This post was written by Lor Song and Randy LoBasso
In less than three weeks, our petition to reimagine MLK Drive has reached its goal of 5,000 signatures. Signed by a plethora of Philadelphians who’ve enjoyed MLK Drive as an open street since it was closed to motor vehicles on March 20, 2020, this is officially the most popular petition we’ve ever created.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the closure, it’s worth keeping in mind how popular MLK Drive as a street for people has become: According to engineering firm WSP’s electronic counter, more than 5,000 people use the Drive on weekdays in good weather, and more than 9,600 on weekends. This represents a 1,300 percent increase on weekdays and an unknown increase on weekends, as we don’t have recent usage numbers.
Going back to MLK Drive as a high-speed freeway through Fairmount Park isn’t an option. The last year has shown that when people have a wide, safe place to bike, walk, roll, ride their horses, etc… they use it!
All of this happened without much advertisement that the Drive was closed. Although public transportation usage hasn’t rebounded, motor vehicle traffic is back at about 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels and it hasn’t had the detrimental effect on traffic we’re often told closing streets will have. MLK has basically served as an informal study into what happens when you give people outdoor space to roam. The 5,000 people who signed our petition (actually 5,109 as of this writing) will now have a chance to be heard by the mayor.
What happens now?
Now, we intend to bring your signatures, and your stories, directly to the administration. We understand keeping the gates closed to private vehicle traffic may be more complicated than simply keeping the gates closed, though. Especially since the most common question we get about the opening is, what about vehicle traffic? We’re confident vehicle traffic won’t be affected long term, but that information should be coming from someone or someones who study vehicle traffic professionally, perhaps in a government setting, assuming the administration is also skittish about traffic concerns.
That’s why we’re going to be asking for the Kenney Administration to keep MLK closed while a study is conducted to determine the best long-term plans for the street. Given the work that is still set to be done on the Drive (a structurally-deficient bridge is being rehabbed and the road is set for repaving), keeping it closed longer shouldn’t be a big deal. This should not only involve looking at how vehicle traffic has shifted, but the impact of putting a 2-way busway on MLK Drive on SEPTA’s bus network redesign and how keeping MLK as is will affect Fairmount Park usage. Getting official feedback from communities in the west park area — and an understanding of how these proposals would affect them — is also important.
At the end of those studies, we are confident the City will come to the same conclusions that we, and cities around the world, have come to: park streets are for for people, not cars.
Additional reading from WHYY, March 12: Drawn by sun and an open street, Philly welcomes spring on MLK Drive