Elevating Chicago

Philadelphia Archives

Where you are vs. Where you're going

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

Suppose you're driving west on North Avenue.  You cross the river, scoot under the Kennedy, and come to the light at Ashland.  You look up at the street sign and notice: you're at 1600 West.  That's great.  Your friend lives on Sawyer, which you know is just past Kedzie.  Just over two miles to go, no sweat.  When you approach the light at Kedzie though, you double check your friend's address--in the 1800 block.  Quick: which lane do you get into?  Like a good Chicagoan, you know that North Avenue is 1600 North, and you'll be making a right onto Sawyer to head north a couple blocks.   Easy. (Sawyer's also one way north, so it was really your only choice.)

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But what about everyone else?  The ones that don't know the names and numbers of every east-west arterial from Howard to 130th.   Well, they've got two options.  One is to try and crane their neck as they pass through one of the major intersections and hope to make out what the sign for North Avenue says--this is more than a little dangerous, and you've probably sworn at an out-of-towner who slowed down through an intersection to try this.  The other option is trial and error--but with one-way streets, that's a recipe for disaster.  Chicago has made a subtle value judgment here; it's more important to know the addresses on the street you're on than the ones on the street you're about to cross--or turn onto.  In our example above, it was nice to know that you were 2 miles from Kedzie, but was that bit of knowledge more important than knowing which way to turn on Sawyer?

If you've ever navigated in another city that consistently puts block numbers on its street signs, you've probably noticed that they do it differently.  In fact, Seattle is the only other major city I could find which numbers the Chicago way. In Philadelphia, Washington, DC, San Francisco, and many others, the system is exactly reversed.

Kater st Philly - Edu-Tourist.jpg

Turn left for the 2000 block of Kater St. in Philadelphia, right for the 2100 block. Photo courtesy of Edu-Tourist on Flickr.

Taking our original example, every street sign you'd see on North avenue would, in one way or another, tell you that turning left (as you head west) will take you down the 1500 block, while if you turn right, you'll be on the 1600 block.   There's an assumption here that once you're on the same street as your destination, you either know what hundred you turned onto it (and so can count blocks until you're on the right one) or you can catch the address of any building as it passes by.

Having navigated extensively in both systems, I still can't decide which I like better--and which I think is better for the city as a whole, which is a different question.  I think Chicago's system is better for locals, but the other way is more straightforward for tourists and new residents--especially because these cities tend to put numbers on street signs at more than just major intersections. Anyone have a strong preference one way or another? And more interestingly, does anyone know the how/when/why behind this decision?

Chicago vs. Philadelphia: Tale of the (Livable) Tape

Ted Rosenbaum

Former athlete, full-time engineer. I'd tell you more but I'd have to kill you.

With the holiday weekend coming up, this'll be our last post until at least Tuesday.  This means it's also our last post before the Stanley Cup Finals start Saturday night.  Lots of people have broken down the game and the two cities: from the beards to the architecture to even the actual teams.  And while I don't like to mock another city which is trying (and in some cases succeeding) to make itself more livable, I'm perfectly willing to take a few swipes at a city I called home for four years in the name of civic competition.  So, onto the matchups:

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Bruce Bartlett/Getty Images

Philadelphia: 1,547,901 (#5 nationally); 8.84 million in the metro area, 11,410 people per square mile; lost about 40,000 people since 1990.
Chicago: 2,853,114 (#3 nationally); 9.79 million in the metro area, 12,649 people per square mile; gained about 70,000 people since 1990.
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Regional Dominance
There's a reason why the Midwest High Speed Rail is also known as the "Chicago Hub."  O'Hare is the hub for American and United, and Southwest counts Midway among its focus cities.   Illinois would be indistinguishable from Iowa without Chicago.  (No offense Iowa, but facts are facts.)

Philadelphia is basically New York's Milwaukee.  They're lucky Amtrak's Acela trains don't skip it like they do other "local" stations.  Their international airport is a hub for UPS and US Airways.  They only anchor half of Pennsylvania's economy (and their hockey team is usually vastly overshadowed by their yinzer brethren.) 
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Mass Transit
SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority) is what the CTA will look like in 5-10 years if we let it fall into a Death Spiral.  Riders use tokens (!) to get on its two piss-stained subway lines, 5 trolleys, and the Norristown High Speed Line, which is basically a school bus on rails.  Ok, they have a subway stop that serves the Wachovia Center directly, but their "Sports Complex" is just 4 stadia in a ½ mile-square parking lot nestled between two highways--the opposite of walkable.

Philadelphia also has a pretty good bus system (they better, considering the state of their rail system,) but it also relies on tokens and cash fares. Plus, Philadelphia's status as an older American city means its streets are perilously narrow, and yet they still allow for on-street parking on most streets.  As a result, on many streets the only way to get around a bus is if you're skinny and ride a bike. 
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Commuter Rail
SEPTA also runs the commuter rail system on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, and they do an OK job of it.  Eight lines running in every direction, including the very handy R1 which takes 18 minutes from the airport to Center City twice an hour.  There's also New Jersey's Port Authority Transit Company (PATCO) that runs trains from New Jersey into Center City.  All in all, not a bad system, and on par with Metra.  Call it a split. 
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Ruinous Urban Highways
Neither Chicago nor Philadelphia has a stellar record when it comes to plunging neighborhood-crushing highways through their urban hearts.  The Kennedy cuts off the West Loop and leaves a weird no man's land next to the North Branch of the river.  The Stevenson will be seen as the growth-stopper it is as the South Loop renews itself in the coming years.

Fortunately, Philly does us one worse.  Along the Schuylkill River, there's great park space around their Art Museum (famous for its "Rocky Steps" not actually, y'know the art that's there) while the western bank of the river is given over to I-76.  I-676 (aka the Vine St. Expressway) is an open gash that connects I-76 to I-95 less than a half mile from City Hall.  And to top it all off, I-95 cuts off the beautiful Society Hill, Old City, and Northern Liberties neighborhoods from the Delaware River.  If it wasn't so awful, it'd be almost impressive how well Philly has isolated itself from two of its defining natural features. 
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Park Space
As I said, there's some nice park space hidden behind Philly's Art Museum.  And they even have 4 nice little squares--Rittenhouse, Franklin, Washington, and Logan!  The Boulevard System puts all of this to shame, and that's completely ignoring Grant Park, Lincoln Park, and the fact that we have beaches. 
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Walk Score
Finally, something a bit more objective: 76-74, Chicago.  Count it. 
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Our bike network will total to more than 500 miles when all is said and done.  Philly can only muster 300 miles.  OK, we're a bigger city.  Philly gets the point, at least until I see Mayor Daley actually take part in Bike-to-Work day, like Philadelphia's Mayor Nutter has. 
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Hawks 2nd logo.gifChicago 6.5
Thumbnail image for philadelphia_flyers.gifPhiladelphia 1.5

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