As part of the ongoing exploration into the many elements that impact the quality of life for the region's citizens as well as residents on and near Philadelphia's Delaware River waterfront, the Praxis staff spent part of the day Thursday on those neighborhoods' busy highways and byways, such as Columbus Boulevard and Delaware Avenue.
The seven-mile stretch of the Delaware River waterfront under study by Praxis offers a daunting mix of uses and challenges. You have Big Box store development adjacent to an active port in the southern portion; a disconnected central riverfront that is ripe for development; and a plethora of urban renewal proposals in the northern tier, including casinos with 5,000 slot machines.
And, of course, there is I-95 all the way along that stretch.
Because the issue of traffic management is a common denominator in the creation of a comprehensive plan for the riverfront, our pathfinder Thursday was Sam Schwartz, one of the top experts in the nation on the subjects of traffic congestion, urban infrastructure, traffic safety and transportation systems.
Known as Gridlock Sam, Schwartz’s expertise extends into the areas of regional planning and development, urban design and civil engineering. Schwartz, who once worked as a New York City cabbie, eventually became the city’s traffic commissioner. He is a quick study when it comes to sizing up potential access and volume problems that can create tension between developers and planners.
After spending a couple hours driving up and down Delaware Avenue with Schwartz in rush hour and rain, he was struck with the open nature of the roadway and urged us to think about Delaware Avenue as Philadelphia's "Champs Elysees."
"The intent is to have good planning go along when you do a development and it is not meant to slow development down. It has to be explained to the business community that this is a planning tool so that your project can succeed."
He also urged community members to get involved in development issues in their neighborhoods.
"It also is an opportunity to be demanding and for a community to get something changed."
Any vision for an improved, more useful and people friendly waterfront includes a pragmatic analysis of the impact vehicular traffic will have on those sites.
“We need to understand the questions to be asking about traffic and transportation,” said Praxis Director Harris Steinberg. “So we can be smart about how we handle it beyond individual parcels.”
Steinberg asked Schwartz if he had any recommendations for ensuring that the planning exercise remain holistic and inclusive of the residents who live in the river wards.
"I would suggest creating a computer model of this area and from that you can feed in different parameters you can find in developments," Schwartz said. "You can assign the traffic. You can decide we want to be a 90 percent car oriented waterfront, or we can be a 70 percent car oriented waterfront, or 30 percent. We want to have more pedestrians. You can actually simulate these things, so the community can actually say we really want to have more people walking across. And if more people are walking across apply light signal times (in the computer model).
"Do things to engage the public. Give them myriad choices and make it so easy that you just plunk it in and everything just changes in that model. You want the two-lane boulevard? You want it three lanes in each direction? You want a deck-over in some locations? Computer technology is so good now you can show the public what it will look like."
And how does that fit into a plan specific to Delaware Avenue?
"Imagine it's the Champs Elysees of North America," Schwartz said. "There are coffee shops and little coves. Let urban designers go wild and they come up with terrific things."
Check out Gridlock Sam's website