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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Small City Streets and Wayward Cars

The Local Lens • Wed, Oct 31, 2012
By Thom Nickels

I’ve kept a valid driver’s license for years even though the first and last car I owned was in 1978. That car, a Pontiac Bonneville, was the size of a Philly Ducks boat. When I drove through the city’s narrow streets then I had to be careful not to hit fire hydrants or street signs. When my Duck Boat developed chronic mechanical problems and became too costly to maintain, I ditched it in the streets of Germantown, offering it as a gift to whoever wanted to hot wire it and drive it away.

Okay, I wasn’t very socially responsible back then. I would never ditch a car today, but who hasn’t done a stupid thing? Since ditching the Duck Boat, I’ve never looked back, meaning, I’ve never had the urge to buy another car.

Living in the inner city and owning a car can be as incompatible as oil and water, or a Neo Nazi partnering with Elton John. Rare exceptions exist of course, especially if one works in the suburbs or needs a car to visit family far away. But if 95 percent of your life is centered in the city and public transportation is an easy option, owning a car is tantamount to "owning" a series of headaches.

Car owners agonize about scratches, dents, and random acts of vandalism like "keying" when they park on neighborhood streets. Insurance costs, gas hikes, and the disappearance of parking spaces in the city and in the neighborhood doesn’t make owning a car worth the rare pleasure it affords when you take that once-every-three-months car trip outside the city.

When I first moved to the Riverwards my street was a pristine sleepy hollow with plenty of parking spaces, but today it could double as a crammed parking lot. In the evening, vehicles line up bumper to bumper. Furthermore, the addition of parking garages and the conversion of lots to include scores of new No Parking and Tow Away Zone signs have decreased parking options. Fishtown/Richmond has now become like Center City when it comes to finding a place to park.

Say good-bye to Sleepy Hollow.

Social theorist and writer Paul Goodman proposed banning cars from midtown Manhattan. Along with his brother, Percival, in 1961 Goodman wrote, "We propose the banning of all cars from Manhattan Island, except buses, small taxis, vehicles for essential services (doctor, police, sanitation, vans, etc.), and the trucking used in light industry."

The Goodman brothers had the right idea. When old cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston were built it was mainly with pedestrians in mind, not oversized automobiles. Why do Americans need such big cars? When I went to Europe for the first time I was shocked to see highways filled with small cars. It was as if every SUV had been pulled from the face of the earth. What Europeans are guilty of, however, is out-of-control speeding. In Austria, when I used a rental car to drive into the mountains, there were many drivers going at least 100 miles per hour. It was shocking to see these small hybrid cars zip past like flying bullets. When I lost my way and couldn’t find the hotel where I was supposed to meet my press contact, I slowed down considerably to make sure I didn’t wind up in Budapest. It was then that an angry tractor-trailer truck driver came up on my back bumper. Like the killer truck in the suspenseful film "Duel" with Dennis Weaver, the truck driver bumper-tapped my car to "push" it along. Why the truck driver didn’t just pass me is anyone’s guess, but rather than be forced to go 100 mph I took the next exit and sought help from some nice people in a farmhouse who invited me in for a stein of Austrian beer. In retrospect, the experience made me glad that there are speeding laws in the United States.

In the Riverwards, we have miniature streets like Harold and Albert Streets, two small Tom Thumb passageways that resemble Elfreth’s Alley sans the cobblestones and historic houses. Streets like this were not designed for mega vehicles, trucks, or drag racing and yet that is what they seem to attract. Albert Street, for instance, has been discovered as a handy shortcut to larger streets, despite its ad hoc use as a makeshift playground for kids who live near the block. Don Rickles might say that Albert Street is so narrow that people with weight problems have to "tuck in" their bellies when big vehicles pass through.

It goes without saying that the "speed freak" drivers who swing onto Albert from Almond and then zip along as if they were traveling Aramingo Avenue are a danger to pedestrians. Mega trucks with tires the size of small cities and blackened out windows (why aren’t these things illegal?) zoom up the tiny street like Attila the Hun bearing down on a small animal. Very often these drivers nearly hit pedestrians or kids on tricycles. Some of the drivers, in fact, seem to experience no guilt when they turn the corner from Almond onto Albert a la Daytona 500 and just miss a two year old who might be playing "Let’s chalk the sidewalk."

About six months ago I was crossing Huntingdon Street from Almond Street on my way to Wawa when a car going the wrong way appeared out of nowhere. Since Huntingdon is a one-way street, there’s no reason why anybody would check for vehicles traveling in the opposite (illegal) direction. The speeding driver in question wanted to take a shortcut to the Wawa/Rite Aid parking lot, and as a result missed hitting me by a hair.

"Holy -----"! I exclaimed, using a word I rarely use.

Yet rather than apologize for almost killing me, the driver replied, "Hey! Watch your language—I have kids in the car!"

He has kids in the car? Funny, all I saw were two headlights bearing down on me.

And if he has kids, what’s he doing driving like that and putting their lives in jeopardy?

The technique known as "transfer of guilt" is also used by drivers racing up Albert Street who just miss children by a hair. The speeding drivers’ faces seem to say, "Only a bad parent would let their kid play in the street." But what are big Army-size mega trucks doing speeding on small streets anyway?

"The advantages of our proposal are very great," the Goodman brothers wrote. "Important and immediate are the relief of tension, noise, and anxiety; purifying the air of fumes and smog; alleviating the crowding of pedestrians; providing safety for children."

We may not be able to ban traffic from Manhattan or Philadelphia, but at least drivers could learn to respect the city’s smaller streets.