A car parked in the crosswalk can turn crossing the street in a wheelchair into a life-threatening experience, per West Philly resident Bruce McElrath

For Bruce McElrath, a car parked in a crosswalk is a major inconvenience at the very least. At worst, it can turn the simple act of crossing the street in a wheelchair into a life-threatening experience.

“The worst-case scenario is, you can get off the sidewalk on the south side, but then on the north side there’s a car parked right in front of the curb cut, so you can’t get on the sidewalk on the other side,” said McElrath, a West Philadelphia disability-rights advocate who uses a wheelchair. “So you’re stuck in the middle of traffic. It’s quite a problem.”

Anyone who has ever tried to walk through a Philadelphia neighborhood knows that illegally parked cars and other sidewalk or crosswalk blockages can be a hazard, even if you aren’t in a wheelchair.

In Fishtown, residents got so fed up with drivers parking in a Frankford Avenue crosswalk they started blocking it off themselves with traffic cones. Some annoyed pedestrians post pictures of illegally parked cars online, hoping to draw the attention of parking enforcement officers.

The constant blocking of crosswalks comes at a cost, for both safety and convenience for pedestrians in a city that prides itself on its standing as one of the nation’s most walkable.

“It’s not fun to walk if you’re always worrying about what’s around the corner,” said Chloe Finigan, transportation outreach coordinator at the nonprofit Clean Air Council. “Pedestrians can also be injured or lose their life just because the driver could not see them.”

Yet for the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Police Department, crosswalk and sidewalk enforcement has never been treated as a life-or-death issue.

For police, nabbing illegal parkers is officially a “lower priority.” PPA officials, meanwhile, considers it a quality-of-life problem that is too costly to enforce compared to other types of violations. The PPA’s policy of only patrolling blocks that have metered spaces, time restrictions, or permit parking leaves many streets almost unmonitored, particularly in neighborhoods where parking permits are not required. The policy excludes most residential areas outside of Center City.

That’s a problem, neighbors say. Residents surveyed for the city’s Vision Zero crash-prevention initiative described crosswalk-blocking as one of the most dangerous motorist behaviors they observed.

“The PPA can ticket those cars that are outside of its patrol area. They could be walking the entire neighborhood and looking for crosswalk violators, but they aren’t,” said Nick Zuwiala-Rogers, the Clean Air Council’s transportation project director.

The PPA’s focus is unlikely to change dramatically any time soon. However, in the state-controlled authority’s headquarters and in City Hall, officials have been making some efforts to step up enforcement.

Last year the parking authority, along with the police, SEPTA officers and other agencies, gave 19 percent more citations to drivers parked in crosswalks, in front of curb cuts, or too close to street corners than they had in the prior year.

Though a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.7 million parking tickets issued annually, the 48,460 citations signify that targeting illegal parkers is getting more attention than in years past. Some of those additional tickets were issued in Center City, where an enforcement “blitz” was launched to unblock bus lanes and get traffic moving.  

The enforcement push has been accompanied by a new focus on construction work that blocks sidewalks and streets. The Streets Department just created an interactive map that shows work permits and their expiration dates. The tool is expected to lead to more reporting of unpermitted work and potentially more enforcement against those illegally blocking pedestrian right-of-ways.

Additional modest changes are coming this year. City officials expect to soon announce two neighborhood Slow Zones with 20-mile-per-hour speed limits for cars and other traffic calming measures. They could include high-visibility crosswalks and parking barriers near intersections.

PPA executive director Scott Petri has also proposed raising fines for parking violations and using the cameras on SEPTA buses to ticket illegally parked vehicles.

After residents pointed to crosswalks as a top issue, ticketing of cars parked on crosswalks, bike lanes and sidewalks became one of six enforcement priorities targeted by the Vision Zero action plan created in 2017, said Chris Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the city’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability

“Safety is our first priority, and we’ve got to make sure that pedestrians can safely cross the street,” said Puchalsky. “We have a Vision Zero policy that says preservation of human life is more important than mobility.”