Philadelphia's Non-Car Commuter Numbers Only Look Good Because Most Other Cities' Look Terrible

The pro-transit zoning map we need

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The Philly MOTU blog is out with a fun infographic that shows Philadelphia had the second-highest share of non-car commuters of the 10 most populous US cities in 2012, after New York City.

While some people might look at these numbers as justification for complacency - a sign that the Philly livable streets movement should just chillax - we would argue that the real message of this chart is that Philly only looks good compared to how bad the car dependence situation is in most other big US cities.

When we de-wheelify the graphic and put the numbers on a regular bar graph, we can see this more clearly:

New York City obviously has the best public transportation system in the country, but too many city decision-makers reach for this excuse far too quickly, rather than taking responsibility for fixing the problem. The high wage and business taxes, and low property taxes, do contribute to the job sprawl problem, where too many people who live in the city have to commute out to the suburbs for work.

But that's far from the only issue, and we would argue it's not even the biggest issue.

The biggest culprit is that while Philadelphia has a much better public transit system than most US cities, our local land use and transportation policies actively discourage people from using it, and encourage them to drive instead. 

From the scandalously low price for residential parking permits, to the low meter prices, to the low parking taxes, to the low taxes on land values, to the dearth of dedicated bus-only and bike-only lanes (and the total lack of right-of-way enforcement in those lanes), the cumulative impact of Philadelphia's transportation and land use policy framework is to privilege solo-driving above all other transportation modes. 

And if the streets and parking policies are bad, our land use policies are even worse. Our zoning code prevents tall buildings from clustering near most of our rail stations, artificially holding down ridership.

See the maroon blocks on the zoning map? Those are the densest zones - CMX-4 and CMX-5 - and you'll notice that they start to peter out shortly after you get outside the Center City core along Broad Street.

The little orange, yellow, and red blocks are to blame for too-low ridership, because they mean that you can only build short-ish rowhouses next to the expensive heavy rail line. The city is arbitrarily depressing the number of people who can live next to the subway.

If City Council actually wanted to take responsibility for meaningfully shifting the car commuting numbers down, the zoning map would look something more like this:

That's a bit sloppy but you get the idea. Land use regulations that want people to ride the subway and buses more would encourage more people to live close to the subway and the major arterial streets. Everything within a few blocks of Broad Street, Market, Girard, Spring Garden, Washington, and Snyder would get upzoned to CMX-5.

City Council hasn't wanted to hear it, but the land use component is critical to growing the mode share for transit, walking, and cycling. By all means blame state government for stingy SEPTA funding, but you have to blame City Council members for actively blocking more people from living near transit.

Last Updated: Wednesday, 09 April 2014 @ 13.51
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jongeeting's picture Jon Geeting About the Author:

Jon Geeting is a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist and policy researcher. His writing also appears at Next City, Primary Colors, and Keystone Politics, where he covers politics and elections, land use and transportation, and urban economic policy. He also writes a monthly Political Machine column at Philly City Paper.