PHOTOS: Bringing the Dilworth Plaza Magic to La Colombe's Sad Traffic Triangle


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Last week we showed you how snow can help public space advocates make the case for better pedestrian spaces and traffic calming interventions by revealing the street space cars aren't usingThis week we'll take a look at some more examples of potential pedestrian spaces, with an emphasis on areas we've already closed off to cars, but which haven't yet been optimized for pedestrian use. 

For example, everybody's pretty excited for the new Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall. It's going to be an awesome new park and pedestrian space right in the city center. But there's a problem we haven't yet sorted out, which is how we're going to make pedestrians feel safe crossing the busy stroad at 15th Street to get to the park.

The current political paradigm sees the purpose of 15th Street as speeding cars through Center City, so that people who live outside the city can get in and get out really quickly. A different paradigm sees this stretch of 15th Street as a public space for people who live in the city, whose primary purpose is facilitating human enjoyment, and whose secondary purpose is transporting people safely on foot, bike and transit between the park at Dilworth Plaza and the surrounding business and shopping districts.

How would we design this space differently if we were working within the new paradigm?

One option would be to turn an existing painted neckdown at the corner of 15th and South Penn Square into a legitimate pedestrian area with planters and street seating. I highlighted the existing triangle in blue. In this post, blue will represent a more incrementalist plan, and green will represent a more radical intervention:

People already use this triangle while waiting to cross the street, but standing on it there is a sense of being exposed, probably because there are speeding cars coming right at you! Turning this into a legitimate sidewalk, and putting some planters out close to the new curb edge would help shrink the space that drivers psychologically feel they are maneuvering in. It could also turn this space into a big outdoor seating area for La Colombe. Here's an example from Union Square North in NYC:

I'll leave it to the traffic engineers out there to suggest ways to slow down cars speeding down 15th Street, and around the corner onto South Penn Square, as well as how to manage pedestrian traffic from this plaza into the park. When the park opens, should we draw a crosswalk here, like the one in the NYC photo, and a few more to the north between 15th and the park? Should we use the Barnes Dance to manage alternating pedestrian and car traffic?

Philly doesn't use this anywhere yet, but basically the Barnes Dance throws open all the crosswalks at once, lets pedestrians cross at many points in the intersection all at once, and then lets the cars go for a bit, followed by another Barnes Dance.

Under the current paradigm of 15th Street, this idea wouldn't fly because it assigns equal priority to cars and pedestrians, and the dominant view now is that ensuring high levels of service for cars is the most important thing. But under the new paradigm, pedestrians crossing over to City Hall and Dilworth Plaza from the surrounding areas is the most important thing, so cars have to slow down and wait a little longer.

Let's go back to this triangle, because there's another important point about it. Check out how the southernmost part of the painted area is still marked like a travel lane:


It is a travel lane that nobody uses (I stood there for about 10 minutes and watched nobody use it) but for some reason the street space has not been fully given over to pedestrians. It isn't designed for pedestrians to feel comfortable and safe waiting in this space to cross the street. 

It isn't designed like that because, again, the current paradigm thinks the highest priority for this street segment is to make cars go really fast. If a bunch of people were sitting outside of La Colombe at cafe tables, and a bunch of other people were queuing up right next to the travel lane waiting to cross the street, instead of back closer to that fugly sculpture where the curb ends now, then motorists would slow down and drive more cautiously going through this intersection.

The current paradigm thinks that's a drawback, but the new paradigm thinks that's a good thing.

That's the incrementalist plan. The more adventurous vision for this segment of 15th Street would close down the whole rest of the travel lane, all the way to Chestnut Street, giving pedestrians a nice wide sidewalk and making room for even more cafe tables, street seating and planters:

I watched this lane for about 10 minutes too, and people don't use it. The paint neckdown nudges people into the other two lanes entering into this segment, and there's a sidewalk bumpout at the end of the block, so there's no point in trying to use this as a travel lane, and no one does. 

Now if you look at the sign, you see it's a Passenger Vehicle Loading area, so we basically have an entire lane on this street segment sitting empty the vast majority of the time, just in case somebody wants to hail a cab.

Here again we see the current political paradigm at work. Since the primary purpose of 15th Street is moving cars really fast, it wouldn't do to have a cab stopping to pick somebody up for 30 seconds in one of the other travel lanes. The cars behind the cab might have wait 30 seconds! Better to leave an entire lane empty most of the time so that never happens.

A different paradigm would weigh the infrequency of that type of inconvenience against more sidewalk space for pedestrians, more cafe tables for La Colombe, maybe a bike share station, and the safety benefits of slowing down car traffic heading into the pedestrian-heavy shopping district around Chestnut. (Spoiler alert: the 1600 block of Chestnut has one of the highest pedestrian crash counts in the city.)

The only real obstacles to the more adventurous intervention are the existence of the surface parking lot at the end of the block, and the entrance to the loading area for 1414 South Penn Square (the building La Colombe is in):

This is the only entrance into the parking lot, so at the moment, it's not actually worth paving this stretch of curb. We could use paint to temporarily close down this lane, and then cars would just have a slightly longer turn into the lot. Same thing for the loading area for 1414 South Penn Square:

In the short-to-medium run though, this surface parking lot needs to die, and get reborn as a tall mixed-use building. When that happens, it will make sense to pave over the curb cut and make the sidewalk extension permanent. The area in front of the parking lot is about half a city block, so we could potentially get two or three more restaurants and bars in here and have a whole block of cafe tables and outdoor seating on our luxuriously wide sidewalk.

Under the current political paradigm, this idea is a non-starter because throughput and moving cars fast down 15th Street is the most important policy objective. But under the new political paradigm, the benefits of making a nice place for pedestrians and local businesses vastly outweigh the drawbacks of making a handful of drivers wait 30 seconds for somebody to get into a cab a few times a day.

Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 February 2014 @ 01.18
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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.