Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is Philadelphia Walkable? Not According to Smart Growth America

From the world of irrelevant lists comes Time's latest pile of misinformed shit that branded Miami, Atlanta, and yes, even Pittsburgh, more walkable than Philadelphia.

Sometimes I wonder if those in the national media have ever been to Philadelphia. Then I remember, no, most still think Philadelphia is a less fortunate Baltimore somewhere in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, a city that was once good at manufacturing...or something. 

Media snobs have watched Atlanta, D.C., and New York evolve because they work there. When they vacation in South Beach they confuse it with a downtown Miami they've never seen, and they love it. 

But when Philadelphia is nodded for a national article, it's easier to write about it from a Manhattan cubicle than waste a short Acela ride south. National journalists have been peddling the same tripe about the City of Brother Love since the last time they visited, sometime around the M.O.V.E. disaster or Budd Dwyer's on air suicide, the kind of aged tragedies with which Philadelphia is synonymous, whether or not they happened here.

To them, "Philadelphia (still) isn't as bad as Philadelphians say it is," and we still throw snowballs at Santa.

But reputation can't skew statistics despite how journalists may interpret the numbers to boost their own cities. Data is data, and according to Smart Growth America at George Washington University, Philadelphia is only the thirteenth most walkable city. 

The fishiness of the survey comes from the fact that New York isn't ranked the nation's most walkable city. No, it's George Washington University's own Washington, D.C., followed by New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Smart Growth America advocates for the kind of development Philadelphia mastered over two hundred years ago and continues to deliver. Like many advocates for pedestrianization from newer and emerging cities, they've reinvented the horse and claimed it their own, forgetting how many American cities were built around the animal that moves only slightly faster than a harried pedestrian.

The irrelevance in these surveys comes from the fact that not all cities are created equal. Comparing New York to Seattle, number six on the list, is like comparing a Wharton graduate to a third grade honor roll student. Sure, Seattle is excelling at accommodating 600,000 residents with a decent bus system, but New York is continuing to supply a multimodal network to eight million. 

The same applies to Philadelphia, particularly when you consider a city is more than the residents made up within its limits.

If you've ever visited D.C. as a tourist you've likely marveled at its expansive subway system and its walkable downtown. But if you've ever lived there you've seen through the facade. Metro, which is more comparable to Philadelphia's regional rail network than a traditional subway, travels neighborhood to neighborhood within the city. Without a traditional downtown, walkability usually includes busses or trains between neighborhoods that tourists rarely see. 

In the suburbs it's even worse. SEPTA's regional rail network was largely developed before cars became popular and thusly most stations occupy hubs of walkable, 19th Century pedestrianization. 

Metro was developed in the 1970s when commuters wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. Its suburban stations are black holes of pedestrianization, miles from residential enclaves developed at a time when mixed use planning was deemed outdated. Many beltway suburbs aren't even serviced by D.C.'s regional bus system, and when they are, you're stuck walking through your 80s era cul de sac community. 

What D.C. has in one of its only walkable suburbs, Old Town Alexandria, Philadelphia has tenfold in Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Media, and Doylestown. 

The reason D.C. fared better than New York is the same reason Miami and Atlanta fared better than Philadelphia. We're big cities, some of the biggest in fact. While Miami and Atlanta comfortably cater to a relatively small population only recently interested in walkability, Philadelphia has been doing it steadily since the 17th Century. A more apt analysis would be walkability amongst metropolitan areas or even a survey of perceived walkability, number of cars per resident, or percentage of those without cars.

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