Plan may fix traffic tangle

If, some years from now, you no longer feel you are taking your life in your hands when you cross a busy intersection or ride your bike in Philadelphia, you may well have three Penn undergraduates to thank.

That's because Herb Chan (EAS'99), Michael Loester (EAS'99) and Chris Wallgren (EAS'99) will spend the next year doing their part to make Philadelphia a little more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, with a little help from their adviser and a friend in City Hall.

All three are systems engineering majors enrolled in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's transportation program, where they are studying under UPS Foundation Professor of Transportation Vukan Vuchic. Vuchic, who has served as a consultant on numerous urban transportation projects both in and beyond the Philadelphia area, is currently working on a series of proposals to improve Philadelphia's pedestrian and bicycle transportation infrastructure through a grant from the William Penn Foundation.

Vuchic gave the students a piece of the project for their senior design project in systems engineering. "So far, Dr. Vuchic and the city haven't done much on the project," Chan said, "but we've gotten cooperation from the Streets Department and Councilwoman Happy Fernandez" (D-at large), who chairs City Council's Transportation and Public Utilities Committee.

With assistance from Nicole Seitz (GFA'94), Fernandez's transportation projects coordinator, the three will pay special attention to the triangle formed by Broad Street and Erie and Germantown avenues. The crossroads boasts a major stop on the Broad Street Subway, four surface transit routes, lots of foot traffic and one of the worst accident rates in the city.

"North Broad Street is a major corridor with a high incidence of pedestrian-vehicle crashes," said Seitz, "and Broad/Erie/Germantown stands out as a doozy, averaging over 10 crashes a year."

Chan, Loester and Wallgren plan to focus on small steps that can be taken to lower that figure. "We want to focus on managing the flow of cars, pedestrians and bikes in such a way as to minimize the impact on other streets," Chan said.

"What we learn from this extreme case can be applied to other intersections," Wallgren added.

The holistic approach the students are taking differs dramatically from standard practice. "For the past 50 years or so, the majority of traffic engineers has been auto-oriented," said Wallgren.

Penn's transportation program is noteworthy for departing from this practice. It is also noteworthy, the students said, for the way it treats transportation problems as more than a simple matter of speeding the flow of traffic. "[Penn's program is] different in that its focus is [also] on policy and law," Loester said.

Likewise, Chan said, "our project is different from what we've previously done in that it may have an impact on policy."

Originally published on April 30, 1998