Beyond the Boulevard

Bold plans at work after stunning success of speed cameras on the Roosevelt Expressway.

Roosevelt Boulevard – aka the “Expressway” or the “Boulevard” – is a harrowing stretch of city traffic, almost universally hated by drivers and traffic advocates, alike. Designed in the 1950’s by legendary city planner Ed Bacon (Kevin’s dad!), the Boulevard was intended to be a scenic country road connecting the Northeast to the Northwest. Bordered by residential architecture, and landscaped with tree-plantings and grassy knolls between lanes.

Obviously, this was before modern traffic theory, way back when cars weren’t yet so essential to daily living (and households with more than one vehicle were few and far between). With no actual experience to go by, experts assumed that the bigger the road, the more cars it could efficiently accommodate. Makes sense, but that’s not what played out.

Roosevelt Boulevard soon proved an unforeseen traffic principle called “induced need.” Simply put, big roads attract as many cars as it takes to back them up with traffic. Adding more lanes never helps, because that just opens up more room for additional cars and – you guessed it – more congestion.

Today, the Boulevard is an ugly, confusing freeway with local and express lanes that require drivers to switch back and forth, and jockey through maddening intersections. All of this leads to some of the worst driving ever. But even in the best conditions, Roosevelt Boulevard is a hazard. Its flat, wide-open lanes when clear of traffic signal “highway” to drivers, turning them into speed demons.

Indeed, though the Boulevard’s posted limit is 40 – 45 mph, since the road was literally designed as an expressway, it “feels” right to go much faster. Even worse, with such a close proximity to homes and shopping centers, there’s a lot of pedestrian traffic too – and some stretches don’t even have sidewalks! Hundreds of crashes every year involve pedestrians, often with heartbreaking results.

But as a major commuter route, Roosevelt Boulevard affects many thousands of businesses and livelihoods – and 10 bus lines. That’s like 90,000 vehicles per day! Most people who drive this road regularly want to go faster, not slower. They’ll often cite “The 85th Percentile”, a traffic theory that sets speed limits at what 85% of drivers feel is comfortable for the road. However, the science for this is so limited, it’s basically pointless in urban situations.

The good news is, Philadelphia is leading the way in an easy, affordable, and effective traffic-calming technology: radar speed cameras.

For years Pennsylvania law prevented their use for speed enforcement, but in 2018 Harrisburg green-lighted a 5-year pilot program just for Roosevelt Boulevard where drivers more than 11 mph over the speed limit would receive automatic tickets in the mail. It’s been almost 4 years now, the results are in and it’s just… Wow.  👀🤯

Since the cameras went live in June 2020, speeding has dropped by a whopping 90-95%. This is a huge deal even compared to other pilot programs in different cities, but that’s just part of the good news. The big success here is the marked decrease in crashes, injuries, and deaths. Take that, doubters!

According to Christopher Puchalsky, the city director who oversaw Roosevelt Boulevard’s speed camera pilot, “the whole state was watching” when they rolled out the first initiative of its kind in Pennsylvania. It was a big test, and now its supporters are taking a well-deserved victory lap. “(The results) were more than we had hoped for,” he said.

Erick Guerra, a professor of City Planning at U of P and also one of the study’s co-authors, was similarly impressed – but not surprised. “Enforcement works particularly well when a place is dangerous to begin with,” he said, noting that Roosevelt Boulevard is “consistently the most deadly street in Philadelphia.”

Both experts agreed that driving habits, regardless, have gotten wilder since 2020, so it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to be done. Roosevelt Boulevard is nowhere near as safe as it could be. To this end, the City has plans to improve the road’s layout over the next few years to make it safer for everyone, whether you’re driving, walking, or cycling.

Proposed changes include new signage, curb and crosswalk adjustments, even changes in traffic patterns and a possible subway line. The first improvement are set to start around 2027, and meanwhile plans are also in the works for possibly more speed cameras, potentially on other roads. Councilmember Isaiah Thomas’s “Safe Streets” campaign seeks public input now! His office’s brief online survey makes it easy to let the City know how you feel about the speed cameras, and where you think they are needed most.

“Every Philadelphian deserves a safe commute to work, trip to school, or walk to the corner store,” said Thomas, “Far too many Philadelphians’ lives have been permanently altered and lost due to reckless driving. Speed cameras are another tool in the toolbox we can use to make sure we reach our Vision Zero goals.”

TRUE STORY: Vision Zero isn’t a metaphor – it’s a citywide initiative, started in 2016 by executive order, with the goal of eliminating deaths and serious injuries in our streets. According to their last report in October 2023, their targeted efforts have reduced fatal/critical crashes by 34%, and severe injuries by 20%. They’ve also advocated for bike lanes, bike share, slow zones, and many research, safety, and greening investments.

No one likes getting tickets, but active enforcement of traffic laws will help protect our children, elderly, and mobility-impaired residents from dangerous drivers on our roadways. What do you think? Please leave your comments below or email Don’t forget to fill out the Safe Streets survey — open through May 1st, 2024.

This article combines vetted history with a summary of Alan Yu’s excellent article for Plan Philly/WHYY originally published March 19, 2024 and printed in April’s edition of The Local paper though a N.I.C.E. Shared Content agreement.

About Local ChatBot 12 Articles
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