Philly takes step toward safer streets with new hire

Protected bike lanes. A less deadly Roosevelt Boulevard. Sidewalks that won’t be devoured by construction sites.

The wish list for those seeking to make Philadelphia’s streets safer is long, and making improvements requires coordination between city departments, neighborhoods and elected officials. That need is why Philadelphia hired Kelley Yemen, who will start Nov. 7 as the city’s first Complete Streets director. The term Complete Streets describes a policy of managing roads in a way that is safe, efficient, and integrated for all users. 

Yemen's job will be to act as traffic director for the city streets and water departments, planning commission, and licensing and inspection to coordinate plans to improve roadways for cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

“We need to integrate the engineering, the planning efforts for all modes for transportation,” said Clarena Tolson, who until Thursday was the city’s deputy managing director for transportation and infrastructure. “There’s a need to make sure our policies and practice conform.”

Yemen lived in Philadelphia almost a decade ago, but the Minnesota native has since worked in New York City’s department of transportation on bicycle and pedestrian programs and, most recently, as the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Hennepin County, Minn., which includes Minneapolis.

“She’s a great listener,” said Bob Byers, a senior transportation engineer for Hennepin County who worked with Yemen to create a bicycle master plan. “She’s very collaborative, trying to work toward solutions, trying to find what’s the best balance.”

Yemen was attracted to Philadelphia, she said, because of the city’s “amazing bones.” Narrow streets and dense development create an environment ideally suited for walking, she said.

“It’s always an engaging walk,” she said. “There’s always something interesting to look at.”

Philadelphia, though, has some of the least safe urban roads in the country. There were about 11,000 automobile crashes a year on average from 2009 to 2013, resulting in 90 to 100 deaths a year, the highest rate per 100,000 people among peer cities including New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, according to a report from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. The same report found that in 2013, 40 percent of Philadelphia's traffic fatalities stemmed from autos hitting pedestrians.

Improving those numbers means slowing down cars, Yemen said.

“If people are driving more slowly, death and critical injuries just are not going to be happening,” she said.

Reducing injuries and fatalities will likely require a mix of approaches, including speed cameras, narrower lanes, and creating protected bike lanes, she said. The Bicycle Coalition has been leading the charge to make Philadelphia’s streets safer, and has been pushing for the city to adopt Vision Zero, a philosophy based on the belief that virtually all vehicle-related incidents are preventable. The city is within weeks of an announcement about the formation of a Vision Zero task force advocates for the movement have been demanding.

“I think the policy has needed guidance and a champion,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, policy director for the coalition, “and I think the filling of this position is going to help move that policy forward.”

One of her first priorities in the $100,000-a-year job will be examining how the city can create a more connected web of bike lanes, Yemen said. When Yemen lived in Philadelphia in 2007 there were virtually no bike lanes, she said, and as a less confident biker at the time, she felt comfortable only on side roads. Though there are more bike lanes now, she still sees Center City as a place where only experienced cyclists will ride.

Philadelphia has 440 miles of bike lanes, according to city data, but the lanes aren’t contiguous, often forcing bikers into automobile traffic. She also said she was aware of the tension created when cyclists and drivers share streets. In Philadelphia, both groups cite examples of the other being inconsiderate and unsafe. She would look at education programs, she said, but they are more likely to be effective if targeted at specific groups, like commercial vehicle drivers.

“As our infrastructure changes and we think about bicycling as not driving, not quite being a pedestrian, it’s going to have slightly different rules,” she said.

The city plans to install 30 miles of new bike lanes in the next five years, and already has secured $300,000 in grant money to cover the costs of half that distance.

The goal of Complete Streets, Yemen said, is to make every person using the road, whether it’s a truck driver or a parent walking with children, comfortable.

“How do we mix all of these modes into our streets knowing each one is important and each one is going to have a different hierarchy on each of these streets?” Yemen said.

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