Monthly Archives: August 2012

Heavy duty truck traffic driving down a restricted road in Port Richmond.

Part of living next to an international port means living next to the massive amounts of truck traffic coming in and out of the neighborhood. This is perhaps not surprising at all: if you live close to such a massive node of transportation infrastructure, you have to deal with the everyday presence of that infrastructure. Light blue cranes line the eastern horizon of Port Richmond, peppering our riverfront views with a reminder of the behemoth of goods transportation it represents. Indeed, this place is called Port Richmond, a bluntly descriptive title for a historically working class port neighborhood. Neighborhood titles and riverfront views are strong reminders of the massive industry sidling this dense Philadelphia neighborhood.

We know what it means to be a port neighborhood or what it means to live next to a heavily trafficked freeway, but it is far more difficult to understand the everyday consequences of living next to such places: sights, sounds, smells, and safety all change in and around Philadelphia’s swarming transportation infrastructure. People who live in this neighborhood regularly cite truck traffic as one of the most persistent, noticeable, and frustrating spill-overs of port operations. Trucks burn dirty exhaust fumes and regularly travel through the neighborhood streets instead of using the main roads more amenable to use by industrial vehicles. This makes a host of safety and health problems for residents in the area, particularly those attempting to walk along city sidewalks.

Google image of a diesel truck driving the wrong way up a street with walk signs that are perpetually red.

Trucks leave heavy traces in the Port Richmond streetscape: deep potholes and broken down curb corners are a regular sight in Port Richmond, and it isn’t uncommon to see a large diesel truck stuck on a sidewalk, poorly navigating a right turn. The 2007 google streetview image above captures the problem nicely: a large FedEx truck is navigating the wrong direction up one of the busiest intersections in the area (located directly next to I-95 and Monkiewicz park), while the perpetually solid red hand walking signal blocks any attempt to cross the street safely. The walk signal is telling of the neighborhoods traffic safety: don’t bother to cross here as the unceasing stream of traffic will never let you through.

Select streets in Port Richmond bear a “NO TRACTOR TRAILORS” sign (such as the one pictured above), but there is incredible lax enforcement or knowledge of what these signs are supposed to enforce. Speaking with a long-term resident who lives along an incredibly buys and fast-moving thoroughfare in the neighborhood, I found that residents petitioned well over twenty years ago to have those signs put up. Enforcement was much heavier shortly after the signs were installed, but simmered to nothing over the past couple decades. Trucks still run through prohibited main streets at the same time that they clog the small one-way roads in the heart of nearby neighborhoods. It isn’t hard to look out from any porch in Port Richmond and watch a diesel truck squeeze its way between cross-walks, parked cars, and pedestrians.

According to an article put out in the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple years ago, there is no real truck route designation put out by the Streets Department and the City of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is responsible for identifying truck routes, but the limited information they put out on the subject is largely related to the highway system and has little to do with the small streets lining our urban neighborhoods. Roads prohibited to truck traffic, such as the northern end of Richmond Ave (pictured above), only come about through neighborhood petition. There seems to be no comprehensive or enforced plan for directing truck traffic in or out of Philadelphia, let alone its international port neighborhoods.

Reporting the lack of enforcement for truck traffic signs to the office of City Councilperson Bobby Henon, using his new City Hall iPhone app.

So, what to do about this? Port infrastructure is spilling over into our neighborhoods and is clogging roads, making the life of pedestrians needlessly dangerous, destroying the streets and sidewalks, and releasing diesel emissions in a densely populated area. Recently, I posted this request on Councilperson Bobby Henon’s City Hall App to enforce some of the existing signage in the neighborhood. Has there been a noticeable decease in trucks along this road since? I don’t know, But moving towards more enforcement and working with neighborhood groups, the City of Philadelphia, and the Port Authority to design a better truck route transportation plan is a much needed step in reducing the everyday effects of living directly next to Philadelphia’s ports.




(Port Richmond erased from satellite imagery. A blank spot on the map.)

Do we know what is in the air we actually breathe? Do we know what we are actually drawing in to our lungs? Or, moreover, do we have a clear understanding of air quality and regulations from some of Philadelphia’s heaviest polluters? The answer is no, not really. Air monitoring in Philadelphia is done by about 10 air monitoring stations scattered throughout the city, measuring pollutants such as NOX, ozone, and particulate matter. If you aren’t lucky enough to live next to one of these sensors, we probably don’t have a very good understanding of the air quality around your home.

So, we don’t actually know what the air is like in much of the city. We don’t know what air quality is like around our international ports, and we certainly don’t know what it is like in neighborhoods we already know are burdened with the most environmental hazards in the city. Reports like the Air Quality Index, which can be found on, give us a good idea of the general quality of air in the region. They inform the decisions that are made about regional air quality improvement plans and even supply the data for Philadelphia’s air quality action days.

These numbers, though, are very general. What if every day of the week was an air quality action day in, say, Port Richmond? We would have absolutely no idea, despite the fact that this neighborhood is directly adjacent to at least two major air pollution sources: I-95 and the Tioga Port. The limited data we have for this neighborhood doesn’t let us know what residents are actually being exposed to. Traffic is a huge contributor to both ozone and particulate matter in cities, but we don’t have air monitoring stations strategically place in some of our most heavily trafficked neighborhoods. The city’s air pollution emanates outward from such sources: they are the dynamos that churn fuel into dust. This means that, at the very least, neighborhoods like Port Richmond probably bear some of the highest and most regular levels of pollution in the city. Though, we don’t know this yet for sure.

But someone must be regulating this, right? The answer here is much less clear. In the City of Philadelphia, Air Management Services is charged with enforcing air quality regulations and, at the state level, the Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for the same. But mobile source pollutions are only regulated by individual vehicle: when your vehicle was built and where it is licensed determine quite a bit about how dirty it is allowed to be. It is the same for heavy-duty goods movement vehicles, such as the trucks coming in and out of the ports. This means that we regulate the amount of pollution that comes out of vehicles, but not the places they release emissions. Mobile-source pollution is understood and regulated at a state or regional scale despite air pollution functioning additionally at the local scale, and even at the scale of our own bodies.

This is a problem. We cannot regulate something we do not know anything about. If we don’t know how dirty the air is in a particular place, we can’t say how clean it is supposed to be. Right now, we can make statements like this for the whole of Philadelphia, but are entirely ill-equipped to say this about a particularly overburdened neighborhood near our northern port. It is a zone of exception that evades a concern for highly concentrated carcinogenic infrastructures by sitting at the periphery of the environmental health regulatory framework. In terms of air quality data and regulation this makes our northern port and adjacent neighborhoods a blank spot on the map.