Cambridge Architectural

The lesson of Philadelphia's South Street Bridge is that community feedback isn't a one-and-done process.

Veteran city transportation official Rina Cutler uses four acronyms to describe public participants who tend to get involved in big urban projects. Of course there’s NIMBY. There’s also BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone. In Philadelphia, where she served as transportation chief from 2008 to 2015, she learned two more: CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and NOPE (Not on Planet Earth).

Obstructionism is all too common in community discourse. But sometimes project opposition isn’t the result of selfishness but rather a reflection that public officials have failed to maintain a clear, open, and regular dialogue. Take the case of Philly’s South Street Bridge—a reconstruction project that unfolded over more than a decade, during a period when the downtown and university neighborhoods directly impacted by the new span were transforming themselves.

“What we did wrong was huge,” Cutler, who now works on station development for Amtrak, told an audience at the TRB conference in Washington this week. “We did not assume communities were going to change over the length of time this project took, which was disgraceful in and of itself. We did not have a plan to say: how do we go back to the communities at regular intervals so they know where we are, and we can see what’s changing in those neighborhoods that are about to be connected here.”

By 2008, the South Street Bridge, which had opened to traffic in 1923, was hanging by a thread and requiring weekly inspections. Coming from the Pennsylvania DOT, Cutler had been familiar with the bridge’s deterioration. When she took her new city position she realized it couldn’t even support the weight of a plow truck—meaning the next snowstorm would shut it down “unless you have 100 people with shovels who can get on there and clear the snow,” she recalled telling the mayor.

The good news, from the city’s perspective, was that designs for a new bridge were already in place and the local communities had already given their support. “The city’s position had been, in fact, you’ve all seen this bridge—we went through a multi-year community process,” she said. What officials failed to appreciate was that this support dated back 15 years, when the bridge reconstruction project first emerged, and that since then things had changed.

“We started to talk to the neighborhood,” said Cutler. “That’s where I realized this was a classic thesis on how not to do a project.”

When talk of a new bridge had first surfaced, it was common for urban bridges to look and function just like highway bridges. Bike lanes, pedestrian access, and the concept of limiting travel lanes to slow down traffic hadn’t been part of the original design discussion; the goal was moving cars. “The bigger the lanes, the faster people could flee the city, was the model 20 years ago,” said Cutler. “Just build it so people can quickly get out of town.”

Philadelphia officials cut the ribbon on the reconstructed South Street Bridge in 2010. (Philadelphia Mayor's Office / Flickr)

The people had also changed. Neighborhoods at both ends of the bridge had gentrified over that time period, and the stale highway design that former residents had approved—or, perhaps, felt resigned to accept—now received a chilly reception. “So 15 years later … there was a community there who rose up in protest and said, ‘No, no, you aren’t putting that bridge here,’” said Cutler. “We went through a fairly hysterical piece where the community was insistent that we were going to redesign this bridge.”

Ultimately the city worked closely with the communities to design a new bridge that did incorporate more balanced elements of urban mobility. Car lanes were reduced from five to four, and speed limits dropped from 30 to 25 mph. Bike lanes were widened and stop bars gave cyclists a head start on drivers. Pedestrian features were added into the mix, including signal priority for walkers, wider sidewalks with better lighting, and bridge overlooks.

The new South Street Bridge opened in November 2010, reportedly “on budget and ahead of schedule,” with a lasting lesson about public feedback delivered alongside its improved design. “We, in the city, had discounted the change that had happened in the transportation business over that period of time,” said Cutler. “Where we went really from designing highway bridges to starting to think about context-sensitive design, and what it meant for the values of folks in those communities.”

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