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Q&A: Kelley Yemen talks Philly streets as city’s first Complete Streets director

Yemen dishes on safer streets and how drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians can all get along

“How do we create networks that can coexist?” is the most common question Kelley Yemen asks as Philly’s Complete Streets director.
Courtesy of Kelley Yemen

When Kelley Yemen saw a job posting to become Philly’s first Complete Streets director, it didn’t take much to convince herself to apply for the gig. At the time, Yemen was the bike and pedestrian coordinator for 45 cities in Minnesota, including Minneapolis, one of the most bike-friendly places in the U.S. But Yemen was ready to return to Philly.

“I had lived here previously, more as a planner in the private sector, and I remembered living here so fondly,” Yemen recalls. “So when I saw the job posting, I was excited at the chance to come back.”

By October 2016, Yemen had the gig and became the city’s first Complete Streets director, in part due to her “infectious enthusiasm for promoting active transportation,” according to Mayor Jim Kenney’s announcement at the time.

Now 10 months into the job, Curbed Philly caught up with Yemen to see how things are going, and what’s in store for the future of the city’s streets.

I know you get asked this a lot, but what exactly does the title Complete Streets director actually mean?

I work in the Office of Transportation & Infrastructure Systems (oTIS). As a larger office, we oversee policy and planning for streets and the water department. But within my office, our focus is on how to make streets safer and more comfortable for all types of travelers, including pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists. We’re always asking, “How do we create networks that can coexist?”

Is ‘coexisting networks’ how you would define Complete Streets?

The best way to think about it is like intersecting networks. So for driving, we think about how interstates filter down into local roads, or how our key rail connections filter down to bus networks. Or our sidewalks network and how are we moving pedestrians along them. How do all of those different networks intersect and work together?

When you moved back to Philly in November, what were some of the biggest changes you noticed?

Well, the Pine and Spruce [bike lane] didn’t exist when I lived here, so I think some of those major bikeway projects that came out of last administration were definitely big changes. And I remember walking by all of the buildings and thinking, “Oh my god, that used to be an empty lot.” I just noticed the thriving nature of the city.

Now that you have about 10 months under your belt, what are some changes you’ve made that you’re most proud of accomplishing?

I think the biggest thing was that on my first day, [Mayor Jim Kenney] signed the executive order establishing the Vision Zero Task Force. We’ve been at work over the last 10 months getting out the website, doing a lot of engagement and data analysis, and on September 28 we will be releasing the final three-year action plan of where we want to go to bring down the traffic death rate in Philadelphia.

The goal is zero deaths on our roadways. All lives matter and we should all be able to get home in the manner we choose and do it safely.

In the time you’ve spent studying the city and analyzing all of the community responses for Vision Zero, what are some of the major areas in Philly that need improvement?

On the 28th, what we’ll be coming out with is what we’re calling a “high injury network.” This is a network that is 12 percent of city streets, but composes of 50 percent of crashes in Philly. So we’ll be focusing on that 12 percent of streets, whether it’s through engineering changes on the road, improved and focused enforcement on behaviors that are causing the crashes, or through education and working with communities along it to make sure we can make a serious dent in our fatal and serious injury crashes.

But one of the biggest areas is Roosevelt Boulevard. We’ll be reimagining what Roosevelt Boulevard can look like in 2025 and 2040.

What are some other projects you’re currently working on that we should know about?

We’ve got some fun projects we’re excited to get off the ground soon. We’re studying our sidewalk policies, looking how we can improve or sidewalk infrastructure. [...] How can we make a dent in what we know are some issues here, as far as broken sidewalks and missing sidewalks? Generally, how can we improve walkability in what I would argue is one of the most walkable cities in the country?

Roosevelt Boulevard, at times a 12-lane traffic artery in North Philly, has some of the most dangerous intersections in the country.
via Wikimedia Common

What’s your role in the implementation of 30 miles of protected bike lanes?

A lot of our conversations have been about building out our bike infrastructure. I think Chestnut Street is an example of a one-way protected bike lane close to Center City that people can really touch and feel and experience how these things work. That’s important when introducing new infrastructure, that people have the chance to check it out themselves.

We have been working on where we’re going next. I think it gets back to that interconnected network—where do protected bike lanes really make sense as far as making those key connections, for all ages and abilities? We want to make sure that everybody—you, your kid, your aging mother or father—can feel comfortable on that bikeway.

There’s been a lot of talk about the clash between drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists in recent weeks. In your experience, is this just a Philly thing?

(Sighs) No. I think it’s just growing pains and dealing with change. I would never want to say it’s an easy thing to do because I think every city goes through it at different stages and deals with it in their own unique fashion—there were times in New York where there were bike-lash years, too.

I think you just have to have really intentional community conversions about why we are putting this or that here, or why it doesn’t make sense to do something here. It’s not going to be free-flowing for cars and bikes everywhere.

This is the trick of a growing city after years of decline. We’re putting more and more people into the same amount of space and there’s only so much capacity that our roads would even have for cars. So that’s why we’re asking: How do we improve our bus network and how do we improve all other things? For example, for those people who do have to drive, if we can get a small percentage of people off the roads and using public transit, that can help improve their commute. Sometimes it’s a percentage of two that suddenly unclogs the streets.

Any advice on how we can all get along?

We all have to remember that in the end, I don’t think anybody is out to fully get anybody else—we’re all just trying to get where we’re going. And then, remember that we always go back to these connected networks: There are going to be places where this is the right place to focus car traffic and maybe that’s not the right place for bike lanes. That’s where we’re going to have those conversations.

Final question: How do you get around Philly?

I walk, bike, and take the bus. Well, I walk when I can, but it can be tough with a toddler in tow!

Editor’s note: This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.