At a recent City Council hearing on the SEPTA budget, Councilman Allan Domb proposed banning on-street parking on some congested streets in Center City. This idea may seem crazy, but its time has come. Mayor Kenney, the Streets Department, and the Parking Authority should seriously consider it, because it’s our best hope to tackle growing traffic congestion and increase freedom of mobility for all.
Center City has been experiencing a continuing boom in population, density, and activity. More people are coming downtown to work, visit, and hang out. There has also been an increase in construction, which has included the removal of travel lanes and more truck deliveries. Together, this has inevitably wreaked havoc on vehicle traffic flow. The logistically easy (but politically difficult) way to solve this problem is by freeing up the massive amount of public space now used for curb parking in Center City.
How do we know that curb parking is an unproductive use of space? We can look at relative parking capacity both on and off the street, and see how much curb parking contributes to total capacity. A 2015 parking capacity analysis indicated there were 9,205 spaces in the Penn Center and Market West districts combined. Manually counting, we estimate that the curbside capacity of Market Street to John F. Kennedy Boulevard, and City Hall to the Schuylkill, is just under 300 spaces. Thus, eliminating curbside spaces here would translate to a mere 3 percent capacity decrease.
But we cannot just convert parking space to additional travel lanes. Here’s what Philly can — and should — do instead:
Dedicated transit lanes
These would enable SEPTA buses to speed up routes traveling through Center City, benefiting communities relying on these routes daily. There are no fewer than six routes traveling on Market/JFK, and three on Walnut and Chestnut Streets. They are frequently held up by turning vehicles, delivery trucks, and stopped cars. Reserving shared transit lanes, with appropriate enforcement and signal prioritization, would improve routes and could help reverse the recent severe decline in bus ridership.
Increased sidewalk width
This is crucial for multiple interest groups, especially as foot traffic has reached levels not seen in decades. Retailers would see an increase in pedestrians passing by their storefronts. More restaurants could apply for sidewalk seating without blocking the right-of-way. People in wheelchairs and parents walking with strollers would more easily navigate the grid. There would be more opportunities for the installation of street trees and parklets. For Philadelphia to advertise itself as a walkable city, it needs to give pedestrians (which includes all of us) the space and respect they deserve.
Protected bicycle lanes
These would give residents the space they need to travel safely, allowing them to travel without the fear of navigating car traffic. Bicycling has been on the rise in Center City, but the Kenney administration has barely kept up with accompanying infrastructure. This sustainable, healthy, and space-efficient alternative to driving should be encouraged by the city as a viable alternative to commuting by car.
Dedicated vehicle loading zones
These are needed more than ever as cars and trucks frequently use travel lanes for this use. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, along with traditional taxis, block traffic to pick up and drop off passengers when unable to pull over. An ever-growing onslaught of package delivery trucks and construction vehicles stop without regard to violations and tickets, much less safety. These spots can also be a source of revenue for the city if companies are offered paid permits to utilize them.
Remove the circling of cars
Lastly, the removal of curb parking would also remove the circling of cars searching for an open curb spot, which is a surprising percentage of city traffic. Encouraging arriving cars to head to a garage will automatically remove a major source of congestion, not to mention the holdup of parallel parking and pollution from idling cars as well. Domb also brought up the point that increasing garage utilization at the cost of curb spaces would help the city recover revenue through its 22.5 percent tax on privately owned parking lots.
It’s refreshing to see someone on City Council firmly declare that on-street parking is the lowest, most unproductive use of land in Center City. Continuing to allow this practice will only bring more congestion and pollution to our city. Following the steps of other livable cities, Philadelphia must incentivize more space-efficient means of transportation, such as transit, walking and bicycling. This is because the city’s streets are constrained by the hard limit of geometry, so the crucial question is how we accommodate more people along our fixed-width streets. We hope this opportunity will be leveraged by the city and the PPA to utilize the street space for vastly more productive uses that Philadelphians want.
Dena Ferrara Driscoll is a family biking advocate who co-chairs 5th Square PAC. @bikemamadelphia