Sidewalk Cafes: An Amenity or A Nuisance?

The City of Philadelphia has nearly 400 registered sidewalk cafes – a 67% increase in the last five years. What is the reason behind this explosion? Are they still an attractive amenity or are they becoming a nuisance and safety hazard? Sidewalk cafes are usually composed of movable tables and chairs (and if you’re lucky a planter or two) – essentially street furniture that contributes to the neighborhood character and walkability.

Sidewalks are an integral part of any transportation infrastructure system. They represent the public pedestrian realm connecting streets and neighborhoods. Therefore, the first priority of sidewalks should be pedestrian safety and circulation. However, in many neighborhoods of Philadelphia additional uses of sidewalks; such as bike parking, street trees and other landscaping, and outdoor displays are starting to pop up. Although these additional uses increase walkability and pedestrian traffic by providing activity that “spills” out into the public realm, they can sometimes conflict with the use of the space for pedestrian circulation – especially since not all of Philadelphia’s streets were built with wide enough sidewalks to accommodate all of these uses safely.

As a side note: some cities are starting to require sidewalks of a minimum width and specify how much of the space should be used for landscaping, sidewalk furniture, and pedestrian circulation. This will ensure that as the area redevelops, wide enough sidewalks (with many of these elements built-in) will be created.

The most controversial element of Philadelphia sidewalk cafes is often curbside seating – an extra row of tables along the curbline. Currently, they are limited to streets where on-street parking buffers the curbside seating and where a 6 foot pedestrian passageway can still be maintained. Additionally, the curbside tables cannot be put out before 7 pm.

This curbside table is right over a storm drain and very close to the crosswalk.

This curbside table is right over a storm drain and very close to the crosswalk.

In the Manayunk neighborhood, the sidewalks are relatively narrow and sidewalk cafes proliferate at all times of the year. On nice days, the food and beverages spill out of the pubs, restaurants, cafes, pizza shops, and bistros and almost everyone has a dog chilling under their table. On Friday nights you can sometimes find bands playing live music on the sidewalk and of course, sandwich board signs advertise the daily specials and finds for almost every shop and restaurant. All of these things come together to create a vibrant and colorful commercial district, but in some instances the effectiveness of the sidewalk to be used to get from one block to the next is certainly compromised.

This sidewalk accommodates bike parking, a handicapped entrance to the restaurant, sandwich board signs, and a sidewalk cafe.

This sidewalk accommodates bike parking, a raised entrance to the restaurant, sandwich board signs, and a sidewalk cafe.

Pedestrians squeeze in between two rows of sidewalks seating.

Pedestrians walk around sidewalk seating, sidewalk signage and a bus stop.