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After months of advocacy to make the case for the best possible scenario for the future of Dr. MLK Jr. Drive, the road has been repaved and, as of this week, re-striped. And on July 20, 2021, the Kenney Administration announced what the plans are for when the Drive reopens on August 4.   

Press Coverage: Inquirer, Billy Penn, Metro, KYW newsradio, NBC10

This is what we learned from the City’s announcement:

  • The number of lanes for MLK Jr. Drive was reduced from four to two.
  • The roadway was striped with two motor vehicle lanes, two shoulders and a painted median. 
  • The partial weekend closures to motor vehicles will return and end in October.
  • The weekend closures are likely to remain “partial”, i.e.  the gate at Landsdown Drive will reopen at noon, allowing motor vehicle traffic to access the Drive inbound via Sweetbriar on Saturday and Sundays.
  • Making the weekend closures full year in 2022 is being considered, but no firm commitment was made.

The Bicycle Coalition had no input on the re-striping configuration of MLK Jr. Drive that ultimately got installed earlier this month.  The lane configuration is not the one that we were advocating for, although it is an improvement.  Our proposal was that the Drive be converted into a shared roadway with a protected 2-way bicycle/pedestrian path between the side path and a 2-way motor vehicle road, and we hoped that at the very least, such a configuration would be studied to determine if it could be installed in the future.  In the meantime, full, year round weekend closures and keeping the Sweetbriar gate closed all weekend long seemed like reasonable options to help create a longer periods of the roadway being available to bicyclists and pedestrians without cars. 

Nevertheless, the project moved forward and has been striped as a lane in each direction with wide shoulders on either side. 

Below we detail our reaction to the approach the City has taken.   

A shared roadway between motor vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians next to the trail. Rendering by Marc Schultz

The Two Lane Design

The new design has a single lane in each direction for the majority of the four miles of MLK Jr. Drive. This road diet approach is designed to slow down traffic on a road that caused, on average, one death per year and more than 20 serious crashes. The hope is that by reducing the lanes of vehicular traffic, the traffic violence that has become synonymous with MLK Jr. Drive will decline.   Because the Drive is on the City’s High Injury Network, the decision to reduce the number of travel lanes is important and a positive one for the City’s effort toward achieving its Vision Zero goal. 

The separated double yellow line in the center of MLK Drive, and the shoulders on either side, are meant to narrow the Drive for motorists and create a sense that the road is smaller than it actually is, which makes drivers drive more slowly and more cautiously. 

The downside of this configuration, in our opinion, is that the road diet is accomplished only with paint. Given the speeds at which motorists drove on MLK Jr. Drive in the past, and the numerous straightaways along the Drive, we want to see how well the road diet will work.

Our preference, as illustrated above, is for a protected bike/ped space to be located in between the sidepath (trail) and the motor vehicular lanes.  Our proposal is that the roadway be divided in such a way that a protected lane for bicyclists and pedestrians would be created with the new space instead of shoulders and a median.    Such a space would provide 24/7 access to pedestrians and bicyclists for transportation or recreation and be large enough to handle the 5000 bike/pedestrians using the Drive per day as documented by camera last May by the engineering firm WSP.

Shoulders or Bike Lanes?

There has been some confusion about whether the 5 to 6 feet of space along the curbs were bike lanes or shoulders due to the double white line in most of the roadway.   We consider them shoulders.  In the press conference today, Deputy Managing Director said that they were designed to be used by experienced bicyclists who wanted to ride with traffic.  MLK Jr. Drive will still be a high stress roadway when cars use it, therefore, we don’t recommend that bicyclists or pedestrians use the shoulders when the roadway is open to cars.  

Weekend Closures

It appears that the weekend closure schedule will be not expanded, at least not right away.  The City stated that it is “looking at ways to extend the closures” We are disappointed that they City cannot make that commitment now.  We also hope that the City will consider keeping the gates at Sweetbriar closed all weekend long and not reopening them at noon on Saturday and Sunday, i.e. eliminate the “partial closure” nature of the weekend closure.  A number of crashes between bicyclists/pedestrians and motorists have occurred at the intersection of Sweetbriar and MLK Jr. Drive because of the confusion around the gates.  

Future of MLK Jr. Drive

The City was unclear about whether it will study the proposal of a shared roadway in the future.   Deputy Managing Director Michael Carroll was quoted in the Inquirer as saying that “the city is committed to evaluating long-term options for the road, including the potential of closing MLK Drive on long weekends and holidays beginning in September 2022.”

Public Discourse and Outreach

As we explained in a previous news item, our hope was that the City would have engaged in public outreach over this issue. Nearly 6000 people did sign a petition to Mayor Kenney to ask that he re-imagine the Drive.  The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia proactively reached out to community organizations, politicians, public officials and businesses about MLK Drive through the first six months of 2021 asking for meetings and to present our ideas for the future of the Drive. The overall, long-term goal was to get as many stakeholders into a room together (or on a series of Zooms, because 2020/1) and determine where there was common agreement about the best possible solution for MLK Drive. Our research and outreach efforts had already shown us that, of the options on the table—a shared road between motor vehicle traffic and bicycle/pedestrian traffic—had a lot of support.

In spite of that, no public meetings were held, even though MLK Jr. Drive became a source of intense public debate. We hope going forward, a public engagement effort can be initiated.

In summary, the closure of MLK Jr. Drive was one of the few bright spots in the pandemic. Thousands spoke up and asked that MLK Jr. Drive be re-imagined as a space for people to walk, bike, run, roll and enjoy safe access to the river on an every day basis. That collective request did result in a plan that will potentially make the roadway safer for motorists in the near term, which is a positive and important for Vision Zero. But, it did not result in adding new space for bicyclists, pedestrians and runners in the near term. It’s not too late for the City to move forward with making the weekend closures full and expanding them to all year round and  to initiate a public engagement process to study a more long term improvement that encompasses a shared roadway design that would open up the Drive to bicyclists and pedestrians all week long.

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