Speaking Out

A Senseless Tragedy

The tragic bicycle-related death of Dr. Benjamin Tencer, a 70-year old retired engineer attending Penn as a Senior Associate was reported by both the Daily Pennsylvanian and Almanac. My deepest sympathies go out to Dr. Tencer's family at this time.

His tragic death reopened several discussions of issues surrounding bicycle safety that have periodically been reviewed at the University Council including (according to Almanac October 19), proposals for bicycle lanes that would require action by the City.

While the discussions of bicycle lanes can only be viewed as a positive step toward injury prevention, an important point has been completely overlooked: Bicycle helmets. And why no one on our campus wears them. Over the years we've seen many Penn students, staff, faculty and residents of Philadelphia enter the doors of our Head Injury Center because they did not think to protect their brain with a helmet while bicycle riding or rollerblading.

The use of a helmet has been convincingly shown to reduce head injuries for cyclists of all ages involved in all types of crashes including those with motor vehicles. According to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the American Academy of Pediatrics, wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of head injury by 85%. An informal survey I have taken over the past two weeks across our campus indicates that fewer than 5% of all cyclists were wearing helmets.

Shouldn't Dr. Tencer's untimely death make us realize that these almost daily tragedies are largely preventable? Shouldn't everyone in the Penn community, young and old, recognize the value of protecting our most precious commodity?

--Tracy K. McIntosh, Professor of Neurosurgery, Director Head Injury Center

A Pedestrian's Perspective

I am deeply concerned about what isn't being done to protect students and staff at hazardous intersections throughout the campus. It's about time someone spoke up about the traffic problems that have been plaguing the campus for years. I applaud Mr. Wolpe for taking the first step (see Almanac November 2). However, it is the University that should have taken that "first step" years ago. Unfortunately this comes too late, especially after the recent deaths of two University members and the serious injury of another. It is situations like these that bring attention to an issue that has been a major problem at Penn for several years. In addition to the locations Mr. Wolpe spoke of, another that needs to be immediately addressed is the 40th and Locust St. intersection at the Dental School.

I focus on this location because one too many times I have witnessed unfortunate mishaps there. I have seen Penn Police on foot and in patrol vehicles at this intersection take no action when vehicles go through posted stop signs. While there are two stop signs on each side of 40th St. as you approach Locust, many times trucks have parked directly in front of them blocking the sign's view to traffic. Police on duty do not ticket these vehicles as they should; don't warn the driver as to the hazard posed; and least of all, they don't tell them to move. If one went to that intersection right now, chances are they would see a truck parked there.

I recently had a bad experience at this intersection due to this type of negligence. After having just dropped someone off for work, I was at the stop sign on Locust approaching 40th Street. As usual I waited until I was sure that the car coming down 40th was completely stopped before I proceeded. Fortunately for the many pedestrians about to cross the street and for myself, we did not take for granted that any car would stop as they should. A car barreled through the intersection. I can only assume that they did not see the stop sign because there was a huge truck parked right in front of it. A Penn Police car parked next to me did nothing to stop the vehicle or make an effort to go after the driver.

Now, more than ever, something must be done about this dangerous situation, especially since it is now a construction site not only for the new Dental School building, but also for the Sundance Cinemas. It is also the site of one of the University's Dental Care offices, frequented by University staff, students and city residents.

There must be something the University can do in conjunction with the city to prevent another horrible accident. If the University cares so much about its staff and its students as they constantly say they do, then when will they fix this problem? When will we become their priority? According to the report from the Facilities Committee (Almanac October 5, 1999) discussed at Council on September 22, "Several very important areas of transportation are neglected because they 'fall between' several departments and get no adequate attention. Good examples of this problem are the neglect of pedestrian traffic and safety, and lack of treatment of bicycle traffic as a system." I have been impressed with the strides the University has made for creating somewhat safer streets for students and city residents--for example, adding brighter lights to walkways. Now how about focusing on some of the busiest intersections throughout campus? Does the University want to wait until another person is seriously injured?

As Vice President John Fry once stated, the Hamilton Village area is "where our campus meets our community" (see Pennsylvania Current October 15, 1998). This is where the University ends and the City begins: it is a key area that joins the City and the University together. From other articles I have read in Almanac, the University "plans to reestablish Hamilton Village as a functional and attractive part of Penn's physical environment." What about making it a safer part of Penn's physical environment? With all the proposed construction for the Hamilton Village area, that location in particular will become much more congested than it is now. Please add one more item to the agenda for the Village and to the Agenda for Excellence. Please consider better ways to control the traffic in and around Penn's campus and secure the safety of all individuals whether a student, staff member, or city resident. I challenge Penn to take the initiative in promoting a dialogue with the City. Mr. Wolpe's letter cited several excellent examples on where to begin. I challenge the University to make this a priority now.

--Cynthia Pretko, Radiation Oncology

Response on Bicycle/Pedestrian Safety

Over the past several years there have been a series of discussions between the University and the City's Street Department regarding safety improvements to the streets in and around campus.While these discussions have led to the City and State's Spring 2000 implementation plan to accommodate bicycles along Walnut, Chestnut, Spruce, 33rd and 34th Streets, we have an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive plan by combining the efforts, resources and expertise of members of the Penn community.

President Rodin has asked Thomas Seamon, Vice President of the Division of Public Safety, and me to chair an internal working group to address immediate and long-term concerns about safety of bicyclists and pedestrians on and around campus, many of which have been raised in "Speaking Out" letters in Almanac and other communication outlets. [Click here for names to date; a representative from the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly is to be named.]

Dr. Rodin has charged this group with expediting implementation of improved safety conditions for bicyclists on campus and the surrounding major corridors and developing a more comprehensive plan of action than the current City plan. This work will encompass enhanced safety measures for pedestrians and improvements to vehicular traffic as well. The working group met on Friday, November 12.

Based on this meeting, the group agreed to the following phased approach:

  1. Specific recommendations for immediate and aggressive action between Penn and the City in regards to: installation of pedestrian crossing signals at street intersections between the Schuylkill River and 40th Streets between Spruce and Walnut Streets (includes the Smith Walk pedestrian crossings located on 33rd and 34th streets); better control of vehicles (including bicycles) on campus walkways; improvements to pedestrian walkways surrounding various construction sites on campus; development of a bicycle safety education program for members of the Penn community with assistance from the Bicycle Coalition, a city-wide advocacy group.
  2. Because the City's current plan for painted bicycle lanes on Walnut, Chestnut, Spruce, 33rd and 34th Streets by the Spring semester lacks specificity and appears not to address many of our concerns, we believe it could benefit from University input.The group's traffic and transportation experts will develop recommendations by December to submit to the City and State for their review and implementation. The group will also develop a timeline for further improvements.

The University recognizes that the safety of its students and employees is a priority and intends to ensure that the recommendations of this working group are implemented in a timely manner.

--Carol R. Scheman, Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short, timely letters on University issues can be accepted by Thursday at noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines. Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.--Eds.

Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 12, November 16, 1999