Monday, September 24, 2012

Easy, Medium, Hard

Flourtown. Jenkintown. Ardmore. What do all these places have in common?

They're all four-lane Main Streets in rights-of-way really too narrow to handle them. Too much of the right-of-way is dedicated to making through traffic move fast; too little to ensuring good pedestrian movement. Each of these Main Streets is a historic Main Street with average or above-average place intensity; in each, there is no good reason to sacrifice parking and sidewalk for traffic lanes.

Let's start with Flourtown. Built as a linear village sprawling along Bethlehem Pike, it stretches (and has stretched for at least 150 years) through Springfield Township--its primarily population concentration--from Chestnut Hill to Whitemarsh. It is subdivided into three sections: Erdenheim and Valley Green bookend Flourtown proper.

Now, tell me why on earth is this stretch of Bethlehem Pike four lanes? Certainly, it used to be the south end of the main trade route from Philadelphia to the Lehigh Valley--which is why Flourtown grew in the first place--but that function has since been bypassed by the Fort Washington Expressway, which connects rather into Cheltenham and Ogontz some miles off. A suburban extension of Chestnut Hill, Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown functions as a natural Main Street, albeit one cut in several places by strip malls, and never gets the kind of traffic four lanes should demand. Indeed, in a spontaneous experiment, Aqua has been repairing water pipes under the street, which has halved effective capacity, without inducing onerous traffic conditions.

Its through-road capabilities diminished, it is apparent this stretch of Bethlehem Pike needs instead to capitalize on placemaking to help further develop Flourtown. This can be done by simply getting rid of the two extraneous lanes, narrowing them to parking lanes, and in the four-feet-a-side of added space run either (a) a bike lane, or (better) (b) expand the sidewalk.

If Flourtown was easy, Jenkintown is harder. PA-611 runs along its Main Street, Old York Road, which (due to the region's underbuilt highway system) is the main artery from Philadelphia to points north. Old York Road links Broad Street with Easton Road, the long-distance pike, and is as such still very much a key trade route.

But it is not an insurmountable problem. Like Ambler, Jenkintown is enough a place to hold its own without through traffic--traffic that usually stops not on Main Street, but rather in strip malls beyond (in this case, primarily Willow Grove to Noble). And Easton Road is reasonably straight and meets the city at Cheltenham-Ogontz, allowing 611 traffic use of (very) wide Cheltenham Ave. to Broad St.

...Unfortunately, this passes through downtown Glenside and Roslyn. If the point is to bypass downtown, what use is it to simply bypass one downtown for another? A better route between the two would be Rices Mill Road-Highland Avenue, which would thread between Wyncote and Glenside.

The hardest is dealing with Lancaster Pike, Ardmore's Main Street, in a situation like 611, but with more downtowns still--this would also involve a bypass of Bryn Mawr.

The reason this is more difficult is because of the nature of the Main Line, and because no useful bypass exists for Wayne or Paoli further up. Regardless, a feasible bypass begins at Villanova, and follows Spring Mill Rd. to Montgomery Ave. This route follows Old Lancaster Pike to 54th St., a better one would follow Wynnewood Ave./Rd. back to Lancaster Pike by Lankenau, sucessfully bypassing the heart of the Main Line but leaving the through route intact.

All of these solutions are inexpensive. I am not talking about building new freeways here; rather, I am simply talking about re-signing numbered highways along different routes to allow strong Main Streets better placemaking. Keep in mind that Ardmore, in particular, is a major transit village and a development model for much of the Philadelphia metro.


  1. I think your premise (at least for the main line part) is incorrect. "Too much of the right-of-way is dedicated to making through traffic move fast..." is not the case for the Bryn Mawr-Ardmore stretch of US30. Under any kind of volume, the road is continuously stop-and-go thanks to poorly aligned intersections and cars in turning queues (for both left and right turns). It's much easier to walk down Lancaster than it is to drive down it, except between King of Prussia and Radnor Chester Rds.

    Also, the Spring Mill / Lancaster intersection is already a disaster. Re-signing US30 via Spring Mill will probably make it worse if everyone will have to make that Eastbound left turn.

  2. Flourtown is a no-brainer for a road diet. Take it from 4 lanes down to 2 lanes and a dedicated turning lane, and throw in a bunch of pedestrian refuges.

    Do the traffic levels in Ardmore support a similar diet on lancaster pike? With all he drivers making left hand turns off of Lancaster pike, it seems that during peak times the inner lanes are already functioning as dedicated turn lanes. You could eliminate a lane on Lancaster pike, and turn it into bikes lanes running on each side of the street. This would do a lot to buffer the sidewalks from the cars whizzing by.

  3. It seems like it would be incredibly difficult to get any sort of road diet established in any of these towns, or similar ones in the area. Although they do have traditional main streets, the surrounding areas are so, so suburbanized, that most people are driving in. It might make sense, but it would be incredibly difficult to convince people.

    What about a temporary road diet, one Sunday a month, as an introduction to the idea? I think it would work well in Jenkintown. Use the outer landlane for extra sidewalk width and benches, or a bike lane, or even just parking. If it were structured around a nice main street event, I could see it being a popular idea.

  4. Matt B., when you walk around in Ardmore (or anywhere along Lancaster Ave., for that matter) you quickly notice the pedestrian facilities are barely adequate...especially when compared to the four lanes of traffic whizzing by you.

    But Lancaster Pike is one of the principal routes into and out of the City, and all of the natural rerouting choices for through traffic take you through clusters...that's why it's hard.

    Havertowner--A reversable lane? Might be a good idea.

    Liam--I agree, at the moment, to some extent. But since I take Bethlehem Pike through Flourtown with some regularity now (my junker doesn't have the stamina to take highways) I have noticed that there are, in fact, parallel parking regulations in place there. Even then, though, it's rare to see curbside parking except on Sunday, which suggests to me that even though it exists, it's not being taken advantage of, and the (perceived) extra capacity (vestigial capacity) instead promotes speeding.

    Off-peak parallel parking in Jenkintown would be a good way to start. Like 30, 611 is a cluster a peak hours; unlike the Main Line, however, the Elkins Park area is replete with other options. Hence why it's medium.

    1. I used to live at the corner of Cricket and Lancaster, and I found the pedestrian facilities adequate -- to the extent that I sold my car and walked to the supermarket, gym, barber, restaurant, bar, etc.

      There's lots of traffic, yes, but also lots of stoplights and crosswalks. I think Lancaster is already in an equilibrium with Montgomery Ave (when we now drive from circa Villanova to Suburban square we take Montgomery).

      Moving more traffic to Mont. will probably make it a little more dangerous, and increase the velocity of whizzing cars on Lancaster (fewer cars stopped at green lights waiting to turn, and the like).

      Anyway, I'd like to see your thoughts on Villanova's proposed development of its parking lots on Lancaster...

    2. I'm thinking something more along the lines of:
      {bike}[Car Lane]{turning lane}[Car Lane]{bike}

      I dunno if the traffic counts could support such an arrangement, but when the road is busy, the inner lanes become de-facto turning lanes, especially around Bryn Mawr. Montgomery Avenue could probably benefit from this treatment as well, if the traffic counts support it.

    3. Matt B.--What you're describing are locational amenities, the heart of walkability. That's the point. Ardmore is a walkable place, but that doesn't mean it's exactly pleasant walk around on Lancaster Ave. It's nice, but it's not pleasant. Especially if you're in a group of five trying to stay on a five-foot sidewalk...

      Since Ardmore is already a strong pedestrian destination, my focus is how to further capitalize on this strength--and in this case, that means figuring out how to deal with the fact that most in/outbound traffic from the city to Main Line destinations needs to take Lancaster Ave.

      The key is to reroute through traffic (which won't stop anyway) around a self-supporting Main Street. But the Main Line's road network doesn't exactly make this easy...that's kind of the point.

      Havertowner--Lancaster Ave. still needs two peak-direction travel lanes; any fewer would result in gridlock. But outside of peak, they induce speeding. That's why I took your line of argument to its logical conclusion and suggested a reversable lane. Such a lane would allow two travel lanes peak direction at peak and can still be used as a turning lane off-peak. If it proves feasible, I agree, Montgomery Avenue could also use the same treatment.

      Keep in mind, though, that a "pure" turning lane is not necessarily positive feature, particularly if the goal is to squeeze more proximity value out of the surrounding land uses.