West Philly neighborhood offers microcosm of city's traffic woes

The intersections of 57th and Walnut Streets April 30, 2017. Using the latest crash data from the state the area has been identified as having a particularly high number of car crashes, including pedestrian and bicycle crashes. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

It’s a little before 3 p.m. and chaos erupts at the corner of 57th and Spruce Streets, as it does every afternoon.

Hundreds of shouting, wrestling, laughing students pour from Andrew Hamilton School and flood the intersection, many of the younger ones oblivious to the cars and buses around them. Over the cacophony, a crossing guard shouts to a car trying to weave around her, “Don’t you hit me!”

School staff bellow at children, “Yo! Get out of the street!” and “Hold your brother’s hand!”

One parent, Patricia Costom, said she wouldn’t let her 11-year-old daughter and 7- and 6-year-old sons walk home without her due to the traffic.

As recently as May 1, a 9-year-old darted between parked buses and directly into a car on 57th Street, midway on the block. He wasn’t seriously hurt, Philadelphia police reported, but it served as a reminder of the perils around the K-through-8 school. An analysis of PennDot crash data from 2011 to 2016 found that the roughly three-block radius around 57th and Walnut Streets was one of the more dangerous areas to bike, walk, and drive in the city. During the six-year span, police responded to 401 car crashes, which seriously injured nine people and killed four.

“I’m fearful when there’s a lot of children playing out here,” said Mary Tate, 58, who lives near 57th and Walnut. “Drivers just have no regard that this is a residential area.”

This year Philadelphia is introducing the Vision Zero philosophy, which proposes using a combination of engineering, education, and enforcement to eliminate traffic-related deaths. Philadelphia hopes to achieve that goal by 2030.

See where the most crashes happen in PhiladelphiaRight now, Philadelphia’s streets are some of the least safe among the nation’s big cities. Residents’ likelihood of filing a car insurance claim in 2016 was nearly 58 percent higher than the national average, worse than New York, Chicago, and Houston, according to Allstate’s Best Drivers report. There were more than 12,000 crashes citywide last year, and 100 related deaths.

The West Philadelphia neighborhood is a microcosm of many residential communities in the city. Rowhouses share street space with schools, day cares, and churches. Teens dribble basketballs on the sidewalks and seniors attend outdoor church services on Sunday.

Evangelist Carla Satterthwaite (center) speaks to the congregation of the New Life Missionary Baptist Church on the sidewalk of the 5600 block of Spruce Street. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

“People do roll through the stop signs,” said Noelle Milbourne, 62, who lives on Spruce Street between 56th and 57th. “People walk out into the street before stopping.”

Walnut Street is a two-lane, one-way route, and Chestnut Street has three lanes going one way. The design encourages speeding on roads lined by homes and small businesses, police from the 18th District said. More than a quarter of the crashes in the community over the six-year period analyzed happened on one of those two streets.

More than a quarter of the crashes in West Philadelphia happen on Walnut and Chestnut Streets“Walnut and Chestnut are almost like a highway going through a residential neighborhood,” said Capt. Patrick Kelly, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Accident Investigation District.

In the last six years, there were eight crashes at the school’s intersection, and patrol officers reported seeing consistent problems with drivers’ behavior. Motorists drive around stopped SEPTA and school buses and ignore school-zone signs and signs reducing the speed to 15 mph during school hours. There are also issues with double parking and students dashing out into the street from between cars and buses, said Capt. Greg Riley, the 18th District commander.

Hamilton School is among the candidates for an intense walkability audit, said Kelley Yemen, Philadelphia’s Complete Streets director. By spring 2018, the city will select five elementary schools with high child-pedestrian crash rates, she said, and will work with the Philadelphia School District, Police Department, SEPTA, and other stakeholders to improve road safety for children in the community. The city is also planning on doing street safety curriculum for students in the district from second to fifth grade. Both programs will draw from a $450,000 Transportation Alternatives Program grant.

The Philadelphia School District declined to comment on concerns about safety at Hamilton School.

Yemen recently observed traffic around the school, and had immediate suggestions that hint at how Vision Zero might be implemented. The city could redesign the roads to have small circles at intersections, forcing cars to slow down, she said. They could do bump outs, extending sidewalks at intersections further into the road to give pedestrians a better vantage point to see approaching traffic. She watched a man edge into the street as he prepared to cross, and noted, “He’s right where that bump out would be, if we had one.”

Countdown timers for walkers and traffic lights timed to give people on foot a few seconds to cross before cars get a green would also help. Narrowing travel lanes with bike lanes, as is being done on Chestnut Street from 34th to 45th Streets, or by pushing parked cars away from the curbs would make drivers feel less comfortable speeding.

“Sometimes it is about making everyone just a little more uncomfortable so they pay more attention to the road,” she said.

The behaviors making the neighborhood’s streets unsafe are almost all traffic violations, and some want police to do more. Gary Robinson, 62, can see the intersection of 56th and Locust Streets from his front porch, and described speeding cars and drivers paying more attention to their cellphones than the road.

“They’re not enforcing it,” he said of police.

Gary Robinson on the front porch of his home at 56th and Locust Streets. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

For nearly 20 years, Philadelphia police have issued steadily fewer moving violations. They issued 90,417 tickets last year, according to Philadelphia Traffic Court records, almost 19,000 fewer than in 2015, and about 26,000 fewer than in 2014. The number of requests issued to the Philadelphia Parking Authority to tow vehicles whose drivers had an invalid driver’s license, an expired or suspended vehicle registration, or were in an uninsured vehicle have also generally declined in recent years, though in 2016 there was an uptick to 15,539 tows, about 1,200 more than the previous year.

Police deploy foot and bike patrols and cruisers, Riley said. When school ended there was an officer on the sidewalk, and a patrol car making rounds on the block, but the 100 officers assigned to the district are deployed more heavily at night to respond to crime patterns, and are often consumed by 911 calls. Police also said enforcement is a tool of limited utility in changing people’s behaviors. Road design and education, Riley said, were more likely to improve the driving quality in the city.

“If we just write a bunch of tickets, and we do like a ‘shock and awe’ and write everyone a ticket, you’re going to lose the message of those tickets,” Riley said. “If we explain why to them, you get buy in from the community.”

In New York City, though, Vision Zero literature states law enforcement can be a key component to improving street safety.

“Stronger enforcement saves lives, reduces injuries and collisions, and ensures safety for everyone on the street,” the city’s Vision Zero website states.

Advocates for the program in Philadelphia look at police enforcement as the last step in the process, something necessary for motorists who are still driving dangerously after design and education have been implemented. There are also social justice concerns that enforcement will unfairly impact minority communities like the one in West Philadelphia, which is predominantly African American.

The timetable for changes promised by Vision Zero in West Philadelphia hasn’t been determined yet. However, addressing the problems on Roosevelt Boulevard will be the first priority for the coming year, Yemen said. Roosevelt Boulevard makes up half of 1 percent of all roads in the city, said Bob Previdi, of the Bicycle Coalition, but accounts for 12 percent of crashes and car-related deaths. The Streets Department’s $23 million 2018 fiscal year budget includes $1 million for Vision Zero safety measures, city officials have said.

Focusing on Roosevelt Boulevard first is the right move, Previdi said, because applying major changes to all 2,500 miles of streets in the city isn’t affordable or feasible. Making changes on the heavily traveled Roosevelt Boulevard, work that will include speed and red-light cameras and a plan for an express SEPTA bus service, should get drivers’ attention.

“I think when you start with the areas where you can get the biggest bang for the buck, you start to build momentum,” he said.