The 20 or so people lining 22nd Street’s bike lane on a gorgeous morning in July earned high fives, cheers, and a few bicycle bell rings from passing cyclists.
The predominantly white demonstrators were protesting poorly painted lane markers and motorists’ tendency to park in the bike lane to pick up coffee from Wawa, which created a potentially dangerous situation, though no one has been badly hurt. The last traffic-related death on 22nd in Center City was in 2013. The victim was a pedestrian.
Two weeks earlier, at Luzerne Street and Whitaker Avenue, Tomas Montañez Jr., a 40-year-old Hispanic man, was run over by a truck while riding his bicycle. He was the second person to die at that corner in four years.
The streets where Montañez died have no bike lanes. Riding on Whitaker means choosing between pedaling in a four-lane road’s shoulder next to cars that often far exceed the 30 mph speed limit or on a sidewalk intermittently blocked by parked cars.
From 2013 to 2017, more than 56,630 crashes were reported in the city, according to PennDot data, killing 474, just a little less than the average enrollment of a Pennsylvania high school.
As of July 22, traffic crashes have killed 56 so far this year, according to the Bicycle Coalition, a tally that includes interstate deaths not counted by PennDot.
Advocacy for safe streets has been dominated by an active cycling community, which has succeeded in making the issue a policy priority, a critical accomplishment in a city rated among the worst large American metropolises for street safety. Mayor Kenney introduced in September a three-year plan to implement Vision Zero, a program that seeks to eliminate traffic-related deaths throughout Philadelphia.
Bike advocates tend to be white in the city, with a focus on the city’s wealthier, central neighborhoods. Media coverage follows suit. Many safe-streets initiatives, whether the recent addition of bike lanes to Market and JFK or a push for more traffic enforcement in the city core, are in those central neighborhoods, too. Five of seven street safety projects either completed or underway through the city’s Complete Streets program are in Center City. The other two are in University City and West Philadelphia.
But neighborhoods like Center City and University City are not where the rates of fatal crashes are highest, according to an analysis of crash rates by traffic volume conducted by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.
The study of crashes from 2013 to 2017 found the likelihood of a person being killed in a traffic crash, whether it’s a driver, cyclist, or someone on foot, was nearly three times higher in large swaths of North Philadelphia compared to Center City. West Philadelphia, the communities around and east of Temple University, and South Philadelphia from Washington Avenue to the Walt Whitman Bridge also had higher fatal crash rates.
Many of the city’s most dangerous roads also are in the city’s low-income communities. A Bicycle Coalition analysis this year found that almost half of the streets on the city’s high injury network, a map that highlights the streets with the highest concentration of serious injuries and deaths in Philadelphia, were in poor neighborhoods heavily populated with people of color.
The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News analysis did not account for pedestrian and bicycle traffic volumes. And the 15 planning districts Philadelphia uses to measure traffic volumes are large, making it impossible to zero in on specific neighborhoods. It suggests, though, the odds of being killed in traffic are lower on Center City’s roads than almost any other part of Philadelphia.
“It’s hard to get the perfect denominator,” said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the city’s Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems (OTIS). “It does show that you can’t just concentrate on Center City, though.”
City officials said attention to Center City is warranted. The concentration of traffic, pedestrians, businesses, and public transit there heightens the importance of the area, said Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for OTIS. In the last five years, 25 people have died there, a larger raw number than most of the other planning districts in the city. Cyclist Emily Fredricks was killed by a truck in November at Spruce and 11th Streets.
Carroll noted there hadn’t been a concerted effort to focus on street safety in the city’s recent past, and Center City hasn’t benefited exclusively. Bridge repair work, adding a second crew this year to the city’s street paving operation, and equipping city trucks with side guards and 360 degree cameras benefit the entire city. Other ongoing efforts, such as installing speed cushions on neighborhood roads, help communities outside the city core, Carroll said.
Even so, activists, residents, and city legislators all say they’re concerned many of the city’s neighborhoods haven’t gotten the same attention as the wealthiest communities.
Vision Zero promises a more even distribution, Puchalsky said, describing plans for community outreach, traffic studies, and some low-cost solutions for neighborhoods that can be rolled out quickly starting this fall.
“As Vision Zero goes along, we’re going to focus our work on where we see the problems,” he said. “Most of that is out of Center City, so our focus is going to be broadly over the entire city.”
Neighborhood organizations, such as Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, say they have been striving to make Philadelphia’s streets safer but have struggled to be heard. Misha Rodriguez, special projects coordinator for the organization, which serves neighborhoods bracketed by Ninth and American Streets, and Jefferson Street and Lehigh Avenue (which has seen nine fatal crashes in the last five years), has noticed the difference between safe streets advocates in Center City, where she lives, and the community where she works.
“They’re louder about it,” she said. “They’re more vocal about it.”
In other neighborhoods, she said, “a lot of the residents, (they’re) maybe not recognizing that it’s something you’re allowed to be loud about or allowed to be upset about.”
One block captain in Fairhill noted that rallying a community around street safety is a challenge in neighborhoods with so many other serious safety concerns.
“They’re selling drugs around the corner,” said Ana Catalosi, who lives on Ella Street about a half mile from where Montañez died and just two blocks from where a pedestrian was killed in traffic in 2015.
In Fairhill, about five miles north of Center City, people pointed out a stop sign it took the city nearly a year to replace, a pothole so deep people have to swerve around it, and drivers who ignore streets signs and speed limits on narrow neighborhood roads bracketed by churches, bodegas, and dense housing.
“They speed through here like it’s a race track,” said Juan Camargo, who also lives on Ella Street.
Drivers’ behavior encourages people on foot to disobey the rules of the road, too.
“I’m cautious. I don’t trust stop signs,” said Rebekah Holt, a mother of four who watched her children and three of their cousins as they played in a fire hydrant’s spray. “I feel more safe crossing in the middle of the road than at stop signs.”
A number of factors affect the fatality rates outside Center City. A big one is 14-mile, high-speed Roosevelt Boulevard, traversed by about 90,000 vehicles a day as it cuts through densely populated neighborhoods in North and Northeast Philadelphia. Already this year, 11 people have died on the road — more than are usually killed there over a full year.
“The boulevard especially is on our mind unfortunately almost every day,” Puchalsky said.
The road is the focus of its own initiative, the Route to Change, and for about two years has been the subject of a $5 million study to find short- and long-term solutions. In September, legislators in Harrisburg will again push to legalize speed cameras, a tool policy makers say is needed to slow down drivers.
The conditions that make Roosevelt Boulevard so dangerous are to a lesser degree replicated along other arterial streets such as Lehigh, Allegheny and Erie Avenues.
“Where you have more speeding and wide intersections with streets that resemble highways, people are more susceptible to crashes and the kind of crashes that kill,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, director of the Bicycle Coalition.
Also, people are more likely to be on foot in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. About 41 percent of people making less than $25,000 a year walk or take public transportation to work, according to the U.S. Census, compared to about a third of the city’s total working population.
In Center City, Second Street is marked by historic brick homes and a thriving restaurant and bar scene. About four miles north, amid the city’s vast thicket of row homes, walking along the same street can mean navigating sidewalks sprouting thick weeds and clogged with trash, or blocked by parked cars that force pedestrians into the street.
The Philadelphia Parking Authority does not conduct scheduled patrols in neighborhoods without regulated parking, officials said, and city data show the Philadelphia Police Department is spending the least amount of time in the last five years ticketing for driving violations.
The Parking Authority would consider expanding areas of restricted parking, said Scott Petri, its chief executive, but that would require the approval of residents.
Policy makers have noticed the disparity in activism and action between the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and low income ones.
“There is a race and economics issue,” said City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, whose district includes Fairhill.
The communities she represents have plenty of people who rely on bicycles or walking, but they haven’t gained the traction of Center City’s street safety activists.
“They’re not in the organized type of biking constituency,” she said.
The Bicycle Coalition is trying to redirect energy beyond Philadelphia’s white, wealthier neighborhoods. The organization hosts vigils for people who died on a bicycle throughout the city, including one for Montañez at the site of his death, which drew 70 people. It plans listening sessions this fall citywide.
“We are trying to encourage that passion to come to other neighborhoods outside of Center City,” Clark Stuart said.
Differences in the geography, building styles and even language in some neighborhoods could make a solution that works in Center City unfit for other parts of Philadelphia.
“I don’t think we always ask people what they want to see,” Quiñones-Sanchez said. “It’s a culture shift. How do we have conversations about the amenities built for the people that were there?”
If the city were to immediately improve streets in the neighborhoods around Allegheny Avenue — the site of four fatal crashes in the last five years — with new painted lines, more extensive bike lanes, and enforcement for driving and parking violations, the change would be greeted with suspicion, said Stasia Monteiro, program director for Hispanic Association of Contractors & Enterprises (H.A.C.E.), a nonprofit supporting economic development in Hispanic communities.
” ‘Are you just gentrifying this neighborhood to push me out?’ ” residents would ask, she said, “if they weren’t at all consulted and it wasn’t made clear to them that this is a benefit to them.”
Activist organizations in low-income communities are overwhelmed with the need in those areas, Monteiro said. She abhors having to sidestep trash and parked cars when she walks the streets near her office on Allegheny, she said, but the Conrail tracks running through the neighborhood had been a nexus for Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic, and that, along with the community’s request for more programs for children, had to be the priority.
“Getting people to organize in the neighborhood is difficult,” she said. “There’s a lot of kind of pushing issues around and not taking responsibility.”
Going forward, the city’s safe streets projects will be dictated by the high injury network map, officials said. Among planned projects are a safety study focusing on three intersections on Lehigh Avenue, trolley track removal at Broad Street and Erie Avenue, a school slow zone at Cramp Elementary School in Fairhill, and repaving on Frankford Avenue, Carroll said. Future work will include extensive community outreach.
“Giving residents a voice in infrastructure decisions that affect their lives is one of our key principles going forward,” Puchalsky said.
The city expects to issue a one-year progress report on Vision Zero this fall, Carroll said.
“We intend to very clearly demonstrate the breadth geographically, in terms of the scope and scale, of the projects we’ve taken on and will be taking on,” he said.
The city has limited resources, though, and the need is vast. Vision Zero has just $1 million allocated out of the Streets Department’s $23 million budget in FY 2018 and $500,000 allocated for operating expenses at OTIS. Supplemental grants will be needed, and the city plans to ensure that money isn’t gobbled up by wealthier neighborhoods with the resources, information, and clout that gets policy makers’ attention, Puchalsky said.
Making changes to street design — an effective but expensive way to improve safety — often requires the approval of City Council, and the 17 council members have differing agendas.
“We still need to be very conscientious and driving and drilling down to make sure that measures we’re implementing in one zip code we’re at least making an attempt to provide in another zip code,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who held hearings on Vision Zero earlier this summer and is reserving judgment on the program’s effectiveness.
Along with concerns about respecting the cultural norms, Quiñones-Sanchez also was skeptical of the city or the Bicycle Coalition setting priorities for the neighborhoods.
“I still think there’s a cultural gap around how some of that stuff gets introduced into the community,” she said. “When you have a bunch of white, middle-class people, they can’t talk to people in these communities.”
With resources spread thin, some groups are taking street safety into their own hands. Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha recently responded to the hit-and-run injury to a 3-year-old near a playground between Fifth and Reese Streets by working with the city’s public health department to place tire planters on sidewalks as a barrier to keep cars from parking there.
“Kids were often zigzagging across the street because you don’t have a direct walkway,” said Rodriguez, from the association.
At the intersection where Montañez died, the ghost bike placed by the Bicycle Coalition is surrounded by messages from his friends and family. One is from his wife, Cici, saying she loves him.
Whitaker and Luzerne remains an inhospitable intersection.
On 22nd Street in Center City, meanwhile, an area developer has already repainted a section of the bike lane’s faded lines.