Our November Pedestrian of Philadelphia is writer and Philly resident Austin Freeman. Learn more about his experiences as a pedestrian, and feel free to reach out to feetfirstphilly@cleanair.org if think you or someone you know would make a great Pedestrian of Philadelphia.

What is your experience as a pedestrian on an average day? How long do you walk/roll?

I’m a writer among other creative pursuits, so I take to the streets for various reasons pretty much daily, traveling a few miles on my everyday adventures…I gotta say, walking around the city gives the distinct impression that these streets are not built for people in any real way. 

Why do you walk/roll? Where do you start and finish? Make any stops along the way?

Walking around is the only way to get the feel of a neighborhood…to see the people, look into store windows, to fully ponder the experience of urban life. 

When I’m walking, it’s usually in the Market area around West Philly, over on East Passyunk, or down South where I volunteer at the Wooden Shoe. It’s always cool to see all the different people and imagine their stories, get snippets of their conversation, steal style tips…I love it.

How can Philadelphia make pedestrian environments safer for everyone? 

Philly has a very long way to go when it comes to making its streets a place where the city’s residents can live and thrive. We’re so far behind where we need to be, it’s downright obscene. Even the condition of the streets themselves are hostile to walkers and rollers alike.

I was reading through some of the city ordinances the other day, and if I recall correctly, implementing simple traffic calming measures such as speed bumps require that a street be at least 1000 feet long…that’s three whole football fields and a red zone for you sports fans.

How many street blocks in the whole city fit that description?

People always talk about the horrors of gun violence–and it is horrific–but a person getting hit by a speeding car over on Roosevelt Boulevard is just as horrific.

Let’s go deeper…it’s always struck me as strange that a death at an amusement park–a voluntary leisure activity with a sense of danger representing part of the experience–would involve total reconsideration of the way the ride works, but we just calmly accept pedestrian deaths as a simple fact of life. Thousands upon thousands every year, struck down, dead…still dead to this day. By and large, it’s preventable, and that’s what makes it so outrageous. 

One of our goals as a society should be to achieve a system of transport that is efficient, effective, and entirely safe for every citizen of a city. Nothing less should be acceptable.

Austin Freeman and his personal electric scooter.

Why do you think walking/rolling is important? 

Walking and rolling are essential to the future of urban life because car culture simply does not scale with economic justice. 

There was a recent study done that found that up to 50 percent of the public space in a city is reserved for vehicular use…do 50 percent of people own cars? I’ve always found it interesting that people sit in traffic and complain about traffic when THEY ARE THE TRAFFIC.

On the other hand, walking and rolling do everything right…low impact, small footprint, people-powered. 

Combined with public transportation, these are the only ways to ensure a high-density human settlement can serve the greatest number of citizens. Let me ask you something…why is public parking considered sacrosanct and public housing thought of as optional?

The bottom line is that a sustainable future is one with fewer private vehicles choking the streets.

What makes Philadelphia a great walking/rolling city? What could make it better?

I have big dreams about the walkability of today’s cities, and in case it isn’t quite coming across yet I find myself far from satisfied with Philly’s accessibility.

It really upsets me. I don’t really understand why more people aren’t furious about it.

It might sound counterintuitive, but in my view, part of it is also improving the quality of public transit. Have you ever seen the original plans for SEPTA’s subway lines? There was a Girard Avenue line, a route from Darby to Jersey, a line along the Delaware…it made SO MUCH SENSE.

Philly is the 4th or 5th largest city in the country, depending on whether you believe that Phoenix exists…take a gander at the subway system in New York and ponder why Philly has…two lines?

It’s a controversial opinion in today’s car-first world, but I am of the firm belief that private vehicles should not even share a street with the pedestrians, bikers, longboarders, scooter pilots, and public transit riders of our city…dedicated public transit lanes are certainly a step in the right direction, but I dream of a world where I can walk from Love Park to the museums barefoot because the Parkway is mostly covered in grass.

There’s just a tragic lack of imagination limiting change.

Do you feel safe as a pedestrian in Philadelphia? Why or why not?

Hell no! Not even a little bit when we’re talking about major thoroughfares, your Market, your Broad, your Chestnut, your Girard…your personal god forbid you find yourself on Washington.

I could tell a million stories about times I felt unsafe as a pedestrian…times I had to walk into a busy street to avoid some illegal construction, or other times I nearly broke bones stumbling along fault lines in the sidewalk, times some open manhole or cellar door almost dragged me to hell.

 I think of anyone who has to use a cane or wheelchair. 

Something as mundane as an unramped curb can add so much painful difficulty to their day. 

Then we talk about neighborhoods bisected by highways, people parking in bike lanes, and entire stops along the El and Orange Line that are inaccessible to those with limited mobility, and the full picture of how foreboding Philly can be for many of its residents starts coming into focus.

You can really detect the detachment of city leadership and it hurts…physically for some.

It should be a point of overwhelming civic shame.

Why is pedestrian advocacy important to you?

Pedestrian advocacy is important to me because classist design is the original sin of urban life. 

It’s not hard to see, next time you’re out in the world, keep track of how many parking lots you see…how much concrete covers the ground for exclusive vehicular use.

It comes down to a question I asked myself long ago about the way I see civilization.

If all people can’t safely walk around their own neighborhood, then what are we even doing?

If you could make one change to the pedestrian environment what would it be?

Personally, I’m a big fan of something like the way Sansom in Center City has been reclaimed for the people of our city. Here’s one of the central streets in town, with a massive multi-level parking garage, given over to leisure and lounging because necessity is the mother of invention. I once worked nearby and that idea was nearly unfathomable…until it couldn’t be, and wasn’t.

Could something similar work on a north-south street? South Street? Passyunk?

The answer, of course, is yes. Unequivocally, inarguably, demonstrably yes.

…but only the will of the public can make it happen, and it appears to be taking root. People are beginning to demand a higher quality of life after enduring 18 months or so of COVID-19 restrictions, and part of that involves nurturing the belief that public spaces should be maximized for public use; that cities are for people. That sentiment is more powerful than ever today.

In a time with precious few silver linings, that’s one I can see clearly.

Where is your favorite place to walk/roll in Philadelphia?

I used to love walking down by the Delaware, and even Harbor Park when it opened…but that was before they started charging money for public space. Absurd. In any event, I like the rumblings I hear about capping the highway to link the Headhouse District and the Delaware banks. That’s the kind of public works that I want to see way more of in this city.

Cruising around on my scooter is pretty much the most consistent joy I’ve had in life, and my favorite place to crank it up to a full 25mph is along the area of MLK that runs parallel to the expressway back when it was closed this summer…the fact that the section was closed to cars principally because the bridge may or may not be able to bear the weight of heavy-vehicle traffic pretty much says it all about where we are in prioritizing people in the design of this city.

I have a lot of hope about the future of walkable streets in this city and beyond, but I also understand that preserving the idea of public space is an active pursuit, not a spectator sport.