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In the midst of the coronavirus wreaking havoc on Philadelphia’s communities and economy, Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive has been a highlight for tens of thousands of Philadelphians (and thousands more around the region) who use it for recreation and transportation every day.

And in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer explainer, it’s been publicly revealed that the city does not plan on closing it down to people, again, “any time soon,” Philadelphia Deputy Managing Director Michael Carroll noted in the article.

What that means: next year, maybe. Until then (or later), MLK Drive is at the service for all Philadelphians to get outdoors and on the streets without the fear of motor vehicles. With indoor recreation closed until recently, and both Kelly Drive and Schuylkill Banks clogged with people, MLK Drive has given Philadelphians a place to recreate safely, whether on bikes, on foot, in wheelchairs, on scooters, or whatever, for the past five-and-a-half months.

This is information that has been circulating for a while — and confirms what we’d been in discussions with the city about. On July 15, we noted that DVRPC had been looking at traffic speeds on I-76, which had been confirmed as one of the factors the city was looking at when deciding when to close MLK Drive to people, again.

Their findings indicate that traffic on the I-76 Schuylkill Expressway has been relatively free flowing during rush hours with peak traffic happening in the mid afternoon. An interesting trend … was that that the busiest week was June 8th and that traffic on the I-76 actually eased a bit the week after.

The Inquirer story additionally noted that MLK Drive construction is set to begin soon, which will keep the Drive open to people and closed to machines longer. The trail is also being reconstructed (a project that’s been years and years in the making). This is all welcome news. We have additionally sought information on keeping MLK Drive open to people and closed to machines through the construction of the bridge. One thing at a time, though.

Some of the chatter on the web was about the bizarre tone of the Inquirer story, which seemed to imply closing MLK Drive has led to traffic jams on I-76 and Kelly Drive, when the data show it has done no such thing.

The first line of the article, too, creates the hypothetical situation that “Kelly Drive is closed for a race” is also odd, since all races along Kelly Drive were cancelled this year.

But that’s the way the cookie tends to crumble. One of the problems we often face in advocacy for transportation alternatives to private motor vehicles is the idea that closing one expressway into the city, while leaving two more (in this case, I-76 and Kelly Drive) open, creates a ripple effect that hurts drivers. The fact is, there was Expressway traffic before COVID, and there will be traffic after COVID. Highways create traffic.

No additional lanes of traffic will magically fix congestion, just like giving cyclists ten feet of space on the side of a city street is not going to magically create congestion where there wasn’t any before, which is often implied in the media when bike lanes are planned.

MLK Drive, according to our counts, is used regularly by thousands of people and the people who use MLK Drive are generally representative of Philadelphia’s population as a whole. A recent weekend count saw more than 1,000 users per hour using MLK Drive.

As this pandemic has shown, giving more space to people — whether on MLK Drive, or in former parking spaces in front of restaurants — doesn’t lead to the negative effects that are often predicted before changes are attempted.

Randy LoBasso

Author

Randy LoBasso is the policy director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

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