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Late last week, we were informed of some line striping going down on MLK Jr. Drive. This is likely the beginning of the Drive being reopened to motor vehicles in August, as Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr. and the City of Philadelphia agreed to.

More appears to be happening on Tuesday of this week.

Throughout the weekend, we were asked if we knew anything about the striping and the answer is we don’t. We have not been part of the conservations about the striping configuration of the Drive. But it’s worth recapping what has happened, from our perspective, over the past year.

As those who read this blog and keep up with our advocacy know, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked the City and Councilmember Jones’ office how they felt about closing MLK Jr. Drive to cars for the duration of the pandemic, to allow for outdoor recreation and social distancing. Both were open to it and the City of Philadelphia became one of the first, if not the first, city to shut down a street to motor vehicles in response to the pandemic. At the time, of course, no one knew that the economy would still be opening up and masks would still be recommended indoors for some, 17 months later. But “COVID streets” quickly became a trend all over the country, and the world.

MLK Drive immediately became the most used outdoor space in the entire City of Philadelphia, and even led to a 50 percent increase in the usage of Fairmount Park. According to an independent count by engineering firm WSP, more than 5,000 people used MLK Drive to bike, walk, roll, and ride their horses on weekends; and nearly 10,000 people used it on weekdays.

It remained closed to motor vehicles through the fall and winter, at which point construction (repaving) began on the Drive in May.

Keep in mind that pandemic or not, MLK Drive was (finally!) scheduled to be repaved this year, using funds from the federal government. Additionally, the bike/ped path along MLK Jr. Drive was due to be reconstructed with city and state funds, which was completed this spring.

The problem with repaving the Drive, of course, is that the road is already part of the City’s high-injury network, a/k/a one of the streets where 80 percent of all deadly crashes and injuries take place. And simply repaving it isn’t going to make it any safer. In fact, it will probably make it even more dangerous, due to the ability to pick up speed on the new pavement.

Given these factors, we began reaching out to government officials and community organizations in January 2021 with several ideas for reimagining the Drive after the pandemic was over. We made the presentation public on our website, on social media, and it was available for anyone who wanted to view it. When reaching out to organizations that were near the Drive (like the neighborhood organizations West Parkside, Parkside BID, Parkside Centennial CDC, Wynnefield, Fairmount, Logan Square Neighborhood Assn), we included a link to the presentation and offered to answer any questions anyone may have, with the main ask of being invited to a monthly meeting to go over the presentation.

The presentation detailed several ideas for the future of the Drive. Our goal in these meetings was to get feedback and figure out which of these ideas made the most sense. Many politicians, businesses, and community organizations responded immediately. Some did not respond.

We also created a petition calling on the City of Philadelphia to reimagine MLK Drive, and included a link to our ideas. The ideas were as follows: 1) Keep MLK Drive closed to motor vehicles; 2) Turn MLK Jr. Drive into a shared road, with a 2-way busway on one side and a bike path on the other; 3) Turn MLK J. Drive into a shared road, with two lanes for motor vehicles on one side and a separated bike path on the other.

Our rendering for MLK Drive

After several meetings, it seemed like only Option 3, a compromise that included motor vehicles, was going to work, especially because the people who lived in neighborhoods near MLK Jr. Drive wanted to regain local access to the City via the Drive. Additionally, there were potential issues we learned of considering the money to repave MLK Jr. Drive came from the federal government and the repaving was meant to accommodate vehicles. We made changes to the original presentation.

In the meantime, the petition was signed by nearly 6,000 people, one of our most popular petitions ever. One of the many goals of the petition was for the City to deal with the issue, and that happened.

Then, and now, we felt there were several reasons that MLK Jr. Drive should not go back to what it was before: First off, the full time Drive closure was too successful; there are so many people who use MLK Jr. Drive everyday, you can’t just push them all onto the 10’-12’ sidepath. They won’t all fit. Second, MLK Jr. Drive as a 4-lane road adjacent to I-76 is an invitation for more traffic deaths and more cars coming into the city; these factors go against Mayor Jim Kenney’s Vision Zero and climate policies.

But no single issue has unanimous support and there was pushback to reimagining MLK Drive as something new. Given that, we spent time asking for a public, transparent process to figure out the future of the Drive. There were lots of people who we did not see eye-to-eye on regarding this issue, and the hope was they could all get together with City officials to figure out the problem and work together toward a solution.

Given the MLK Drive Bridge is set to close in early 2022, for two years of repairs; and then the Falls Bridge is closing in 2024 for repairs; there seemed to be a ton of time to think about this, and get it right.

But, in early May, after questioning in City Council, the City announced they would be reopening MLK Drive to motor vehicles in August.

Why August? No idea.

This was in spite of the calls for a public process, the thousands of people who now use MLK Drive everyday, and the petition which garnered more support than even we imagined was possible.

In early July, Overbrook canvasser James Kennedy began going door-to-door in the 4th Councilmanic District, asking residents what they thought of the 2-use solution for MLK Drive, and showing off the rendering created by the Bicycle Coalition earlier this year. His canvassing has been met with a mostly-positive response from residents of Wynnefield, Parkside, Manayunk, and Overbrook. Many drivers he spoke to agreed MLK Drive was too dangerous, as is.

Then, on Friday, we got the first glimpses of restriping happening on the Drive. We can’t really tell what it is, but they look to us like shoulders. For those asking if they’re going to be bike lanes, the answer is: Probably not. The speeds on MLK Drive are too high for standard bike lanes and we would not recommend anyone bike alongside vehicular traffic on this particular road with just a paint buffer. We don’t know what the final configuration will be and anticipate some kind of announcement in the near future.

Over the past year, the Bicycle Coalition proactively sought out and presented at public meetings about MLK Drive. While we hoped it would help create an official process (especially after it became obvious the popularity of MLK Drive was leading to a transformation in the thinking of how streets can and should be used in this City, and every city around the country), as far as we know, that did not happen. At least not yet.

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