For safer streets, Philly looks to more traffic cops in Center City

Center City at 5 p.m.: Bikes, buses, trucks, pedestrians, and cars, cars, cars jockey for inches of street space.

The glut of activity, a side effect of Center City’s successful growth, contributes to making Center City streets such as Walnut, Chestnut, and Market among the most dangerous in the city, according to data released by Philadelphia last year.

“We’ve got this huge new problem,” said Paul Levy, head of the Center City District. “If we want to sustain that success, we’re going to have to look at a lot of things and how we manage narrow streets.”

In Center City, drivers race the light, block the box, park illegally in lanes of travel to dash from cars for errands that will take “five minutes.” Trucks stop in travel lanes to make deliveries, while Ubers and Lyfts do the same on narrow streets to pick up and drop off.

“We are having problems in Center City,” said Dennis Wilson, a deputy police commissioner. “One truck in one lane blocks things up for blocks in every direction.”

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Pedestrians are forced to walk between cars that block the intersection at 16th and Chestnut Streets.

City officials also are concerned and are in the midst of talks with agencies including the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Philadelphia Police Department to develop a plan for street safety enforcement that will likely mean more police on the street devoted to traffic enforcement.

“There is a sense within the city that traffic enforcement is something that should be prioritized,” said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems, who has been a part of those conversations.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross has said he would seek to put 370 new cops on the street by September, bringing the department’s staffing up to 6,525. It’s been years since the department has been fully staffed, Wilson said. About 300 officer candidates are in the police academy now, he said, and more hires are anticipated this year. He declined to say how many officers are now dedicated to traffic enforcement but said new hires would likely make the effort more robust.

“When your manpower is very low and you’re running from call to call, it’s hard to concentrate on traffic enforcement,” Wilson said. “As your numbers come back to full strength, you’re able to do that.”

For the fifth year in a row, last year law enforcement issued fewer moving-vehicle citations than the year before. Last year 102,000 citations were issued, according to Philadelphia Traffic Court statistics, almost 35 percent fewer than were issued five years earlier.

More than 12,000 crashes happened in the city in 2016, according to the most current available PennDot data, more than in any of the prior five years, and 101 of those resulted in deaths. There were 93 fatal car crashes in the city in 2017, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.  Philadelphia annually ranks among the worst in an AllState study that reviews the frequency of insurance claims from car crashes in America’s 200 largest cities.

Focusing more police on traffic enforcement brings its own concerns, though. Philadelphia is following a street safety model called Vision Zero, and its proponents are keenly aware that more police raises concerns about discrimination and biased policing.

“It is a very sensitive issue,” said Kathleen Ferrier, policy and communications director for the Vision Zero Network, a national organization that aids cities working to implement Vision Zero. “Studies show across America there is racial bias in traffic stops, and those initial traffic stops are leading to more arrests or even deaths.”

Vision Zero focuses on slowing cars to save lives, and prioritizes redesigning streets and educating the public, with enforcement as a secondary tool, Ferrier said.

Philadelphia settled a 2011 lawsuit challenging its stop-and-frisk policy on the grounds it was discriminatory, and a lawyer who participated in that case said precautions need to be taken if the city chooses to address street safety with a more robust police presence.

“I’m not arguing against increased enforcement,” said David Rudovsky, a University of Pennsylvania law professor. “I think any time you increase enforcement in this way… you want to make sure it’s being very carefully monitored and audited.”

The city is looking to other tools to ensure fairness, Puchalsky said. Red-light cameras are widely used on Roosevelt Boulevard to document traffic violations, but there are just two in Center City.

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Pedestrians cross the walkway at 16th and Chestnut Street while automobiles wait for the light at rush hour.

The city also is watching two pending pieces of state legislation to allow for more automated enforcement. One would grant Philadelphia permission to install speed cameras, and the other would allow local police to use radar guns, a tool now available only to Pennsylvania State Police.

Officers on the street, though, have unique advantages, Puchalsky said. They can be more flexible than a camera programmed to look for one type of offense. How many more officers would be dedicated to traffic enforcement, and where they would go, remain subject to discussions, though police said improving enforcement in Center City would be a priority. Even with hires, though, there are questions about how many officers the department can devote to traffic enforcement.

To change people’s behaviors on the street, enforcement efforts must be consistent and long-term, said Sarah Clark Stuart, head of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

“What needs to happen is that the PPD traffic division needs to incorporate equitable traffic enforcement into its culture,” she said.

Options under discussion include giving traffic control responsibilities to new Philadelphia Parking Authority hires or bringing back retired police officers as civilian enforcement workers, a source with knowledge of conversations on traffic control said.

The Vision Zero action plan Philadelphia released in September listed six moving-vehicle violations most likely to cause death and serious injury: reckless and careless driving; ignoring red lights and stop signs; drunken or drugged driving; failure to yield; distracted driving; and parking violations, especially on crosswalks, sidewalks, and in bike lanes.

Additional police on the street would be directed to focus on these issues, Puchalsky said, with a focus on motorists. “When you’re breaking the law in a 3,000-pound vehicle, you’re inherently more dangerous to those around you,” he said.

On the typical weekday evening, Center City’s streets, some narrowed by construction, seem close to bursting as people seeking to get home, do errands, or make drop-offs compete for limited space.

“It’s too much going on,” said Perry Thompson, after buckling her crying toddler son into the backseat of her Toyota Camry parked in what at rush hour should be a travel lane near 15th and Walnut Streets. “Traffic and then people just walking when the light is green.”

She was parked in a travel lane for only a few minutes, she said, running a brief errand before heading home to Delaware.

Stopped in a turning lane in front of Thompson’s car was a U.S. Postal Service truck. Postal vehicles blocking lanes while delivering the mail typically get a break from ticketers, said Jeff Mullen, a 33-year veteran of the service, though he tries to park legally if possible.

Camera icon Michael Bryant
A USPS driver parks on Walnut Street after the 3:30 parking restriction that is set up to allow three lanes of traffic on Walnut during rush.

“It’s just easier for us than to try to block traffic and get people mad at us,” he said. “But downtown is almost impossible.”

A few blocks west, on Rittenhouse Square, Louisa Bulizzi crossed 18th Street, coffee in hand, and said she has had close calls. “I’ve definitely almost been hit a couple times,” she said.

Once, she said, she was nearly struck by the Uber she had ordered.

Focusing on the most significant offenses would be a good start to ensuring fairness in enforcement, Rudovsky said. Oversight was also needed, though, he said, with attention paid to the types of offenses being generated.

“You get documentation on every stop,” he said. “You can start to see if there are any patterns that are troubling.”

Sharing space in Center City’s nearly eight square miles are about 300,000 workers and 188,000 residents, the heart of a city that’s grown steadily for more than a decade. Without adapting enforcement to those realities, Levy said, the city core increasingly becomes a place where Darwinistic impulses go unchecked.

“Human nature is such that we all want to push the edge to advance our own interest,” he said. “Management is about saying you can’t always do what you want when you want.”