Crosstown Traffic

While PennDOT repairs & resurfaces Lincoln Drive in 2017, Community Council’s Traffic Committee holds out for radical safety upgrades on Henry Avenue.

Since 2015, the intersection of Henry & Schoolhouse has been waiting for curb bumpouts, new signals, and other safety improvements based on PennDOT’s $250k study that specifically considered our 1.4 mile stretch of Henry Ave. Last August, Traffic Committee members emphatically rejected PennDOT’s plan for six miles of Henry Avenue running from Strawberry Mansion to the Cathedral Village retirement community in Roxborough.

Instead of the improvement that PennDOT recommends, (vocal members of) Community Council is lobbying for roundabouts at the intersection of Henry & Schoolhouse and several others to slow traffic. In addition, some members also support reducing the number of lanes in each direction, and adding a designated bike lane.

Too radical, says PennDOT.  The area needs to balance the needs of cars, bikes, and pedestrians.  “Henry Avenue is a major vehicular corridor in that region, ” PennDOT’s head rep for our area told PlanPhilly.com, “Some people on the East Falls Traffic Committee view it as a local road. That really isn’t its function.”

Well…. maybe not if you’re zipping through on your way to Ridge Ave, Conshohocken, Plymouth Meeting, etc. But we live here! Henry Ave connects us with PhillyU and some great trails in the Wissahickon. Why NOT roundabouts to keep traffic here calmer?

A committee member urged PennDOT to look beyond the status quo for East Falls, “Make this something special that you can hold to people as an ideal for the future.” Which sounds pretty lofty for a traffic circle but I’m in! At least in theory…

Funny thing about posted speed limits — they’re one of the last things that determine how fast drivers go on a road. Henry Avenue is so dangerous here because it “feels” like a 45mph road (at least), thanks to wide lanes, institutional buildings, and other cars zipping up your tail.

A roundabout at Schoolhouse could change the whole dynamic. Instead of a straight-shot through our neighborhood, drivers would need to slow down to negotiate a traffic circle, and alternate right-of-way with pedestrians & other vehicles. Such measures practically guarantee safer, more vigilant drivers. BTW, MythBusters even determined traffic actually flows faster thru circles than with 4-way stops.

But there are problems. While roundabouts lessen the number of serious accidents on some roads, they also tend to increase the number of fender-benders (folks get confused!).

Also, roundabouts don’t work all that well for high-volume intersections, which can quickly get backed up. PennDOT’s study reported over 23,000 commuters pass thru East Falls on Henry every day — plus, construction costs & property rights issues add significant hurdles.

Not so fast!  Community Council disputes their findings. To PennDOT’s credit, they’ve agreed to take a second look. Perhaps some metrics were off? Maybe they overestimated the expense? They’ve postponed construction until 2018, and are slated to provide a review of their Henry Avenue analysis in early 2017.

Meanwhile, PennDOT announced in September plans to team up with SEPTA to reduce traffic and optimize travel times on the Schuylkill Expressway. Plans include allowing drivers on 76’s shoulders, and increasing service on the Manayunk/Norristown line (with bi-level rail cars, yet!). Henry Ave and other roads running parallel to the expressway will be “modernized” with new traffic lights to accommodate faster traffic flow.

Wait, what? I thought we wanted to calm traffic here, not speed it up.

New traffic theory seeks ways to keep traffic moving, rather than slow it down. Won’t that increase congestion? Not necessarily. Research supports changing our expectations regarding traffic now that personal cars are on on their way out, as this PhiladelphiaSpeaks user explained in a recent thread on Henry:

“…Cars will become pay per use, as opposed to high fixed cost, low marginal cost as they are now. The switch from essentially free marginal cost today to 100% marginal cost in the near future will ironically lead to more density, more walkability, and people economizing on car use by cutting out car trips.” (billy ross)

In fact, forward-thinking cities like Helsinki in Finland are working towards “mobility as a service,” where citizens pay a travel fee to seamlessly hop from bike to car to train. In such a model, private cars could be unnecessary — with driverless cars around the corner, this future seems possible, even likely (to a degree).  No wonder city planners worldwide are strategizing big changes for cleaner, safer communities.

Locally, East Falls Forward would like explore our neighborhood’s traffic and parking needs, habits, and expectations — plus, provide Fallsers an opportunity to express their opinions on Henry Avenue, speed bumps, bike lanes, permit parking, and more.

They’ve put together an informal survey, where neighbors can chime in privately online. Results will be posted here & on EFF’s website, plus shared with PennDOT and EFCC’s Traffic Committee. Thanks for taking the time to help make East Falls awesome for all of us.

INTERESTING FOOTNOTE: As the US slowly warms to the idea of roundabouts for safety & traffic calming, England has been replacing theirs with traffic lights for the very same reasons.

“Roundabouts are brilliant at moving car traffic, but not a safe space for people who cycle or are crossing on foot,” said a traffic expert in the city of Newcastle.

In addition, roundabouts tend to cause backups unless the traffic on each road is equal. Traffic lights can be timed to accommodate heavier traffic at different times during the day, but not roundabouts that rely on right-of-way rules to keep cars moving.

Clearly, roundabouts are no cookie-cutter solution — we’re glad to see PennDOT and Community Council’s traffic committee doing their homework before making radical changes to Henry Avenue.

START EAST FALLS TRAFFIC & PARKING SURVEY HERE 

 

 

6 Comments

  • David Griesing

    Congratulations on a terrific issue, guys! The individuals stories were nicely done and the mix even better. Your hard work is really evident. And that includes details like the 3 wonderful dogs playing in the “talking picture” that accompanied the Dog Park story appearing in the hard copy edition. You’re having fun with these stories and learning things too, along with your readers. Keep up the good work.

  • Joe

    The basic premise here is wrong. If speed limits were posted at 85th percentile, we would be safer. Low speed limits and mass ticketing only increase problems and crashes. The one comment about traffic diversion to other streets is also valid.

    Speed cameras also make lots of errors, as does radar.

    • Steve Fillmore

      Thank you Joe. If we understand your 85th percentile comment, you’re referring to a “rational speed limit” that 85% of drivers would not exceed and would be set based on analysis of factors peculiar to Henry Avenue by traffic engineers? If so, then we agree it would increase safety. Also agree that speed cameras and radar do make errors, but in general they should give a good snapshot of traffic patterns and provide data that can inform sensible solutions, such as the rational speed limit. Cheers

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