Traffic Pain in Philadelphia

The hardest part of writing something I am pleased with, is accepting when I can’t get it published. Newspaper and magazine editors only have so much space and they have to triage. When the piece is geographically specific, the available outlets are few. Or maybe what I wrote was junk and I just don’t know it. For better or worse though, because I run a blog I can always self-publish. So before you read on, be forewarned: the following Philadelphia-centric piece has received multiple rejections. I think the message is still worthwhile. But then, I would, right?


It’s 5:30 on a mid-week afternoon, and I am driving north on 16th from Locust Street to JFK Boulevard in Center City Philadelphia. The distance is about seven blocks. The trip will take more than 15 minutes.

Crossing Walnut Street, the left lane – a no stopping zone that time of day – is blocked by two cars, one unattended, and one with a driver sending text messages. Just ahead is a driverless UPS van. What can brown do for me? Try using logistics to park legally!

Across Sansom Street are two unattended FedEx vans in no stopping lanes, one on the left, one on the right. Relax, its FedEx? Hardly.

16thmarketAt Chestnut, eastbound cars sit in the intersection. The light changes, horns honk, no one moves. Eventually the intersection clears and traffic moves forward, only to have a car stop in a no stopping zone in front of Two Liberty Place. Moving up the block, cars and delivery vans fleck the right and left no stopping lanes, funneling traffic from four lanes to two. On Market, a SEPTA bus picks up passengers, heaves hydraulically from its knees and pulls into the intersection on a yellow light. With traffic backed up all the way from City Hall, the bus, one of those double-long articulated jobs, straddles the intersection through two complete light cycles. The bus finally clears the intersection, but 16th north of Market, narrowed due to excavation in the right lane and a mail van in the no stopping zone on the left, is backed up with cars that turned left off Market. Gridlock again.

In the mid-80’s I got caught in an intersection approaching the Holland Tunnel. It was the middle of New York’s “Don’t Block the Box” campaign and the police were out in force. The ticket was hefty. The trauma and the lesson still linger. When signs went up in Philadelphia years later I thought: its about time. I was wrong. Unlike New York, there is zero enforcement. I confess on occasion I have misjudged the flow or been cut off by a lane-hopping jockey and been left straddling a cross-walk, shamefaced, or with my rear end hanging into the intersection. But usually I am that guy sitting at the green light before an empty intersection, waiting for an opening on the other side as horns honk furiously behind me.

At the next intersection JFK is backed up from 17th. Cars in the left lane on 16th are waiting to turn left. Going straight, I stay in the left center lane. Even though the two left lanes of 16th Street are clear across the intersection, we are not moving. Why? Because a cab in the center left lane is stopped waiting to turn left onto JFK – a common, irritation and illegal (75 Pa. Code § 3331(b)) occurrence at this corner. Then the westbound traffic surges into the intersection, creating a new gridlock. At last I reach Arch and turn onto the Parkway. As I make my way to the MLK Drive, I will encounter construction chaos, disregarded lane lines and “no turns” signs that are, like the Pirate Code, considered advisory. But that is another piece.

I have seen a lot in my trip down 16th Street, but what I have not seen is a single police officer trying to keep the intersections clear or enforcing moving violations. For a few days during the transit strike their were officers in the intersection, but they are gone and things are back to normal. Nor have there been any Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) enforcement officers issuing tickets to the cars and vans clogging the no stopping lanes. Likewise, there are no PPA tow trucks moving those illegally stopped/parked vehicles. Where are police and PPA officers? Shift change? Donuts? Done for the day?

According to TomTom, the maker of car GPS systems, traffic in Philadelphia adds 23% to travel time, when compared with the same trip made during free flow traffic. During evening rush hour in Philadelphia travel time is increased by 50% over free flow periods.

Based on a survey of Instagram posts the Auto Insurance Center, found that people feel the greatest levels of road rage during the hours between 4 and 7 PM. I, for one, didn’t need the survey to tell me that. Philadelphia was ranked 18th among the cities experiencing the most road rage.

Pittsburgh Police Officer Vic Cianca in Flash Dance

Driving at rush hour is never going to be easy or pleasant. But opening up what are supposed to be through lanes and unlocking intersections would go a long way to speeding the journey through Center City. It’s not going to happen voluntarily though. Unless no stopping zones are enforced by PPA officers giving tickets and Parking Authority tow trucks hauling away offenders, lanes will remain stoppered. Likewise police must be available to direct traffic and enforce the rules at the major intersections. Otherwise, unmindful drivers, 100 foot long buses and cab drivers making turns from center lanes are going to continue to create gridlock.

So, how ‘bout it Police Commissioner Ross and PPA Acting Director Tolson: won’t you help reduce our travel time and stress?

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Author: Alan L. Yatvin

Alan L Yatvin is a Philadelphia attorney concentrating in police misconduct civil rights, criminal defense and children's disability rights matters. He has tried cases ranging from death penalty homicides to complex municipal liability police misconduct cases. He has also briefed and/or argued appellate matters before the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the United States Supreme Court and the Appeal Chamber of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

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