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 email@example.com.