Changing Skyline: Rethinking Market Street as Main Street

Intersection of 11th and Market Streets, with new development on the southwest corner.

When Jonas Maciunas and Mark Keener were collecting data for the Old City District's new plan, they stumbled across an astonishing statistic. Since 2000, the amount of automobile traffic on Old City's stretch of Market Street has plunged by a third, even as the neighborhood's old cast-iron warehouses were filling up with thousands of new residents.

The combination of rising population and declining car use prompted the two planning consultants to reexamine some long-cherished notions about Old City's place in the constellation of Philadelphia neighborhoods. Instead of continuing to promote the area as a nightlife destination, they said the district should focus on enhancing the residential feel of the colonial-era enclave. It was time, they suggested, to put Market Street on a road diet.

Their report, Vision 2026, is more of a wish list than a master plan, yet it reveals a profound shift in thinking among neighborhood leaders. The Old City District - a business group that is usually all about bringing more traffic into the neighborhood - eagerly embraced the idea of making Market Street less like a highway-style thoroughfare and more like a friendly neighborhood Main Street.

Such a transformation, of course, would require radically reconfiguring the street's design. To force motorists to slow down, space for cars would have to be reduced to a single lane in each direction. Sidewalks would be furnished with benches and trees. Between the seating and walking zones, the planners envision what's called a "sidepath," a protected bike lane on the sidewalk. Curbs might even be banished to create a seamless, flat space for all travel modes.

If these ideas sound familiar, it's because similar proposals have been popping up in many of the recent master plans issued by other neighborhoods that straddle Market Street. Schuylkill Yards, the Science Center, and the Center City District all are looking for ways to tame traffic.

That's no accident. The demographic changes we're seeing in Old City are playing out along the entire length of the street. Long viewed as a business corridor, the essence of Philadelphia's downtown, Market Street is being rapidly domesticated with apartments and shops. Pedestrians and bicyclists are coming out of the woodwork. Not surprisingly, their safety is a growing concern.

Market Street has effectively become the central spine for the ever-expanding Drexel campus. Since it completed the 1,300-unit Summit dorm last year on 34th Street, you can see knots of students gathering on the corner as they prepare to wade across the wide boulevard. The mixed-use East Market development at 11th Street, which opens in 2017, promises a similar pedestrian surge at what already is one of the city's most dangerous intersections.

The new way of thinking about Market Street is most clearly reflected in the Schuylkill Yards master plan, which lays the groundwork for a new live-work district in the no-man's-land between 30th Street Station and Drexel University. In a rendering of the 32nd Street intersection, the planners (West 8 and SHoP) show a much-narrowed Market Street with a sidepath nearly identical to the one in the Old City report. They've even proposed a diagonal crosswalk to make it easier for students to flow across Market to Drexel's LeBow College.

These pedestrian improvements aren't all in the future. Five years ago, the University City District established the Porch, a pop-up park next to 30th Street. At the time, the Market Street sidewalk was a stingy three feet wide, and pedestrians had to walk single-file next to the speeding traffic. Using planters and other design elements, the Porch carved out a generous pedestrian walkway.

The city Streets Department also has played around with temporary improvements along the stretch of Market west of City Hall, where new apartment buildings and restaurants have been creeping in amid the staid office towers. Using traffic cones, one lane was closed to cars to create a bike path. Unfortunately, the experiment was short-lived.

It certainly wasn't because Market Street was overwhelmed by traffic.

"The average daily traffic counts are falling along the entire length of the street," said Mike Carroll, deputy commissioner for transportation at the Streets Department. Though that doesn't mean there aren't pinch points that cause annoying backups, he told me that, overall, Market Street has more automobile capacity than it needs.

So, how should the city respond?

Ideally, the Streets Department would organize the Market Street neighborhoods into a single working group. That way, the various proposals could be stitched together into a unified plan the city could use as a basis to apply for government funding grants.

Carroll acknowledged his department had not been focused on Market Street as a single entity, largely because it has its hands full with Roosevelt Boulevard, the most dangerous street in town. The department is also worried about Chestnut and Walnut Streets, which also have become speedways.

But here's an interesting statistic: Even though Walnut and Chestnut are narrower than Market and JFK Boulevard, they're safer roads. Between 2010 and 2014, Market and JFK together had 16 percent more total crashes, according to the Bicycle Coalition's Sarah Clark Stuart.

It's been a particularly bad time for Market. This week, Jamal Morris, a promising young engineer and Drexel graduate, died after a hit-and-run motorist knocked him off his bike at 45th Street. Another cyclist was badly injured last week near 30th Street. Last summer, actor Michael Toner lost a leg after he was struck by a car as he crossed at 12th Street. One obvious reason is that the wide-open spaces on Market Street make it easier for motorists to floor the gas pedal.

Given Philadelphia's obsession with parking, declining car use may sound counterintuitive. But for proof, look no farther than the 1,662-space garage that Brandywine Realty Trust built to serve the IRS headquarters on Market Street. It's so underused Brandywine is considering converting the lower floors into a food market along the lines of Reading Terminal. As car-sharing and bike use grow, Brandywine believes traffic counts are likely to fall even more.

The city needs to plan for the way the city will be, not the way it was. Market Street, the city's main street, could be a good place to start.

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 Note: This column was updated to reflect the latest crash statistics for Market Street.