In The Media

Street Smart: Kelley Yemen, Philly’s First Director of Complete Streets

Written by NY Staff

Late last week May­or Ken­ney an­nounced the hir­ing of Kel­ley Ye­men, a plan­ner of bi­cycle and ped­es­tri­an pro­grams, as Phil­adelphia’s first dir­ect­or of com­plete streets. Ori­gin­ally from Min­nesota, Ye­men earned a mas­ter’s de­gree at Rut­gers and even had a stint in NYC work­ing on traffic calm­ing ped­es­tri­an pro­jects.

Ye­men, 35, moved to Philly to con­sult for private in­dustry be­fore go­ing back home to head the Hen­nepin County (Minn.) bi­cycle and ped­es­tri­an de­part­ment. We caught up with Ye­men from her Min­neapol­is of­fice just a few weeks be­fore she ar­rives in town, to find out what this new de­part­ment means for the city and her vis­ions for the role.

You’re com­ing in as the first dir­ect­or of the com­plete streets de­part­ment. Can you ex­plain what “com­plete streets” means?

It’s tak­ing all of the com­pet­ing modes of trans­port­a­tion that we have, from walk­ing, bik­ing, driv­ing, freight, trans­it, and they all are mix­ing and some­times it gets a bit chaot­ic, but you’re try­ing to find the best way on any giv­en street for all of those users to ac­cess the street. And some­times the pri­or­ity is go­ing to be on walk­ing, some­times it’s go­ing to be on bi­cyc­ling and some­times it’s go­ing to be on cars, or freight, or trans­it. And even if it’s a pri­or­ity for say, trans­it, you still gotta fig­ure out how to mix in all those oth­er modes so it works for every­body. Wheth­er that’s cla­ri­fy­ing lanes, widen­ing side­walks, cre­at­ing bike lanes – and how you do that while hav­ing the dance of all the oth­er modes and that’s kind of the fun and the puzzle of it all.

How can cars co­in­cide with ped­es­tri­ans bet­ter and what’s the plan to ad­dress areas of the city that aren’t so ped­es­tri­an friendly?

Well first off I would say this is the area where Phil­adelphia shines. There’s al­ways go­ing to be is­sues in any city and Philly’s got a lot of old streets with bricks and un­even sur­faces but it’s such an en­gage­able, walk­able city and a lot of oth­er cit­ies envy. I think it’s hard to pre­scribe any set “this is what we should do” on the high­er speed streets; [for us] it’s go­ing to be about mak­ing sure the speed lim­it is be­ing fol­lowed and is set cor­rectly. And oth­er places, [it’s mak­ing sure] we have clear zones, [and] can people see each oth­er? Walk­ing around [in some spots] I did no­tice, that you can’t see cars ap­proach­ing. A lot of times parked cars are right up to the cross­walk and then you can’t see some­body pop­ping out where there’s a stop sign. That can cre­ate a lot of is­sues es­pe­cially on neigh­bor­hood streets. I don’t know if there’s any sil­ver bul­let on solv­ing these is­sues so much as I think that’s where the neigh­bor­hood con­ver­sa­tion about pri­or­ity set­ting comes in.

Some neigh­bor­hoods suf­fer from trash covered, crum­bling side­walks. Do you think there’s a way to add the at­ten­tion paid to Cen­ter City side­walks to oth­er neigh­bor­hoods?

I would cer­tainly hope so. I think that’s one of the big things I’ll be fo­cus­ing on work­ing on. Re­cog­niz­ing where we have trash is­sues, how are we work­ing with our san­it­a­tion de­part­ment or the neigh­bor­hood. Between all of us, we need to col­lect­ively say “okay, we want to get this area cleaned up.” Up­grad­ing side­walks can un­for­tu­nately be costly, but we have to make sure things are right, es­pe­cially to avoid in­spec­tions and ADA [Amer­ic­ans with Dis­ab­il­ity Act] is­sues. [So for me], it’s about com­ing up with a game plan on how we can ef­fect­ively do that.

Philly has a strong bike com­munity, what’s your mes­sage to them?

I think bik­ing works best when we clearly define space for every­one. Phil­adelphia has so many nar­row streets where you really can’t or shouldn’t be go­ing that fast any­way as a driver – so those kinds of streets, I think we can work on smal­ler things to en­hance the ride for cyc­lists. On wider streets, it’s about provid­ing com­fort and pro­tec­tion to hope­fully grow bi­cyc­ling in the city. I think Phil­adelphia could be one of the great bike cit­ies of North Amer­ica. It’s got a lot of sim­il­ar­it­ies in its in­fra­struc­ture with some of the great European cyc­ling cit­ies. So I think we can really move to that, but we’ve got our work cut out be­cause we got to find that space on the street or cre­ate pro­tect­ive bike­ways to really in­crease the num­ber of people bik­ing, es­pe­cially with the city grow­ing. [It’s about look­ing at] how are we go­ing to ac­com­mod­ate the growth in pop­u­la­tion be­cause we don’t have any more room for cars. Park­ing is at ca­pa­city and more people are mov­ing here. We’re go­ing to have to find new modes of trans­it to really sup­port that pop­u­la­tion growth.

You men­tioned park­ing.


No ser­i­ously, what are your thoughts on our park­ing situ­ation and what do we need to do bet­ter?

Philly is grow­ing and if every­one comes with a car, it’s just not go­ing to be able to ac­com­mod­ate every­one. I think a primary part of my job is to see how we grow bik­ing, walk­ing and trans­it. It’s a closer re­la­tion­ship with SEPTA and work­ing on the bik­ing/walk­ing on our streets to really en­cour­age people to leave their cars be­hind or go down to one car be­cause I think the city is at ca­pa­city. I don’t think I’ve ever had an easy con­ver­sa­tion about park­ing. It’s a hard tradeoff. But if we’re go­ing to ac­com­mod­ate new growth, we’re go­ing to have to ree­valu­ate how we’re serving people with bik­ing and walk­ing and park­ing.

So you won’t be ral­ly­ing the PPA for more park­ing gar­ages?

(Laughs) It be­comes a tem­por­ary bandaid. Sure, in some neigh­bor­hoods it could make sense, so I wouldn’t say a blanket “no,” but in the long run you’re just nev­er go­ing to build enough park­ing for the dens­ity that cit­ies really thrive on. You can keep build­ing park­ing but then it ru­ins walkab­il­ity and so it’s that tradeoff.

Do you ever have vis­ions of a car-free city?

I don’t think any­one wants car-free. I don’t want to di­min­ish people’s need for cars, es­pe­cially mo­bil­ity-im­paired folks that are really as­sisted by cars, or as a moth­er of a young child, some­times it’s great to have ac­cess to that. But it’s bal­an­cing all of that. If all of us able bod­ied people can walk for short trips, that just frees up the avail­ab­il­ity to those who need it. It’s a lim­ited re­source, we only have so much street and so much park­ing.

Are you hav­ing to tackle the fight between tax­is and Uber/Ly­ft?

Oh no, I won’t have to deal with that.

What’s the pro­ject you can’t wait to dive in­to?

One of the first things that at­trac­ted me to this job was talk­ing about Vis­ion Zero (the plan to erad­ic­ate deaths on city road­ways and re­du­cing ser­i­ous in­jur­ies caused by ped­es­tri­an, cyc­list and driver er­ror). I think that will be something I def­in­itely want to work on when I get star­ted. How are we go­ing to move the city to­ward zero fatal­it­ies on the roads. We’re shocked by a rail­road crash, but these types of road­way ac­ci­dents hap­pen every­day on our roads and if we can re­duce it and we know we can, we should be and fo­cus­ing a lot of our en­er­gies on that.

As res­id­ents, how can we share our feed­back and ex­per­i­ences with you?

I’m hop­ing to hire a few staff to help me out in the of­fice and someone who can help us out in cre­at­ing a feed­back mech­an­ism. We only hear about crashes when they are ser­i­ous but we don’t hear about them if they aren’t ser­i­ous. So a way for people to give that feed­back is one thing I’ll look to cre­ate in­tern­ally.


You can reach Jacqueline Rupp at

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