Philadelphia’s Boulevard of Death

Philadelphia's 12-lane Roosevelt Boulevard is a death trap.
Philadelphia's 12-lane Roosevelt Boulevard is a death trap.

Last week, an unlicensed driver struck and killed a young woman as she crossed Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia — the city’s most dangerous street. The victim, whose name has not been released, was knocked out of her shoes by the force of the collision, according to the local ABC affiliate.

Roosevelt is a death trap. At 12 lanes wide, it’s basically an at-grade highway through densely populated city neighborhoods. Every year, there are about 700 crashes and 10 traffic fatalities on this single street. At Roosevelt and Large, the site of the fatal crash last week, two sisters were killed in a collision just a year ago.

A 2001 review by State Farm Insurance found that two of the three most dangerous intersections in the United States are on Roosevelt Boulevard.

You can see one of those intersections — Grant and Roosevelt — in the Google Street View at the top of this post. It has all the hallmarks of a high-risk city street, including the presence of destinations that give people lots of reasons to walk. The intersection has a WalkScore of “79,” meaning “most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

Roosevelt runs through one of the nation’s biggest cities, but six miles of the street don’t even have sidewalks. Instead, every design cue drivers encounter urges them to speed. The speed limit is 45 mph, but it’s ignored.

“It’s the worst,” says Randy LoBasso, communications manager at the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “You can’t go under 60 and feel like people aren’t on your bumper.” LoBasso said police officers are afraid to pull anyone over on Roosevelt because there’s no shoulder.

In the last five years, Roosevelt has been the site of 13 percent of all traffic deaths in Philadelphia. It’s exactly the kind of arterial street that needs to be transformed if American cities are going to achieve lasting improvements in traffic safety.

The danger of Roosevelt Boulevard is the result of many years of haphazard planning, and fixing it won’t be easy. As Mark Dent at BillyPenn explains, Roosevelt started out as a rural road. Then as the surrounding are became urbanized, the city added lanes.

A few years ago, the state set aside $8 million for measures like red light cameras and countdown timers at crosswalks. The fatality rate fell slightly but remains staggeringly high.

A separate $2.5 million federal grant is funding a study of long-term changes, with a focus on improving transit along the whole length of Roosevelt. But those improvements are expected to take many years.

Philadelphia can’t wait that long, said LoBasso.

Latanya Byrd (middle), whose niece and her three children were killed trying to cross Roosevelt Boulevard, speaks in Harrisburg with State Rep. John Taylor and Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Sarah Clark Stuart. Photo: BCGP
Latanya Byrd (middle) lost her niece and her niece’s three children when a driver struck them as they crossed Roosevelt Boulevard. Photo: BCGP

In the short term, the Bike Coalition is calling on the state legislature to allow speed cameras on Roosevelt. Pennsylvania state law doesn’t allow speed cameras, or the use of speed-detecting radar by police. The legislature is dominated by Republicans and many have a libertarian bent that holds automated enforcement in suspicion.

But the Bike Coalition has an ally in Philadelphia Republican John Taylor, who lives near Roosevelt.

Advocates are trying to pass a state law that would allow a speed camera pilot on Roosevelt only. Among those advocating for the changes is LaTanya Bird. A speeding driver killed Bird’s niece, Samara Banks, and three of Banks’ four children as they were walking across Roosevelt in 2013. The driver was reportedly drag racing.

The bill was passed out of a committee, but has not gotten a vote in the full Pennsylvania House.

“It seems like a no brainer,” said LoBasso. “Pedestrians are regularly killed on the street. Drivers are regularly killed on the street.”

“It’s been really tough to get the bill done.”

Now advocates are making a big push before the end of this legislative session, after which Taylor is planning to retire. A protest on Monday at Large and Roosevelt, where the young woman was killed last week, will demand action to prevent future loss of life.

  • Michael

    The ancient Romans used to make their engineers sleep under the bridges that they built. We should at least make our DOT engineers drive, cycle, and walk along every road they design.

  • Erik Garcés

    While this article demonstrates clearly the problem, the proposed solution is NOT about safety, and actually about revenue.

    In short, they only care about the money. If the City and these people really wanted to do something about this, there are numerous methods tried and reliably shown to work in other cities.

  • 1976boy

    I don’t see it that way. It seems to me that transportation officials are more concerned with not angering drivers. It’s a pattern you see in a lot of cities where the safety of the surrounding area takes a back seat to the preferences of people who use the area as a through route, or to facilitate fast travel for local business.

    The methods that are proven to work to reduce the fatalities would also necessarily slow traffic. That’s what they are actually afraid to do for fear of angering drivers. I see this happen all the time.

  • John M. Baxter

    What this does not say is that, well intentioned or not, the profits from the cameras go into a fund that John Taylor controls. He gets to disburse the money and can use it to gain favor with fellow members of the legislature. Further–this article is nothing but an emotional reaction to a terrible tragedy. It offers no information as to why the crash occurred. It does not even offer an estimate of the car’s speed by a police officer. It presumes the car was speeding when the only evidence for that is that the crash was violent. Well a car that is doing within 5 mph of the speed limit there would certainly cause a violent collision. Was the pedestrian crossing against the light? Was the pedestrian invisible because of poor lighting? Was he/she inebriated? Was the driver under the influence? The problem with all this is that, while what seems to be a reasonable margin between the posted limit and the setting of the speed cameras is provided, there still has not been a proper analysis of crash causes and a determination that the setting actually represents a dangerous speed that would be likely to be the primary cause of a crash. Further, the sometimes overly zealous advocates for pedestrian and bicycle safety never look at the situation objectively or scientifically and think of actual crash causes. It is always speed, and they always want to “slow traffic.” Let’s work on the problem scientifically and from a point-of-view that offers a degree of respect and compassion for the vast majority of safe drivers, in spite of the terrible misdeeds of a small minority.

  • Erik Garcés

    But none of that is what’s proposed here. Only a scheme with which to entrap otherwise safe drivers in financial penalty which penalizes the registrant and not necessarily who was driving.

    In other words: revenue.

    If there were deliberately mistimed lights, reduced travel lanes, concrete barriers and fencing as well as mid block crosswalks and speed bumps, THEN we could say it was a serious effort at safety. This was what was done to the so called “Boulevard of Death” in Queens, NYC. It worked wonders.

    Since none of that is being discussed, only automated revenue gathering disguised as enforcement, its clear to those who know enough to see through the smoke.

    Revenue…

  • LinuxGuy

    This is an inaccurate depiction of reality. Red-light cameras and speed cameras need to be banned immediately. We need 85th percentile speed limits, longer yellow lights, decent-length all-red intervals, and sensors to keep all-reds for anyone late. Can also sync lights together with timings and sensors.

    I suggest you look at the Philly PPA and read Jason Laughlin’s Inquirer story from 12-10-17. You will see stuff about an FBI investigation, 3% accuracy rates of red-light cameras, etc. The state Auditor General also put out a scathing report. So we have issues with handling red-light cameras and you now want speed cameras? Wow!

    Red-light cameras have had a variety of issues pop up, but this is mainly about speed cameras here. So we will have speed limits that are too low, tickets barely above them, and possible a bunch of errors. The Maryland Drivers Alliance has an entire section on errors. There could be more crashes and safe drivers will get the bulk of the tickets.

    Radar also has it’s share of problems.

    Sadly, the above story is very lopsided and only tells anti-driver views. I would like to know how many pedestrians and bicyclists are responsible for the crashes they are involved in? Likely quite a few.

    If you want to seek balance to this op-ed, check out the National Motorists Association.

  • David Marcus

    Thank you Erik! Speaking as somebody who is quite fond of driving fast and “just making” the light, I’m getting pretty tired of all these fines and tickets.

  • LinuxGuy

    Visual speed estimation does not work. You are right, there was no analysis here, just an exploitation of a tragic event to further a political goal. Same for the old drag racing case, which was NOT normal driving. Sending pictures out 1-3 months later to a person who may not have even been driving, does nothing! Also note that most speed limits are severely underposted.

  • LinuxGuy

    An unbiased engineering study would be interesting to see. I would bet that speed cameras would NOT be part of any solution. I am not sure this road is so bad, but it could use some simple engineering tweaks, which are free or low cost. Could also use people walking and biking obeying the law.

  • LinuxGuy

    Imagine if we had 85th percentile speed limits and longer yellow lights! Much safer and all would be happy. No money in doing this though.

  • LinuxGuy

    You have that backwards. Traffic engineering and ticketing nationwide are done to shaft drivers for profit, and make them put down the keys. There is TOO much emphasis on road users who do not drive. Those people also do not pay for roads, which is interesting.

  • LinuxGuy

    I know someone who lives in Staten Island, and he disputes that the things in Queens worked. These things sound like a disaster waiting to happen.

  • David Marcus

    Next thing you know there will be a fine every time you send a text or blow through a crosswalk. And you know the government just wastes that money on stuff like “safe routes to school,” as if we need more little traffic hazards walking the streets.

  • http://badintersections.com/Philadelphia.html has all of the dangerous Philadelphia locations mapped.

  • jcwconsult

    Does any rational person think that send a bill in the mail some weeks later to the owner of a car driven by an unlicensed driver could PREVENT such a tragedy? That conclusion is sheer nonsense. No one should be that gullible. Bills in the mail weeks later do not prevent violations and tragedies, they just memorialize them with modest fees.

    The real answer, and it is a cost item rather than a ticket camera racket profit item, is to re-engineer the streets with correct limits, properly synchronized lights, maybe better signage, maybe more “your speed is” signs, maybe some underground pedestrian crosswalks, maybe some overhead walkways, etc. The problem with these solutions is that they do not produce ticket camera racket profits.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    What’s worse yet it’s lack of pedestrian responsibility that is responsible for all the pedestrian deaths. Take a camera on the Killovard. We spend tens of millions for great infrastructure. And watch how pedestrians use it! That’s even if they decide to use it!

  • John M. Baxter

    I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Slowing traffic is NOT the only method that can work, and not angering drivers is a legitimate function of a democracy–when it comes to the majority who are actually driving safely. There are numerous ways of drastically reducing the number of car-pedestrian crashes that don’t slow most drivers. Even crash studies obviously done from an anti-car point of view show that speed is NOT the cause of most such crashes. Most such crashes are the result of some other error. Those of you who push Vision Zero seem as if you are dedicated to over-simplifying the problem by claiming speed is the reason for all these crashes. Speed is only the cause of the most spectacular ones, which you continually exploit in order to push forward your anti-car, anti-driver concept. The sad part is that, if you were to follow the science, and work in a manner that seeks to respect all concerned, your ambitions would move forward much faster–you’d encounter much less resistance. I am not against catching those who are actually speeding, but the point at which a ticket is issued needs to be determined scientifically, not by arbitrary number. And, all the other means of eliminating these crashes need also to be incorporated. These involve things like separating the green light for cars from the crossing light, lighting intersections better, signalizing crosswalks that are not signalized on fast roads, moving crosswalks so drivers are looking straight ahead and will see those crossing, combating drunk driving AND WALKING–the list goes on. It’s not just about speed, and it’s simply not true that all the cars in the city are speeding all the time, which is your 19th-century, anti-car viewpoint.

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    I asked this group of Agenda to come out to Killovard to see how all pedestrians are committing suicide. But they declined. Why did they? Because they do not want to see how they used the new upgraded infrastructure that was made for pedestrians to make the Killovard safer. That’s if they use that infrastructure at all. I have lots of videos to back the real story. So how do most other Crashes occur. Just ask the family of a PPD motorcycle cop that was killed by a drunk driver. Because Liquid Courage And Chemical Powers is the Primary cause of late night highs speed crashes! But These groups of Agendas liken every day driver to the one these drivers that is under the influence of liquid courage and chemical powers with a Device and without a drivers license or insurance. That is driving twice the normal speed. And kills themselves or someone else. These groups of Agendas put all the drivers in the same category as the Oklahoma or Memphis Street races! The thousands of times I never seen a STREET RACE on the Killovard. I never seen anyone going ?MPH! But what I do see is pedestrians lack of pedestrian responsibility. And everyday drivers drive the Killovard with responsibility. And if still want I will be glad to show you. Because I am no fool.

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    I asked them to meet me I will show them how all pedestrians are dying! But they declined because it goes against the agenda.

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    I have lots of close calls on my Twitter site of pedestrians Almost getting killed on the KILLOVARD! Do to Their lack of pedestrian responsibility. But A SPEED SCAMCAMS will prevent this! As well as make the ones that push for them the government, Photoenforcement industries RICH! Then they will donate to groups like to the Bicycle Coalition.

  • LinuxGuy

    People will always run away from the facts. Facts do not lie.

  • LinuxGuy

    If we had best-practice engineering and enforcement, then all people would support it. Enforcement for profit is another matter entirely.

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    #ItsNotMySpeed it’s lack of pedestrian responsibility. And false claims that all drivers are street racers with a bottle and a Device without a drivers license.

  • LinuxGuy

    Philly officials want Vision Zero. According to the plans I have read, to me it says they want no cars, ticket the cars that move, and make everyone drive like a turtle.

  • crazyvag

    This road will need a lot more than cameras. Some shoulder treatment, protected none lanes, a real sidewalk with bulbouts and a gentle bump at crosswalks. It would be prettier to drivers too.

  • FrancisOfAscii

    You bring up a few good points. You should be notified immediately of a speeding ticket. Cars today start beeping when your seat belt is off. The same should happen when speeding, that way you have a chance to slow down. If you get a ticket, you should get an email within a few minutes. Pedestrian tunnels and bridges, while not ideal, would help.

  • Michael

    Ahout half the US is either under 18 or older than 65. the young lack judgment and old are often more concerned about trip and fall than looking for reckless drivers. It’s pretty unreasonable in my mind to design anything that we know half our population would be unsafe using. We need a strategy that makes things safe for 15 year old knuckleheads (most of us were once that) and 80 year olds in walkers (most of us will be that)

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    I have the video proof that #ItsNotMySpeed how pedestrians are killed on the KILLOVARD! This is one of the worst close calls. But what the video didn’t show there was a car closing in the left lane. https://twitter.com/zerovisionphila/status/957300345583087617

  • 1976boy

    Blanket dismissal of a different opinion as “anti-car” or “Those of you who push Vision Zero”, really?

    Your definition of democracy also ignores the people who live in the affected area in favor of “not angering drivers”, “a legitimate function of a democracy.”

    If a city cannot provide a safe environment for all its citizens it has failed.

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    But on this KILLOVARD it’s all able bodied pedestrians too lazy to walk to the corner or if they do they think they can RUN ACROSS 12 lanes of highways AGAINST THE LIGHT! Because this guy make it across on his suicide walk! https://twitter.com/zerovisionphila/status/957300345583087617
    This girl did not on her suicide run for a bus. https://twitter.com/zerovisionphila/status/963270760121937921

  • Michael

    Of course – people are knuckleheads. It doesn’t mean we should design roads where it’s open season to run them down. End of the day, that road is preposterous – clearly commuters have forced it down the throats of the local population while providing some vastly inadequate pedestrian “accommodations.”

    If we want our neighborhoods to suck, then keep that road a bloodbath and eventually everything along it will fall into deep dereliction and fail, and there will no longer be a reason to drive down it. Failure fixes itself. If instead, we want places that aren’t terrible, we can acknowledge that the road is awful and go about turning it into something decent. It could this instead: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Champs-%C3%89lys%C3%A9es#/media/File:Champs-Elys%C3%A9es,_vue_de_la_Concorde_%C3%A0_l%27Etoile.jpg

  • FrancisOfAscii

    If you are a PA resident, be sure to take the survey related to the PennDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan http://www.penndot.gov/TravelInPA/RideaBike/Pages/Master-Plan.aspx

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    The city got grants the city got federal funding. Septa got money! So this 12 lane super highway that carries over 700,000 cars a week. Could not only have a crosswalk or the ability for someone that is on mass transit. Could cross the 12 lanes of super highway. But yes your right about 10 to 20 make a fatal decision to make it Their last shortcut crossing. With the hundreds that do so daily and only 10 to 20 are killed yearly is a miracle. Hundreds yearly aren’t killed! So #ItsNotMySpeed
    It’s lack of pedestrian responsibility. The Roosevelt Blvd is a very safe highway. It’s lack of pedestrian responsibility and drunk Driving along with trees just inches from the roadway that gave it the Killovard name.

  • Michael

    The road in the link that I included (the Champs in Paris) gets 100K cars per day also. It’s a matter of priorities. In Paris, they have prioritized creating a road that generates value for the neighborhood. In the USA, we marginally improve travel times at the cost of destroying lives and property values.

  • thielges

    > The problem with these solutions is that they do not produce ticket camera racket profits

    You’re missing the real problem with your proposed solutions which is that
    they are very expensive. While re engineering streets for a slower design speed is commendable, it isn’t cheap and there’s often significant political pushback including lawsuits. Even something low impact like a road diet becomes a multi-year project.

    Furthermore pedestrian over/under crossings are not only expensive, they present a extra delay and inconvenience to pedestrians as they climb lengthy ramp detours to reach the grade separation.

    Reign in excessive speed now with the least expensive tools in the box. Then later reduce design speed with incremental changes to the street as funds and political will allow.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    Wait, people who do not drive do not pay for roads?? Are we in a new reality where roads are all now magically covered by road user-related fees? What about sales taxes and property taxes that are used to fund road projects? And if I choose to walk or take the bus to work one day, that doesn’t mean I haven’t paid the registration costs for the car I owned but chose not to use that day. Facts do not lie, so drop the assertion that only drivers pay for roads, even if that conveniently supports your agenda.

  • jcwconsult

    Matching the speed limit with synchronized timing of the lights is almost free. Added signage is modestly priced, including “Lights are timed for XX mph”. British researchers have found that the “Your Speed Is” signs are more effective than speed cameras, and they are not that expensive.

    The problem with speed cameras is they will produce profits above their own high costs ONLY when located in areas where the posted limits are improperly and less-safely set well below the actual traffic speeds. This turns them into for-profit rackets with a TOTAL lack of desire by the authorities to ever do the engineering changes that would kill off the geese laying those golden eggs.

    Involving for-profit ticket camera companies in any form of traffic enforcement guarantees corruption and guarantees that the primary focus will be – and will remain – on profits, not safety.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    FWIW, the most dangerous intersection in the country in that 2001 statistic was changed after the State Farm designation and crashes were reduced by 64%. http://miami.cbslocal.com/2012/07/23/is-a-broward-intersection-still-the-worst-in-the-nation/

    Still a nightmare of an intersection if you’re anything but a driver, and it’s probably bad for driving too (3 minute cycle length, anyone?): http://alturl.com/y9m5s

  • John M. Baxter

    All I am saying is that providing a safe environment for all its citizens is a complex problem. Solving it in subtle ways, rather than attacking it with the same overly zealous attitude that gave us the Volstead Act, is not the way to proceed. The business of not angering drivers is a matter of giving them deserved status in the decision making, not a matter of favoring their interests over others. You are stuck on the idea that it’s all about speed. It isn’t! Drivers, walkers, and bike riders can all be satisfied and, as far as I am concerned, should be. But, that does not mean slowing all the cars down, as the statistics prove beyond doubt.

  • thielges

    Light retiming is heading in the right direction though I’m sure you know that technique can only be applied on a small number of streets. Plus it is usually coupled with ITS these days, definitely not a cheap package anymore.
    Please don’t suggest pedestrian grade separations as a solution. That just sweeps the problem under the rug.

  • LinuxGuy

    Drivers far exceed what non-drivers pay to use roads. You are forgetting all of the diversion of money that goes on. Why you may pay some into the cause, far more goes out. I recall many stories of gas taxes funding mass transit, hiking trails, bike lanes, the Fish Commission, beautification projects, the state police, etc.

  • LinuxGuy

    It would be best to time lights(so you get more green lights) for the 85th percentile free-flowing traffic speed of the road, which in a perfect world would also be the speed limit. In addition, sensors can also work the lights to keep them a certain color or change them.

  • jcwconsult

    True on a small number of streets, but why not start with Roosevelt to time the lights AND provide signage that the lights are timed for XX mph to make higher speeds totally non-productive on travel times. Pedestrian grade separations make almost all the vehicle movement issues totally moot. I experienced them in Moscow in the early 1990s for 2.5 years, and they worked very well. Other areas without pedestrian grade separations were “open season on pedestrians 24/7/365”.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Studies that go over a total of 10 years are not common, but here is one.
    http://www.thenewspaper.com/news/64/6402.asp

    Ticket cameras are about money, not safety. Real safety improvements come from engineering changes, not money grab rackets.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Alicia

    85th percentile as calculated just by taking motor vehicles into account, or calculated with reference to all vehicles on the road?

  • LinuxGuy

    Speed limits only apply to cars, you know that. Bicycles are vehicles, but for some reason require no license to ride, no license plate, or liability insurance(which would force them to obey laws in large cities.) I am not going to get into a time wasting debate with you again.

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