Washington Avenue needs your help


Washington Avenue is one complex beast. From Columbus Boulevard to Grays Ferry Avenue, it’s a 2.3-mile corridor with 29 signalized intersections. And it’s evolving quickly, especially west of South 13th Street, projects are in the works for Bart Blatstein and Toll Brothers properties at Broad and Washington; 2401 Washington Ave. is pushing forward to expand a mixed-use vision for the corridor; a Habitat for Humanity ReStore is officially open at 2318; and Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken is on its way at 20th Street and Washington Avenue.

But what about the actual road? The state it’s in, with faded and often invisible striping, and issues around parking and businesses’ load-in zones, has positioned the avenue in a semi-permanent state of chaos. Enter the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP). There are loose plans for a grand repaving of the avenue in four or five years’ time, but BCGP isn’t willing to wait five years to have key temporary fixes implemented to make the street safer for everyone, but especially cyclists and pedestrians.

“Your help is needed to let Mayor Nutter, City Council and the Streets Department know that there is strong public support for expediting a plan to reconfigure Washington Avenue to make it safer for all users,” reads a call to action from BCGP’s deputy director Sarah Clark Stuart.

She and BCGP posted a “TAKE ACTION” post on their site July 17, and its intention is to get citizens interested, again, in the fate of the Avenue.

It must be said that this is a long, drawn-out and complex process with an immense amount of stakeholders. It actually began back in 2011, but when the City Planning Commission received a grant to study the avenue more seriously, urgency took a backseat to efficiency and long-term vision.

“The Washington Avenue Transportation and Parking Study is a Transportation and Community Design Initiative grant funded by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission,” as a memorandum from Kittleson & Associates, Inc. reads, a transportation and engineering firm in Baltimore. They were charged with summarizing the project and recommending action to Jeannette Brugger, Philadelphia’s Bike and Pedestrian coordinator for the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU).

“Several forms of analysis, evaluation, and on-site review/data collection were completed to support and inform recommendations for the Washington Avenue corridor. These include an evaluation and inventory of the existing parking and loading supply, demand, and operations; a review of all crash date for a 3-year time frame (’10-2012); and detailed traffic operations analysis of each signalized intersection along the study corridor for all proposed conceptual configurations.”

And there have been crashes. The BCGP prompt to take action includes these startling facts: “The Planning Commission’s consultant found that between 2010-2012, 900 (reportable and non-reportable) crashes of motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists occurred on Washington Avenue. In particular, crashes cluster between 5th Street and 9th Street and between 9th Street and 17th Street, likely due to the high number of conflicts in these areas. Bicyclists and pedestrians have become vulnerable users along the corridor, particularly between 5th Street and 15th Street. On average, six crashes occur along the corridor per week; one crash every 10 days requires towing or involves injury and one pedestrian or cyclist is injured every 3 weeks due to a crash.”

When asked, Clark Stuart can rattle off a very long list of invested stakeholders: the Planning Commission, Streets Department, MOTU, the Washington Avenue Business Association and property owners associations, the Ninth Street Business Association, and then there’s all the civic groups. South Philly Homes, Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition, South of South Neighborhood Association, Queen Village Neighbors Association and Bella Vista Town Watch to name just a few, all have their eyes on Washington Avenue’s awkward maturation.

“The reason it’s been stalled is that there’s been a lot of disagreement about the proposed plans,” Clark Stuart said. “It’s time to break the log jam. A number of years have passed, it’s time to decide what to do. We felt the voices of those who support making a change hadn’t been heard from in a while, and they needed to have an opportunity to speak up and let those decision-makers know.”

Steve Cobb, 1st District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s director of legislation, agrees that it’s a complicated issue but that progress is in sight.

“We have more work to do, but we’re making progress. We can do much better here. We started a couple months ago, we urged the Philadelphia Parking Authority to get people to stop parking in the median and we’ve been reasonably successful,” Cobb said. “I think we’re getting to a compromise that everyone is agreeable to and will greatly increase safety, especially for bicyclists and pedestrians, and we’re hoping for that compromise to include a narrow median and a wider bike lane.”

Washington Avenue is huge. Its four lanes with a turn lane, similar to Oregon Ave., is actually wider than South Broad Street. Daily Traffic Comparison numbers show that 9,800 cars pass through Washington; 22,000 on Broad Street; 15,000 on Oregon; and 12,000 on East Passyunk Avenue (with only two lanes).

And yet, the primary concern is motorist traffic. Clark Stuart lays out the three primary objections to the slightest of tinkering with lane reductions: “A fear that fewer travel lanes will greatly increase travel time across the corridor or that it will increase more traffic on side streets; a fear about the back-in angle parking being problematic and dangerous; and then the confusion or fear that there isn’t enough loading zones for the commercial property owners.” She said “all of those combined have created a lot of sense of doubt.”

“Yeah, it’s a complex issue, definitely,” Cobb admitted. “The major point of contention was a lane reduction,” he added, but in all likelihood that’s just not happening. Too many people will freak out. But in the meantime, Clark Stuart and the Coalition are saying that there’s much that can and should be done quickly and immediately to make it a little better for pedestrians and cyclists.

“I think with a very quickly changing nature of Washington Avenue, there is a recognition on the property owner’s part that having a more complete street with better bike lanes and safer crossings is part of attracting more customers, residents, and that it would be good for Washington Ave.,” Clark Stuart said.

Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.