Getting to and around Philadelphia by car can be difficult—at rush hour it can be a nightmare. The main east–west freeway through the city, the Schuylkill Expressway (I–76), is often tied up for miles.
The main north–south highway through Philadelphia is the Delaware Expressway (I–95). To reach Center City heading southbound on I–95, take the Vine Street exit.
From the west the Pennsylvania Turnpike begins at the Ohio border and intersects the Schuylkill Expressway (I–76) at Valley Forge. The Schuylkill Expressway has several exits in Center City. The Northeast Extension of the turnpike, renamed I–476, runs from Scranton to Plymouth Meeting, north of Philadelphia. From the east the New Jersey Turnpike and I–295 access U.S. 30, which enters the city via the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, or New Jersey Route 42 and the Walt Whitman Bridge into South Philadelphia.
With the exception of a few wide streets (notably the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Broad Street, Vine Street, and part of Market Street), streets in Center City are narrow and one-way. Philadelphia's compact 5-square-mi downtown is laid out in a grid. The traditional heart of the city is Broad and Market streets, where City Hall stands. Market Street divides the city north and south; 130 South 15th Street, for example, is in the second block south of Market Street. North–south streets are numbered, starting with Front (1st) Street, at the Delaware River, and increasing to the west. Broad Street, recently renamed the Avenue of the Arts, is the equivalent of 14th Street. The diagonal Benjamin Franklin Parkway breaks the grid pattern by leading from City Hall out of Center City into Fairmount Park. One final car travel note, the South Street Bridge, which connects West Philly to Center City has been closed for renovations, and promises to be under construction for at least a couple of years. In order to bypass the resultant logjam at the Walnut Street Bridge, you might want to consider going the southern route and taking the South 34th Street Bridge to get into West Philly.
Most downtown gas stations can be found on Broad Street or Delaware Avenue. Most gas stations in the area stay open late (24 hours in some locations), except in rural areas, where Sunday hours are limited and where you may drive long stretches without a refueling opportunity.
Parking in Center City can be tough. A spot at a parking meter, if you're lucky enough to find one, costs between 50¢ and $1 per hour. Parking garages are plentiful, especially around Independence Hall, City Hall, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, but can charge up to $7 per 15 minutes and up to $40 or more for the day. Police officers are vigilant about ticketing illegally parked cars, and fines begin at $26. Fortunately, the city is compact, and you can easily get around downtown on foot or by bus after you park your car. If you plan to stay in a hotel in Center City, you should call ahead to find out whether they have their own parking facility or will send you to a nearby parking garage for a reduced rate, as it can add significant cost to your total bill.
Traffic flows relatively freely through the main thoroughfares of the city. You will often see Philly natives employing both the "rolling stop" at stop signs (found plentifully in South Philly) and the "red light jump" when drivers sitting at a red light will drive through it just as (or just before) it turns green. When possible, try to avoid driving through the central-most streets in Center City, including Walnut and Chestnut—you'll have much better luck driving down one of the perimeter streets (Bainbridge to the south, Arch to the north) before turning to cut across the city. Chinatown is always jammed with traffic, so you should try to park outside of its perimeter (roughly from 9th to 13th Street and Race and Vine) rather than drive into it. Road (and house) construction is a way of life for residents of South Philly, so be prepared to change roads more than once if you plan on driving through it.
Use extra caution when maneuvering the narrow one-way streets of Center City. Drivers on the Philadelphia stretch of the Schuylkill Expressway (I–76) routinely drive well over the speed limit (and the many accidents on this highway attest to this). If you can, choose gentler routes to your destination, such as Kelly Drive or West River Drive.
If you have a AAA membership card, you can dial the group's toll-free number for emergency road service.
AAA Mid-Atlantic (1801 Market St., 10 Penn Center, ground floor, PA. 215/399–1180 or 800/222–4357. www.aaamidatlantic.com.)
Rules of the Road
Pennsylvania law requires all children under age four to be strapped into approved child-safety seats, and children ages five to eight to ride in toddler booster seats. All passengers must wear seat belts. In Pennsylvania, unless otherwise indicated, you may turn right at a red light after stopping if there's no oncoming traffic. When in doubt, wait for the green. Speed limits in Philadelphia are generally 35–40 mph on side streets, 55 mph on the surrounding highways.
If you plan on spending the majority of your time within the immediate city confines, especially in Center City, you don't need to rent a car. You can take the R1 Regional Rail line from the airport into the city and then use a combination of walking, taxis, and SEPTA buses and trains to get around. From river to river, Center City is about 25 blocks, which takes approximately an hour to traverse. For rental cars, rates in Philadelphia begin around $60 a day and $240 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, an automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include airport surcharges and the various taxes on car rentals, which equal 11%.
In Philadelphia and the surrounding areas you must be 21 to rent a car, and rates may be higher if you're under 25. Child seats are compulsory for children under eight. Non-U.S. residents need a reservation voucher (for prepaid reservations that were made in the traveler's home country), a passport, a driver's license, and a travel policy that covers each driver, when picking up a car.
Major Rental Agencies
Avis (800/331–1212. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/527–0700. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654–3131. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (877/222–9058. www.nationalcar.com.)