Let’s Go Ahead and Ban Cars From Center City

Ridding Eakins Oval of its eyesore parking lot for a month is just going to whet our appetites.

As the Inquirer’s Karen Heller reported over the weekend, for a month this summer between the behemoth Welcome America and Made In America festivals, the city is going to be tricking out Eakins Oval. The combined grassy expanse/paved parking lot/infield for the daily Eakins 500 to and from Kelly Drive and I-76 will be stripped of its parking lot function so it can be the site of a pop-up park featuring faux beaches, beer gardens, food trucks, movies and the like.

It’s part of an ongoing effort to calm and reclaim the Benjamin Franklin Parkway from speeding motorists, with the poetic goal of transforming the link between the seat of the city’s political power and its shiniest cultural jewels into an idyllic urban utopia, complete with gardens, pick-up chess games, outdoor yoga classes, impromptu Shakespeare readings and so many amenities. (Read all about it in “More Park, Less Way,” a relatively spellbinding read as city planning documents go, complete with hypothetical days on the parkway for seniors, millennials, tourists, yuppie parents and other marketable demographics.)

Calming Parkway traffic and removing cars from Eakins Oval for a month is, indeed, a nice start. A couple of commenters on Heller’s philly.com piece, however, misread the story (or had it read aloud to them incorrectly), undestanding it to mean that the city was planning to remove cars from the Parkway completely. “Ridiculous!” they cried. “We need that road! That’s why we paid for it!”

Without getting into the realities of publicly financed roads and how much any one person pays for them, or to what degree he or she gets a say in which roads are being paid for, the elephant in the room is this: Removing parked cars from Eakins Oval will, in all but the most chronically negative perspectives, improve the space. And ameliorating the effects of cars on the Parkway by slowing them down has improved the Parkway. So the logical extreme is that cars should be removed from the Parkway altogether, right? Actually, let’s think a little bigger: Removing cars from Center City would improve Center City.

“Ridiculous,” you may say. “I pay for those roads. And besides, how would I get from my home in Ardmore/Narberth/Mayfair to my job in Center City? Wouldn’t that require some sort of massive system of public transportation?”

But before you grab your pitchforks and round up the townsfolk, consider:

1.) Is there anything more infuriating that driving in Center City?

2.) Has there ever been a Center City rush hour not made unpleasant by road-ragey knuckleheads in their cars, honking their horns, revving their engines, speeding up to beat lights and cursing at pedestrians, cyclists, buses and other drivers?

Look, I don’t know exactly how it would work. I’ve yet to commission my PennPraxis study or hold even one stinking charrette, so consider this the opening of Brian Howard’s public comment period: Just take a second, breathe deep, and imagine a Center City with expanded public transit options (buses, trolleys, maybe even a Center City light-rail loop), more green space, sidewalk dining that could spill into the street, and the blissful relative quiet of a dearth of cars.

Why not expand the vision for that idyllic urban utopia to, y’know, the heart of our dear metropolis.

As our Christine Speer Lejeune wrote a year ago, Philly doesn’t appear to be getting more car-centric, and it’s not hard to imagine car driving going the way of cigarette smoking, especially in the efficient density of a city in the loving embrace of transit-oriented development (just ask the residents of Fishtown and East Passyunk).

The lessons of Edmund Bacon’s disastrous Chestnut Street Pedestrian Promenade, of course, should always be heeded, and such a vision of the future would, ironically, require more parking garages on the fringes of any car-free zone, as well as all sorts of exemptions (residents, handicapped, after-hours). But we’ve already seen what tempering car use has done for the Parkway, as well as Pine and Spruce streets, where serious accidents and fender benders both dipped after the installation of bike lanes.

What it comes down to is this: Center City is a miserable place to drive a car, and a place often made miserable by cars. We’ve reclaimed the Parkway from the scourge. Why not dream bigger?