"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, September 2, 2016

Why Is DeKalb Street One Way? A Brief Lesson About History…And Change

A recurrent theme in my writing is that things change, and change is the only constant in history.  Yet the works of man, from our institutions and governmental structures to our roads tend to remain, long after the conditions that gave birth to them have changed, often fundamentally.  This time I am going to talk about roads; specifically DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa.  That’s because Norristown is on the cusp of a renewal, and there are some old things remaining that should change in order to help that revival.  The layout of DeKalb Street is one of them.  It’s in the works, actually, but it has been “in the works” for some time now, and deserves more attention.

An April Times Herald article discussed the long-pending plan to make DeKalb Street two-way, and found a consensus among those it spoke to.  This fact alone makes it both unusual and newsworthy (this is Norristown, after all), but that should not obscure the subject itself.  Everyone agreed that making DeKalb Street two-way would be a good thing, and they are correct.  One respondent remarked that “The designers of this one-way street are dumb,” and commented on the danger the street presented.  He is quite correct about the danger, and there are several more reasons that DeKalb Street should be two-way, but the designers of the street were not dumb.  They were competent men attempting to solve a problem that existed a long time ago.  But that was then; this is now, and things have changed.  They have, in fact, changed fundamentally.  But comprehending just how total that change has been is going to require some imagination from those of you of young to moderate years, particularly if you live in the general area.

First, I should point out that DeKalb Street had been a two-way street at its initial layout, and second, its intersection with Main Street marked the core of downtown since the opening of the DeKalb Street Bridge.  Here is where imagination comes in, because you need to picture the sidewalks at this intersection—in all four directions—bustling with customers on their way to an array of stores open and lit, beckoning them within.  One of my all-time favorite interviewees, the late Mary Early, quoted her mother as often saying to her, “I’d love to live at Main and DeKalb; everything happens at Main and DeKalb.”  She was referring to the Depression times, by the way, so you can imagine what it was like after the end of the Second World War and rationing, for people anxious to forget the previous decade or so.  Downtown Main Street began to enjoy good times once again.

But the period after the end of the war brought some things to Norristown that quickly began to be a major problem.  They weren’t new by any means, but now they came in overwhelming numbers.  “They” were automobiles and trucks.  Not too many compared to today, but far more than downtown, and Main and DeKalb in particular, could handle.  Both streets had been laid out long before the advent of automobiles, and there was simply no room for expansion.

Here’s where the second piece of imagination comes in, exactly the opposite of the first.  I first asked you to picture something that isn’t here—a crowded, prosperous downtown—now I need you to erase your mental image of what is there: all those big highways.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike was on its way, and would arrive in the bucolic farmland of King of Prussia in late 1950, but none of the others existed.  The Schuylkill Expressway was on its way to meet the Turnpike, but none of the Interstate highways existed, because the program had not been created yet. 

The area’s two major roads were U.S. “Shield” highways, Route 422 and Route 202, and they were the problem.  That’s because in Norristown, Route 422 was Main Street and Route 202 was DeKalb Street.  That made the core of downtown Norristown a major crossroads, and not just a regional one, but also a national one.  Route 422 had always been a largely local route into and out of Philadelphia, but Route 202 was different.  It was the only parallel competition for Route 1 between New York City and points south, and the only feasible route for those living west of the coastline and Philadelphia.  The idea of vacationers bound for Florida—or NYC—passing through downtown Norristown may be hard to envision, but I told you this required some imagination.  Thus, by the late 1940s, the local residents, eager to resume their traditional shopping in downtown Norristown, found themselves delayed, if not blocked outright, by cars and trucks on DeKalb Street, which were only passing through, often to major distances a long way away.

Cars were by far the most common, but trucks offered problems of their own, mostly related to their size and weight.  While researching What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls, I greatly enjoyed listening to Hank Cisco relate the story of the police truck weighing station at DeKalb and Lafayette.  The truck drivers hated it, calling it “Little Russia.”

Norristown had a traffic congestion problem even before the Turnpike arrived, and given that King of Prussia was to be the termination of this major highway, all its traffic had to go somewhere.  Norristown feared that much of it would head north for New York along Route 202, and thus right through the Borough on DeKalb Street.

Unfortunately, in trying to deal with this problem, Norristown was caught in a bureaucratic net.  The Borough did not have final authority over either of its two main streets.  Although technically national highways, both routes were actually the responsibility of the Commonwealth, for both funding and implementation.  Main Street figured in these calculations also, but I will confine the narrative to DeKalb Street.  Main Street also become one-way (at a different date), but reverted several years later.    

Highway engineers thus faced what was becoming an all-too frequent decision in this time of unprecedented growth:  who gets priority on the streets, local residents or those passing through?  By September, 1948, the answer was clear.  Both DeKalb and Swede Streets were to be converted to one-way.  Burgess William March declared his disagreement, saying “We in town should get first consideration; too much thought is being given to the traveler from Florida to Maine.  Let us give the residents first thought.”

Borough Council did its best to placate the Commonwealth, and attempted to expedite traffic by keeping DeKalb Street two-way, but banning street parking along its downtown stretch.  Council rescinded the effort in December, 1948, except for the period between 3 and 6 PM, when the meters would be bagged.  The no parking experiment had brought about no improvement in traffic flow, and local businesses were unanimous in opposing the loss of parking spots.   

The Commonwealth was not going to be gainsaid.  In October, 1951, Borough Council, reluctantly but unanimously, voted on a traffic plan for both north/south and east/west traffic through Norristown.  DeKalb and would be one way northbound between Lafayette and Johnson Highway, while Markley Street would be one-way southbound along the same stretch.  After several legal requirements were met, DeKalb and Markley Streets became one-way on November 17, 1952.

Giving priority to passers-through on DeKalb Street over the town’s residents didn’t kill downtown, but it didn’t help, either.  Still, as I said above, things have changed.  To keep DeKalb Street one-way would be dumb.  Pedestrian safety is a major consideration, but there are broader ones.  There are more nuanced and erudite ways of expressing this, but here’s a simple one: if you are trying to revive your downtown, you shouldn’t have one of your two major roads only take you away from downtown for 90 percent of its distance.  New attractions are beginning to appear in Norristown, and all roads should lead there, DeKalb Street most definitely among them.

This issue deserves more attention than it is getting.  The April Times Herald article that recorded the consensus of opinion also noted that the process had begun earlier, but echoed the old refrain that "Two public meetings in 2010 were sparsely attended by residents..."  Making DeKalb Street two-way again is a necessary part of the plan for reviving Norristown.  As this may be the only Norristown subject about which there is unanimity of opinion, the public should be pushing this.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Why Phoenixville? Some Thoughts From Residents

During my most recent tour of Pennsylvania's lower Schuylkill Valley, I spoke at the Phoenixville Public Library on April 11, and concluded my talk on the Borough’s history with my question “Why Phoenixville?”  Why is Phoenixville, alone among the towns on Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River, experiencing a locally-driven resurgence?  I asked my audience, as local residents, to email me what “why Phoenixville?” meant to them.  The response has been outstanding; I have received several thoughtful essays of various lengths, and this time want to address more of the points they have made.  My last post on Phoenixville (June 3rd) focused on the spirit of community that seems to link all of the contributions I have received.  This time I will take up other points, closely related to “community,” but worthy of separate consideration.

Interestingly enough, few of my correspondents are native to Phoenixville; most had moved there, and relatively recently (within the last twenty years).  This means that they were attracted to the new Phoenixville, the town as it is.  “Why” is the subject of these posts, and it is important to understand what they are writing about.  But this opens a deeper question, the type loved by historians.  I’ll address that later, but for now, more praise for the new Phoenixville, from those who chose to move to this small town in Southeastern Pennsylvania, instead of others nearby.

Who are those new residents of Phoenixville?  This observation from one correspondent does a good job of summing it up: 
 “…a whole generation of people who can only find jobs in the desert corporate suburbs, but want some sort of town-like community. We crave what our parents rejected…

The work description was by no means a consensus (two of my contributors were carpenters), but seeking a “town-like community” certainly was.

Proximity to jobs is a major factor, regardless of profession.  The days when the vast majority of a river town’s residents also worked there are long gone.  Tech and Pharma companies in Chester County and along Route #422 in Montgomery County offer jobs, mostly skilled.  The development around the intersections of Rt. 422 has spawned a wide variety of new companies, and thus jobs. 

The decision to move into an old town instead of a new housing community is clearly an individual one.  Many of the employees at these new business locations moved into the equally new housing developments nearby.  But some of them don’t want to live in such places.  They seek to live in a “town-like community.”  So far, so good, but there are other similar towns nearby along the river.  What has attracted so many to Phoenixville, but so few to Spring City (to name only one alternative)?

Travel time is one factor, to be sure.  One writer says she and her husband settled on Phoenixville after deciding that Spring City and Royersford were too far away.  The acceptable level of travel is, of course, also an individual decision.  It is also entirely by automobile, as no alternative transportation exists west of Norristown (in Pennsylvania’s climate, bicycles don’t count as a year-round alternative).  Websites periodically publish “length of travel time to/from work” statistics; I am looking forward to seeing how Phoenixville and Conshohocken compare.  As Phoenixville is adjacent to no Interstate highways, would the travel times of its residents be shorter than those of Conshy, whose residents can access two?

One correspondent offered an acute observation about these new job centers and their paradoxical effect:

 “Phoenixville benefited greatly by the development of the Great Valley Corporate Center and the office development south of Collegeville. While initially not too many people who worked those jobs lived in Phoenixville proper, there was a spillover effect that helped the Borough, and importing those middle-class (and upper-middle class) jobs to the area exposed the Borough to more people and potential future residents. I find it somewhat ironic that those sprawly office parks-- generally responsible for killing small downtowns-- in this case actually might have helped.”

While we are at it, let’s acknowledge another turnaround in the effects of change on our society.  Just as the shift of jobs from within our old towns to outside helped to hollow them out, so to did the emergence of new shopping centers along the area’s larger roads (and particularly at their intersections).  This had an enormous effect, before the malls even appeared.  They were the bane of our old downtowns in the immediate post-war era, attracting the then-new residents in the first automobile suburbs and slowly starving the traditional downtowns of customers despite the huge population increase then underway in the adjacent areas.

Yet several writers referred to “Plenty of shopping all reachable by major roads” as one of Phoenixville’s charms.  This reflects a major historical change in our society; our old towns were built when most people had to walk to both work and shopping (not to mention worship).  Today, people are used to commuting to work and shopping at some distance from their homes, all thanks to the automobile.  No one expects to shop downtown for the basic things, from food to furniture.  These are available at “big box” stores or, increasingly, online.  Phoenixville is an excellent example of an old downtown repurposed for “boutique shopping” and entertainment.  Stores whose specialty offerings could not pay the rent in a mall can thrive in a closely-knit community, and such entertainment options such as micro-breweries (but mostly bars) find them a welcoming environment.

How strange (and thus, how typical of history) is it that these two characteristics of the post-WWII move to the periphery that helped to destroy our old downtowns are, in this much later time, helping to regenerate this one?  That’s why I keep repeating my mantra: That was then; but this is now, and things have changed!

Travel time to work and shopping are important, but the condition and status of the town itself are clearly more so.  Phoenixville has a decided edge over other towns both up and down river in that it has retained—and repurposed—a larger percentage of its beautiful old buildings along a classic American “Main Street,” in this case named Bridge Street.  Central to this ability to cast a spell to both old and new is the Colonial Theatre, the last local survivor of the golden age of movie theaters.  The importance of this treasure as an anchor in the “town experience” cannot be overstated.

Still, as with virtually every old town seeking revival, the secret is Phoenixville’s walkability.  This encompasses a great deal more than just reasonably level geography, but geography certainly helps.  One correspondent had previously lived in Conshohocken, and found Fayette Street’s grade simply too steep, and moved to Phoenixville (while my combination of age and physical decrepitude makes me sympathetic to this point, I must remember that I am not among the demographic that reviving towns seek).  Both towns feature access to the Schuylkill Valley Trail, but that is common to every river town from Philadelphia to Pottstown now; it’s a matter of how this fits into a larger plan to make your particular town attractive.

Walkability actually means pedestrian-friendly (read “wide”) sidewalks, an allowance for business (read “food and drink," but not in that order) on those sidewalks, and a host of small touches that all derive from a deliberate focus of both government and voters on people, not automobiles.  The result is a true sense of community, one that evidences itself regardless of conditions.  One new resident remarked on this: "I loved it when there was a blizzard and we walked downtown (for us, just across the bridge) for coffee and saw everyone out, some on skis, just associating with each other."

Mind you, that Phoenixville’s main street is named Bridge Street should remind us that vehicle access to the river was the reason the Borough came into existence in the first place.  As that is one aspect of history that has not changed, Phoenixville will increasingly be torn by the by-now classic struggle between pedestrians and automobiles, particularly downtown.

In my June 3rd post, I spoke of the predominance of new residents in the responses to me thus far.  That trend has continued.  It largely reflects people who were attracted to what Phoenixville is TODAY.  A more fundamental question lies in the background.  How did Phoenixville get to be the way it is today?

So, I repeat my appeal from that post:

I would like to ask the Borough’s older residents (that’s in length of residence, not necessarily age, although obviously the two go together) to be heard, and speak/write of “the bad old days,” those decades after the final demise of the Phoenix Steel Company.  What was the nature of Phoenixville’s “Community” back then, or even earlier, during the long post-war decline?  Did the spirit die and was reborn, or did it survive, nurtured by the few faithful during the hard times?  This kind of knowledge would go a great way toward answering the question “Why Phoenixville?”

 I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions.  Please email me.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Should Fayette Street Go On A Diet?

The reviving river mill town of Conshohocken, Pa. is seeing the problems that come from a rapid influx of new residents.  Among these, traffic congestion brings by far the most complaints.  To speed up traffic flow, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is proposing a fundamental change in the layout of the Borough’s prime thoroughfare, Fayette Street.  Borough Council, however, wants to increase pedestrian safety.  PennDOT calls its proposal a “Road Diet,” and says putting Fayette Street on it will help to alleviate both concerns.  Is it possible to both speed up traffic flow and increase pedestrian safety?  Conshy residents should pay close attention to this one.

For those readers unfamiliar with Conshohocken, Pa., the following two paragraphs sum up the basics about the town and its backbone, Fayette Street.  Those of you familiar with the area may safely skip them.

Conshohocken, Pa., is a municipality (a “borough”) of approximately one square mile, virtually all of which sits on a hillside, terminating at a particularly scenic curve of the Schuylkill River.  Fayette Street proceeds down the hillside that is Conshohocken to the floodplain below, effectively bisecting the town (its name derives from the fact that it is a considerably straightened version of the route General Lafayette’s troops took in the retreat from Philadelphia that culminated at Valley Forge).  The street is the left bank’s only direct means to cross the river and access the intersection of two Interstate highways in the adjoining but much smaller Borough of West Conshohocken.  This intersection, completed in the 1980s, has transformed both the formerly downtrodden mill towns.  The floodplains of both are seeing condominiums, apartments and hotels replace the long-defunct mills, while the value of older homes up the hill continues to rise.  The two boroughs are connected by the Matsonford Bridge, which indicates the reason both Conshohockens came into existence in the first place.

The lowest section of Fayette Street has been transformed as part of the effort to accommodate the steadily increasing volume of traffic over the bridge.  It is the upper stretch—most of the street, actually—that is now the subject of discussion.  This stretch of Fayette Street is four lanes wide, plus a parking lane on each side.  There are stoplights, but only at a minority of the intersections.  Left turns onto Fayette from Borough streets thus require crossing two lanes of incoming traffic before turning and merging into one of the two lanes in the other direction (legally, only the near lane, but you know how traffic behaves).  During high traffic periods this can be an intimidating task.  Equally intimidating is the effort a pedestrian much exert to walk across four lanes of traffic in the absence of a traffic light.

Fayette Street carries Borough residents on their way to the Interstates across the river, but also carries traffic into and out of the Borough from the neighboring townships of Whitemarsh and Plymouth, some of which is headed to/from these highways.  It is thus, by definition, an “arterial road.”  Wikipedia defines this as “a high-capacity urban road,” and identifies its primary function as “to deliver traffic from collector roads to freeways or expressways and between urban centers at the highest level of service possible."  The engineering terminology derives from large urban centers, but in a municipality of only one square mile, the usual distinction between “collector roads” and urban streets is irrelevant.  Many of Conshohocken’s urban streets debouch directly onto Fayette Street.

To get traffic moving more quickly, PennDOT wants to put Fayette Street on a “Road Diet.”  It proposes to convert the current four-lane structure to three lanes, consisting of one through lane in each direction and a center two-way left-turn lane.  The parking lanes on each side would not be altered.

Just how can fewer lanes improve the flow of traffic?  The major reason is that by changing the four lanes to three you make the center lane a mutual left-turn lane, for both directions.  Such an arrangement can do wonders for that bugaboo of urban driving, getting stuck behind a car making a left turn.  Absent a designated left-turn lane, the left lane, so-called “fast” lane, is periodically blocked by cars stopped to make a turn and waiting for oncoming traffic to clear.  In even light traffic, those annoying delays can frustrate drivers, particularly those who wish to pass through the town as quickly as possible.  “Studies show that…” as the experts say, going on a road diet actually speeds up traffic flow.

But the June 2nd article in MoreThanTheCurve.Com about the proposal pointed out a potential conflict:  while PennDOT’s goal is “to create conditions to move vehicles as quickly and effectively as possible…the municipality wants to slow traffic and create a safer environment.”

So what about Conshohocken’s stated goal of increasing pedestrian safety?  There will be fewer lanes to cross, but more traffic at a higher speed travelling along them.

This is where things get interesting, at least for us non-traffic engineers.  It appears that while PennDOT sees a road diet as increasing both the speed and the density of traffic, Borough Council sees it doing the exact opposite.  As the article in MoreThanTheCurve.Com put it, “Members of Borough Council seemed interested in this concept as a way to calm traffic and discourage pass through traffic in the Borough.  For example, if a commuter is coming from Whitemarsh, this new configuration might encourage him or her to access [Interstate] 76 off Chemical Road instead of driving down Fayette Street to the bridge.”

The Wikipedia articles on arterial roads and road diets offer a fascinating juxtaposition.  An arterial road should deliver traffic at “the highest level of service,” (in both speed and density), but “Proponents of road diets generally believe key benefits include LOWER VEHICULAR SPEEDS [emphasis mine], reduced crash rates, and improved pedestrian safety.”  That’s probably why the Borough Council and Administration see merit in the proposal.  Borough Mayor Bob Frost even suggested that if the project goes forward, the lane configuration change be extended one block closer to the bridge.

The Federal Highway Administration would appear to agree.  MoreThanTheCurve.Com quoted it as saying, “A roadway configuration known as a Road Diet offers several high-value improvements at a low cost when applied to traditional four-lane undivided highways.  In addition to low cost, the primary benefits of a Road Diet include enhanced safety, mobility and access for all road users and a “complete streets” environment to accommodate a variety of transportation modes.”

For Fayette Street, that means a dedicated bicycle lane on each side of the street.  Expediting bicyclists on Fayette Street can have a very beneficial effect.  The nation’s finest river valley trail system—The Schuylkill River Trail—traverses Conshohocken’s floodplain.  I have written previously about my concern that the “old” Conshy up the hill will be isolated from the “new” Conshy down below.  Bicycle lanes will certainly help, but the proposal does not provide a dedicated connection to the Trail.  What are bicyclists going to do on those last two blocks before the floodplain, on those streets most choked by traffic?  Connecting to that fantastic Schuylkill Valley Trail could be difficult, if not dangerous.

Bicycle lanes are but a small component of the plan.  The proposal was only an introductory one, and many details need to be filled in.  And that’s just in Conshohocken itself.  As Fayette Street beyond 12th Street becomes Butler Pike, separating the two townships of Plymouth and Whitemarsh, PennDOT’s proposal would involve—and require the approval of—both these municipalities.

All too often, planning decisions come down to which gets priority, the community or the drivers, and community rarely wins.  What will happen in this case?  Can Fayette Street after a Road Diet increase both traffic flow and pedestrian safety?  The initial confusion over just what a “Road Diet” is going to accomplish in Conshohocken, Pa. is likely the result of relying on Wikipedia to analyze a specific situation, which is why I am sharing this post with groups of people who actually understand the subject.  I want to understand better, but the residents of Conshohocken, Pa. are the ones who need the guidance more.

Thus I close with an appeal to those of you who read this and who actually do understand how roads, traffic and “road diets” work, to help inform the residents of Conshohocken more fully than I can.  You can communicate to me on this blog site and I will share your thoughts, or do so directly to residents on the following Facebook pages: