevard and Delaware Avenue. Sound implausible? It’s not: In 2011, the city plucked a travel lane from both JFK Boulevard and Market Street, to test whether a bike lane on each would hinder traffic flow. “We found that you actually get from point A to point B faster because you don’t have all the jockeying and weaving,” recalls David Perri, former streets commissioner. For those keeping score, that’s a win for bikers and drivers. And, adds transit blogger Michael Noda, it’s proof that “you just don’t need four lanes of capacity on any street in Philadelphia, ever.”

Likelihood: 5/10. Kenney has pledged to make room for bike lanes and improve road safety — and road diets are an easy, relatively cheap way to do both. The big hurdle is Council, which has veto power over any project that eliminates a traffic lane.

9. No. More. Tokens.

After years — years! — of missed deadlines and broken promises, Philly’s long-anticipated next-generation payment system has become an elusive urban legend. But now, at long last, SEPTA Key appears poised to become reality. More than 85 percent of buses and the majority of subway stations have been outfitted with the new no-contact fare boxes, which allow a rider to simply wave a fare card in order to board buses, trolleys and trains. (Eventually the system will even accept payment via chip-enabled credit cards and iPhones.) The result isn’t just an end to the irritating, inefficient token system, but a gateway to all-door boarding and faster service all around. And beyond that, the personalized cards will provide SEPTA with nuanced data about ridership, to allow the agency to make informed decisions on everything from remapping bus routes to creating better real-time apps. The future is set to launch this April.

Likelihood: 10/10. It feels real this time. (We think.)

10. A Better Philly-to-New York Experience

Sorry, bullet-train dreamers: The $150 billion high-speed ride to NYC is so far from a reality at this point that we might as well be talking hovercraft. (Some cold comfort: Amtrak’s existing high-speed Acela line will be doubling its service in the next five years.) On the flip side, says Denise Goren, former MOTU director, “If it’s not price-competitive for the majority of our citizens, then who the hell cares?” She wants to reexamine the way the bulk of Philadelphians still get to New York and other cities: the bus, which is the fastest-growing mode of intercity travel nationwide. “Maybe we need to think about a more centralized Center City multi-purpose bus facility that’s not icky.”

Consider: In 2011, Washington, D.C., built an intercity bus hub — with a convenience store, clear signage, natural light and bathrooms — atop a parking garage attached to Union Station, for a paltry $7.5 million. Meantime, Philly travelers are choosing between departures behind 30th Street Station (no shelter, no bathrooms, overflowing trash cans) and at the infamously vile Chinatown terminal. A new Philly station would be a timely endeavor: The just-passed Federal Transportation Authorization bill mentions the need for metropolitan planners to incorporate intercity buses into the mix.

Likelihood: 2/10. The Amtrak-led 30th Street Station District Plan aspires to create an intercity bus facility next to the Cira Centre — though who will fund it (private bus companies? The government?) remains hazy.

11. Embracing Vision Zero

There were 1,047 nonfatal shootings in Philadelphia in 2014. In the same year, 1,548 pedestrians were struck and injured by moving vehicles — 390 of them children — with collisions occurring disproportionately in low-income neighborhoods. “If that doesn’t constitute a public health and safety crisis, I don’t know what does,” says Andrew Stober. Vision Zero — a movement that began 19 years ago in Sweden — calls for municipal governments to prevent all traffic fatalities and serious injuries. If cities take aim specifically at eliminating deadly collisions, the thinking goes, nonfatal collisions also dwindle, making all city streets less of a threat. As of the start of 2016, 13 American cities had adopted the pledge, and Mayor Kenney has affirmed that Philly is on deck: “We will work very arduously and closely with all of the departments involved in bringing Vision Zero to reality.”

So what does this mean, exactly? For starters, expect to see ramped-up traffic enforcement everywhere — yup, that means more red-light cameras — along with better shared-street design (see: number 8, road diets; number 12, bike lanes). Successful Vision Zero cities have also focused on items like new street lighting (most pedestrian fatalities occur at night) and lower speed limits. Because here’s a shocking statistic: A pedestrian struck by a car going 40 mph has a 90 percent chance of dying, while someone struck by a car going 20 mph has a 90 percent chance of surviving.

Likelihood: 10/10. Happening.

12. Making Biking (Much) Easier

Come July, the nation’s gaze will once again be drawn to Philly, as thousands descend on us for the Democratic National Convention. There’s no better advertisement for a green, efficient, progressive Philadelphia than to have our tourists flanked by steady streams of bicyclists. But bikes boost more than self-image. In the Philly of the future, they’ll be the glue that binds the transit system together — connecting hard-to-reach neighborhoods, easing travel times, solving the last-mile riddle in the suburbs. Here’s what would get us there.

More Indego. The city’s bike-share program has been a rousing success. (We hit the 100,000-ride mark faster than any other similar-sized city.) Now it’s time to branch out into Germantown, Mount Airy and Northwest Philly — taking the accessible, affordable blue bikes to areas with fewer transit options. That will also nudge Indego closer to the ’burbs, creating the possibility of a single region-wide bikeshare.

More protected lanes. Kenney’s set a goal of creating 30 miles of protected city bike lanes, separating them from traffic with rubber bollards, planters, medians, even parking. Market Street and JFK should be at the top of the list, along with high-crash corridors like Erie Avenue in North Philly.

More bike parking. Philly leads all big cities in bicycling commute share, but growing that number will require a lot more well-advertised, covered bike parking. Converting underused areas — like, say, the space beneath the Municipal Services Building — into bike parking would be a helpful first step, to be followed by zoning codes that require bike parking with any new development, as the Bicycling Coalition has advocated.

Better bike-to-subway connectivity. Creating more park-and-rides in the subway concourses and mezzanines (something SEPTA is piloting this year) and allowing bikes on the subway and regional rail during peak hours (a long-term SEPTA goal after it deals with capacity issues) would change countless commuters’ lives.

Ending councilmanic prerogative over bike lanes. It’s not just PennDOT that’s a hurdle when it comes to city streets: City Council members can torpedo any project that involves removing a parking or traffic lane in their districts.

Likelihood: 10/10. Council prerogative aside, Kenney has hinted that pro-bike improvements are imminent.

13. A Smart Card That Does Everything

Imagine having one all-access card that lets you board the El and PATCO, rent an Indego bike, pay for parking meters and hop on a trolley. Denise Goren, formerly of MOTU, says this magical megapass could actually be a reality with the advent of SEPTA Key (see number 9). The main challenge at this point is getting each transit system’s technology to work in tandem without having to redesign them all. “We’re figuring work-arounds so the card will be able to work with PATCO and New Jersey Transit,” among others, says SEPTA’s Jeff Knueppel. No tokens. No cash. One card, no hassle. (Dare to dream!)

Likelihood: 5/10. SEPTA is hopeful seamless travel will be a reality.

14. Speeding Up SEPTA

One of septa’s major goals right now is getting buses — which carry a whopping 57 percent of all ridership — moving at a brisker clip. So how do you speed up the rate at which a bus moves without, you know … speeding? SEPTA’s Knueppel offers a couple of known techniques: stop consolidation, in which buses stop at every other or every third block instead of every one, and transit-signal priority, which holds the light green as a bus approaches (with special traffic-signal controllers detecting the arrival). This latter trick can reduce travel times by up to 25 percent. Another boost could be Kenney’s proposed “dig once” policy among city departments, which would minimize delays, disruptions and detours from the endless city utility repairs.

Likelihood: 10/10. Speed is a top priority, insists SEPTA.

15. More (Yes, More!) Loading Zones

Some good news about the convenience economy: All those door-to-door deliveries in place of individual errands save big-time on carbon emissions — one study showed as much as a 35 percent decrease. Chances are strong, though, that you already know firsthand the bad news: All those delivery trucks are hell for both car and bike traffic. (So much double-parking!) And it’s getting worse, says Denise Goren: “Everybody’s cuckoo about wanting to have everything delivered to them in a nanosecond. Truck traffic is only going to increase.”

One potential solution: Converting every corner residential parking spot into a tightly enforced temporary loading zone would ease the jam during the day; these spots could be restored to parking for evening and night hours. Likewise, the city could replace some metered parking with permanent commercial loading zones. Sound draconian, drivers? Here’s an upside: In 2009, when 70 delivery-only loading zones were installed throughout Center City West, traffic flow in Center City improved by 14 percent.

Likelihood: 5/10. Deliveries are on MOTU’s radar, but it’s awaiting results from a big study on freight and truck movement.

16.Modernizing the Zoning Codes

Philly politicians are going to have an increasingly hard time resisting change by hiding behind our longstanding “car culture.” According to PlanPhilly’s Jon Geeting, more than 60 percent of new city households between 2005 and 2011 had no car at all, a shift that’s led urbanists to advocate for a change to the zoning code, which mandates that developers build parking with new residences.

They argue that mandatory parking creation isn’t just outdated in terms of modern city mores; it also leads to higher prices for tenants of buildings with parking, to whom parking costs are passed on.

“That doesn’t mean there would be no parking,” says David Curtis, chairman of the 5th Square, an urban PAC advocating for better transportation and land use in Philly. “A developer who wants to incorporate parking into a project can still do that — but the city wouldn’t require it across the grid.”

There has been forward movement on this front; in 2012, parking minimums for developers were rolled back. Still, eliminating them entirely in the immediate future seems like a long shot. “People of past generations have been wedded to their automobiles and wanted them available at any time,” says Gary Jastrzab, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. “What we’re really talking about here is a culture change that takes a long time.”

Likelihood: 2/10. Another rollback seems more likely before an elimination of minimums.

17. Getting the State to Think Like a City

Did you know that Market Street, JFK Boulevard and Snyder Avenue are all technically highways, and controlled by PennDOT? That’s true of 17 percent of Philly roads, which is great news for repaving purposes — the Streets Department can’t afford to cover them all — but bad news for smart street design, as these roads are subject to (not very progressive) state highway guidelines. PennDOT streets are some of the widest, least bike-friendly in the city. “Most state DOTs are very risk-averse,” says Rina Cutler. “They’re not used to thinking about designing for an urban environment.”

Enter the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), where former vice president Cutler helped lead a national campaign to get state transportation departments to relinquish blind adherence to highway standards for inner-city streets, opting instead for NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. PennDOT signing on would, ahem, pave the way for Philly to reallocate road space in a safer, more forward-thinking way.

Likelihood: 5/10. Cutler says she’s optimistic.

18. Newer, Smarter Trolleys

Our 35-year-old trolley fleet is going out to pasture. Whether the replacements will be carbon copies of stunning light-rail lines in Munich or Toronto or Portland remains to be seen — but from SEPTA, we know they’ll be longer and sleeker and feature multiple cars, and also that they’ll have no steps. Alas, the new models will require such massive changes to the streetscapes — from new overhead wires to curb bump-outs — that we’re looking at a completion date of 2020 at the earliest. But when the once-in-a-generation project comes to fruition, whole swaths of the city (particularly Southwest and North Philly) will reap the benefits, with increased capacity (from 75 to 100), faster service and improved pedestrian safety.

Likelihood: 8/10. Happening … but not immediately.

19. Free Transfers

Free transfers are a popular idea in transit circles, and a matter of course in cities like Houston, Atlanta and San Francisco. But instituting them in Philly might backfire on the very demographic they’re intended to help: low-income riders. That’s because SEPTA would need to find a way to recoup the $12 million it nets on transfers each year, and the most logical way of doing that is to increase the base fare. And so even while transferring is, as PlanPhilly editor Jon Geeting points out, “an inconvenience, and it’s stupid to charge people for the inconvenience of having to do this thing that we want them to do,” and even if free transfers would likely grow the efficiency of the system overall, the immediate expense to regular riders who pay cash fares but don’t transfer often could offset the benefits.

Likelihood: 2/10. There’s plenty of advocacy behind the idea, but much hesitation from SEPTA because of the revenue loss.

20. Change the Regional Rail Names (Again)

SEPTA didn’t make a mistake in 2010 when it ditched the longstanding R system for naming routes. The mistake was the lazy nomenclature that replaced the system: “SEPTA took pity on visitors and new riders, instead of keeping the status quo for the benefit of everyday riders,” says Michael Noda. But now regional-rail names are more confusing and belabored than ever. To wit: Most Paoli-Thorndale trains neither begin nor end in either of those towns; there’s a Glenside Combined schedule, but no train with that name. “A focus on line names with brevity would help,” says Noda. Or perhaps a color-coded scheme, as seen in D.C. and London.

Likelihood: 2/10. Not a blip on the radar, says SEPTA.

Published as “Reinventing the Wheel” in the February 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.