Boroughs, Cities Closing Streets to Vehicle Traffic. Why Isn't Philadelphia?

From West Chester in the Philly burbs to Oakland and Minneapolis, municipalities are using the coronavirus shutdown to experiment with turning streets into giant sidewalks. Philadelphia is not.

The borough of West Chester is considering closing down two of its downtown streets to vehicle traffic.

In Oakland, California, 74 miles of streets have banned non-local vehicles, becoming "slow streets" for pedestrians and bikers to enjoy without motor overbearance.

Minneapolis, Denver and Milan are also doing it. Boroughs and cities across the country and the world are using the coronavirus pandemic's lockdown to open up once-congested downtown streets to pedestrians and bicyclists. In West Chester, city leaders believe it could be a way to restart local business while social distancing.

But outside of MLK Drive in early March, Philadelphia has not built on the success of Mayor Jim Kenney's "Free Streets" initiative and opened more city streets to foot and bicycle traffic.

"I haven’t envisioned closing any streets," Kenney said Thursday about shutting down vehicle traffic.

Kenney's managing director, Brian Abernathy, acknowledged advocates asking for street closures to vehicles, but said the city is too swamped with managing the pandemic and its subsequent fiscal crisis to deal with the idea.

"All of my operating departments are stretched to the limits at this point," Abernathy said. "We’ve looked at this off and on for a long time. I appreciate people’s perspectives. But at this point, I don’t see what problem we’re trying to solve by closing additional streets."

Kenney added that his administration is still weighing the annual "Philly Free Streets" day in August -- it would be the 5th year -- but that "the decision has not been made yet."

The mayor has championed open streets since he took office in 2016 and just last month in an "Open Letter to Philadelphians" began the message by writing:

"Every year since 2016 I’ve been thrilled to take part in Philly Free Streets as thousands of residents from every neighborhood came out to walk, bike, roll, and play after we closed some streets to cars. Each time I was awestruck. Their unbridled joy, their enthusiasm, and their love for our city were abundant on the streets of Philadelphia. It made me very proud."

In mid-April, three civic groups in Center City wrote letters to Kenney asking his administration to shut down streets to give pedestrians more places to enjoy the outdoors. Shutting streets would also alleviate outdoor areas like the Schuylkill River Trail that have recently been crowded as pleasant spring days occur more often.

Four groups also co-signed a letter to Kenney -- and five City Council members added their signatures -- calling for street closures because, in part, of less traffic: 37% less, by their measure.

Kenney said the conversations that have occurred about closing city streets to vehicle traffic involves weighing the good and the bad of living amid the virus.

"There is also the downside of people congregating and being in close proximity to each other," he said.

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