Despite Dr. MLK Jr. Drive being one of Philadelphia’s success stories over the past year — an open street that brought more people together, biking, walking, scootering, riding horses, etc. than ever before — the City announced on Monday their intention to bring motor vehicles back onto the Drive the first week of August.
What that will look like, come August, we don’t know. But between now and then is the time to figure it out.
As we have been saying on our website, in the media, and in numerous meetings with stakeholders over the past several months, the City should look at new configurations for the Drive. And in meetings with City Councilmembers, community organizations, and others, we’ve offered several ideas. The old 4-lane highway was part of the city’s “High Injury Network” and was used as an alternative to I-76; opening it back to the way it was before will likely bring back the traffic violence that was a regular part of the Drive’s landscape, which isolated people from using the side path.
We are hopeful that the City uses this opportunity to convene the stakeholders and users interested in the future of the Drive, including: some of the 5,400 who signed the Bicycle Coalition’s petition, representatives from local neighborhoods and communities, users such as the dragon boat and rowing communities, businesses, and other interested parties.
It’s likely many of those folks do not see eye to eye over the future of the road at this point, but they all deserve to be heard and to have the City come up with a configuration that benefits them.
Now is the time to do this. Over the next three years, construction is set to start on the rehabilitation of the MLK Drive Bridge (which will take two years), and then on the Falls Bridge (which will take about a year, according to estimates). Even if MLK Drive went completely back to the way it was pre-COVID, full access from bridge to bridge will be limited once bridge construction commences.
Having MLK Drive open to people over the last 14 months has brought more folks out to bike and stroll in Philadelphia than ever before. The City saw a 1,300 percent increase in usage over that time, and roughly 90 percent of the people using the Drive during the pandemic were new trail users. It’s well known that the repaved trail that has been constructed beside the Drive, while great in many respects, is not large enough to accommodate these new trail users, and a rethinking has to take place.