Making Pedestrian-Only Streets a Reality in Philadelphia

Philly needs permanent pedestrian-only streets. Not just one, but a network of protected corridors in all our neighborhoods, brimming with activity and engagement that’s family friendly and people-centric. And I have no doubt in my mind that with the right mix of public and private support, it would be fantastic. Let’s be honest, this is Philly. We can do anything!

Think of the best street festival you’ve been to in recent times. Maybe you grabbed a drink at the Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival or listened to live music while window shopping during South Street Fest. For me, I’m fond of Flavors of the Avenue on East Passyunk. Perhaps you’re big into the Night Market. Maybe you’re gearing up for the Kensington Derby or looking forward to ODUNDE or the Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll. The list could go on and on. Now take that energy, keep it going all year round, and marry it with the safety measures behind Vision Zero.

Pedestrian Zones as a Growing Reality

Pedestrian zones are portions of a city (sometimes merely a block, sometimes several miles long) restricted to people on foot, and at times, human-powered transportation (bicycles, scooters, etc.). Every location has its own approach to the concept, but the general intention is to foster connectivity while encouraging healthier means of travel and activity. It is part of a movement to shift away from auto-centric urban design and emphasize quality of life in a more equitable manner.

These zones are growing in popularity. Places like Paris, Montreal, and Dublin have all taken steps in making it happen. The same can be said for cities here in America. From Paseo Park in Queens, NY to JFK Drive in San Francisco. Some have made the closures permanent through legislation like Portland. Others have created events like Baltimore with its Charles Street Promenade and here in Philadelphia with Free Streets.  Many more are beginning their journey to go from concept to reality. Detroit is also a great example with its Joe Louis Greenway.

Mixing in Vision Zero

Vision Zero is an effort to put an end to traffic fatalities and injuries where people and cars meet.

A recent study on New York’s Vision Zero initiative concludes that not only has it done its job in saving lives, but it saved Medicaid more than $90 million in its first five years in reimbursements for treating people with traffic related injuries.

Hoboken, New Jersey’s Vision Zero program is one of the most successful in the nation, having not had a traffic death in 7 years. Vision Zero campaigns involve more than just closing streets to vehicular traffic; they use traffic calming measures to make even roads with car traffic safer.

Let’s take the best of our street festivals, the safety measures and intentionality of Vision Zero, and infuse them into our local commercial corridors to make something people from all over are excited to frequent on the regular.

Car-free streets can be safer for pedestrians at a time when traffic deaths have increased nationwide and bucked global trends. However, there are other benefits that are not as cut and dry. For example, when the world faced unprecedented lockdowns due to COVID-19, many cities began experimenting with pedestrian-only streets and found that they were better for local businesses. New York City also saw widespread economic success for restaurants and bars through their Open Streets Program.

A Need to Embrace Experimentation

Chances are that some people will disagree with me on closing corridors to vehicles in our commercial corridors. That to cut off streets from vehicles potentially creates less economic and social activity, exacerbating an already challenging time for growth in the wake of the pandemic. It could also mean more traffic spills onto other already congested roads. Full disclosure: I am not an economist, or urban planner, or engineer, or civic leader. There are far more qualified people who can and should weigh in on the matter. I welcome any discussion that comes from this article that educates me on what I hope we can make happen. Prove me wrong. Prove me right! Whatever your take, let’s keep the conversation going.

I’m an ordinary resident that’s deeply passionate about the place I call home and I wholeheartedly believe that if you create authentic, inviting, spaces that prioritize the people and things that make Philly what it is, you will see the city flourish like never before. There are substantial examples where pedestrian-only zones have improved quality of life. I’ve only highlighted a few. Let’s mix and match. Let’s examine what’s worked well in other locations and put that unique Philly spin on it. Experimentation can lead us to a more vibrant way of living that’s safe, equitable, and prosperous. In the end, I hope we can all agree that we want to see Philly at its finest 24/7.


Mike Daly, Business Development Manager | [email protected]

Mike Daly is a business development manager at ESI, where he oversees the business development and marketing team. He is responsible for enhancing the firm’s brand and work through traditional and social media, producing content for the company website, managing the firm’s blog, Present Value, and supporting the development of strategic initiatives. Prior to joining the firm, Mike was a marketing associate for the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, a membership organization whose mission is to build a just, green, and thriving economy in the Greater Philadelphia region.

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