For Bruce McElrath, a car parked in a crosswalk is a major inconvenience at the very least. At worst, it can turn the simple act of crossing the street in a wheelchair into a life-threatening experience.
“The worst-case scenario is, you can get off the sidewalk on the south side, but then on the north side there’s a car parked right in front of the curb cut, so you can’t get on the sidewalk on the other side,” said McElrath, a West Philadelphia disability-rights advocate who uses a wheelchair. “So you’re stuck in the middle of traffic. It’s quite a problem.”
Anyone who has ever tried to walk through a Philadelphia neighborhood knows that illegally parked cars and other sidewalk or crosswalk blockages can be a hazard, even if you aren’t in a wheelchair.
In Fishtown, residents got so fed up with drivers parking in a Frankford Avenue crosswalk they started blocking it off themselves with traffic cones. Some annoyed pedestrians post pictures of illegally parked cars online, hoping to draw the attention of parking enforcement officers.
The constant blocking of crosswalks comes at a cost, for both safety and convenience for pedestrians in a city that prides itself on its standing as one of the nation’s most walkable.
“It’s not fun to walk if you’re always worrying about what’s around the corner,” said Chloe Finigan, transportation outreach coordinator at the nonprofit Clean Air Council. “Pedestrians can also be injured or lose their life just because the driver could not see them.”
Yet for the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Police Department, crosswalk and sidewalk enforcement has never been treated as a life-or-death issue.
For police, nabbing illegal parkers is officially a “lower priority.” PPA officials, meanwhile, considers it a quality-of-life problem that is too costly to enforce compared to other types of violations. The PPA’s policy of only patrolling blocks that have metered spaces, time restrictions, or permit parking leaves many streets almost unmonitored, particularly in neighborhoods where parking permits are not required. The policy excludes most residential areas outside of Center City.
That’s a problem, neighbors say. Residents surveyed for the city’s Vision Zero crash-prevention initiative described crosswalk-blocking as one of the most dangerous motorist behaviors they observed.
“The PPA can ticket those cars that are outside of its patrol area. They could be walking the entire neighborhood and looking for crosswalk violators, but they aren’t,” said Nick Zuwiala-Rogers, the Clean Air Council’s transportation project director.
The PPA’s focus is unlikely to change dramatically any time soon. However, in the state-controlled authority’s headquarters and in City Hall, officials have been making some efforts to step up enforcement.
Last year the parking authority, along with the police, SEPTA officers and other agencies, gave 19 percent more citations to drivers parked in crosswalks, in front of curb cuts, or too close to street corners than they had in the prior year.
Though a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.7 million parking tickets issued annually, the 48,460 citations signify that targeting illegal parkers is getting more attention than in years past. Some of those additional tickets were issued in Center City, where an enforcement “blitz” was launched to unblock bus lanes and get traffic moving.
The enforcement push has been accompanied by a new focus on construction work that blocks sidewalks and streets. The Streets Department just created an interactive map that shows work permits and their expiration dates. The tool is expected to lead to more reporting of unpermitted work and potentially more enforcement against those illegally blocking pedestrian right-of-ways.
Additional modest changes are coming this year. City officials expect to soon announce two neighborhood Slow Zones with 20-mile-per-hour speed limits for cars and other traffic calming measures. They could include high-visibility crosswalks and parking barriers near intersections.
PPA executive director Scott Petri has also proposed raising fines for parking violations and using the cameras on SEPTA buses to ticket illegally parked vehicles.
After residents pointed to crosswalks as a top issue, ticketing of cars parked on crosswalks, bike lanes and sidewalks became one of six enforcement priorities targeted by the Vision Zero action plan created in 2017, said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability
“Safety is our first priority, and we've got to make sure that pedestrians can safely cross the street,” said Puchalsky. “We have a Vision Zero policy that says preservation of human life is more important than mobility.”
Humans may be more important than cars under city policy, but policy doesn’t always guide your neighbors’ parking habits. Especially not in South Philadelphia, where significant population growth has contributed to a space crunch.
Two years ago, Pennsport photographer Julie Rowe started the #NotAParkingSpot hashtag, posting photos of law-breaking parking jobs on Twitter and tagging the PPA. The account was later taken over by FeetFirstPhilly, a pedestrian advocacy group run by the Clean Air Council.
FeetFirstPhilly has registered about 1,000 Twitter reports of illegally parked cars since November 2017, the group said. More than half show crosswalk violations and the rest are of cars parked on sidewalks. The reports are mostly from South Philadelphia and Fishtown and represent just a small fraction of all instances of illegally parked cars, Finigan said.
The majority of the posted photos are not taken on PPA-patrolled blocks, so the agency refers the tweets to the area’s police district, said Bill Wasser, the PPA’s public engagement coordinator. Even for violations in the agency’s coverage area, social media “is probably not the best tool to do that, because of course you’ll get pictures that were taken three days ago,” he said. “What do you want us to do with that, right now?”
Wasser recommended that people who see violations call the PPA radio room at (215) 683-9775, but agency officials said that even then the agency does not respond to all violations within its service areas. Its officers generally will not go out of their way to check on a blocked crosswalk, they said.
Meanwhile, the police have many more urgent calls to respond to.
“Illegal parking complaints are assigned a lower priority code, and therefore can remain in ‘pending’ status before they are dispatched, especially in busier police districts,” Sgt. Eric Gripp, a spokesman for the police department, said in an email. “Lower priority calls can sometimes be repeatedly ‘pushed to the end of the line’ as higher priority calls for service are received.”
In some places, the police simply tolerate illegal parking, for example on the South Broad Street median. Gripp said a police officer who sees an illegally parked vehicle will consider the context before deciding whether to give a ticket. For example, an officer may respond to a 911 call and find several cars parked illegally.
“The street is relatively narrow compared to other city streets, and he also observes dozens of other vehicles on the block with their wheels on the sidewalk. Should the officer write just the ticket of the vehicle that he or she received the call about? Would it be ‘fair’ to ticket just that vehicle and disregard the rest? Should the officer instead ticket every vehicle on the block, being as they are all committing the same violation?” Gripp said.
“Perhaps the officer should not ticket any of the vehicles, and instead attempt to locate the owners of these vehicles and ask them to move their cars,” he said. “Does he or she have the time to do this when there are higher priority assignments pending?”
Of the 178,000 parking tickets the police department gave out last year, about 14,000 were for parking on crosswalks, curb ramps, or street corners. Meanwhile, Finigan said she sees the same locations appear on the #NotAParkingSpot feed over and over.
“I can definitely pinpoint submissions from, say, Police District 1, where every other day for the last couple of weeks we've had this same intersection with this one picture. There are four cars parked on this corner by the auto shop, and then it's the same the next day and the next day. From everything that we're seeing the enforcement is just not happening,” she said.
On busy Frankford Avenue, where residents started enforcing the law themselves after the city put in new stop signs and crosswalks, neighbors say they put up their traffic cones after the police and PPA failed to intervene.
Workers had not painted one of the crosswalks all the way to the sidewalk, apparently because cars were parked in the way at the time, and drivers continued to block the pedestrian pathway. Residents, including many organized through Fishtown Neighbors Association, say that making busy crossings safer is a priority in the rapidly growing neighborhood.
“People have to weasel between cars to even use the crosswalk. If you have a stroller, if you have a wheelchair, good luck,” Fishtown resident Oren Eisenberg said. “It creates a terrible visibility issue for people who are supposed to be using infrastructure to cross the street safely.”
Promoting street safety is part of the PPA’s mission, and Petri said he wishes he could focus more on “quality-of-life issues” like crosswalk violations. But he said the agency is under constant pressure to increase the revenue streams it provides to the city and the school district, and quality of life enforcement is a money-loser.
“The great debate is always, ‘How much money did you turn over?’” Petri said, during an interview last month at the PPA offices on Market Street. “None of these quality of life issues are revenue producers. The labor cost is always going to exceed the revenue that is derived. I would rather be in the sweet spot of quality of life issues than trying to deliver revenue, but that's where we are. Somebody's always saying, ‘Deliver more money, deliver more money.’ Well, the way to do that is certainly not to undertake some of these matters.”
Another major challenge is resistance from car owners in densely populated neighborhoods who want to park near their homes.
For example, the PPA might be able to use the cameras on its vehicles to automatically ticket cars in crosswalks, but officials said neighborhood opposition would be an obstacle. Many residents simply don’t mind cars blocking crosswalks or sidewalks.
“You have to look at both sides of the coin. (Advocates) want enforcement…but then if I come out and I have a (PPA) car driving and I issue 50 tickets, you have this whole neighborhood up in arms. 'He came by, and I didn't know I got a ticket, then I get it in the mail 10 days later.' They're calling their council person,” deputy executive director Corinne O’Connor said.
“You have to tread this fine line that, if you're too aggressive in these areas that aren't regulated at all, people complain so much. We're getting calls saying, ‘Get out of that area, what are you doing there.’ …They call and say, ‘There's no parking, what am I supposed to do. I had to walk 8 blocks and I got home at 10 o'clock at night with my three bags of groceries.’ You have both sides in this type of situation,” she said.
Eisenberg and other pedestrian advocates acknowledge that many residents need and value their parking spots. But they argue that when too many accommodations are made to the city’s “car culture,” pedestrians lose out.
“When people are behind the wheel, they have this stronger permission to do whatever they want. The infrastructure exists to protect people; it can't do that job when it's infringed. It's going to continue to be infringed as parking gets tighter and enforcement continues to be lax. We won't change that culture unless there's stronger enforcement,” Eisenberg said.