Now Is The Time to Figure Out a Better MLK Jr. Drive 

by | June 25, 2021 | Biking in Philly, The Circuit, Vision Zero | 14 comments

As readers and supporters know, after successfully advocating for the opening of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to people in March 2020, the Bicycle Coalition spent the last year working with organizations and citizens to understand what the best future of the road could be.

A four mile park road along the Schuylkill River, MLK Jr. Drive being open to the public and closed to motor vehicle traffic over the past year has led to a monumental shift in the way people think about their streets. 

It has also shown what’s possible. Car-free roads like MLK Jr. Drive create the real estate for places where people walking, rolling, riding bicycles or horses can be safe without the fear of high-speed vehicles. While roughly 500 people used the sidepath on MLK Drive before the pandemic, that number jumped to 5,000 on weekdays and nearly 10,000 on weekends during the pandemic, according to engineering firm WSP, who conducted electronic counts.

Over the past several months, the Bicycle Coalition and partners used that information to better understand what the future of MLK Drive could be. Using a data analysis of counts conducted WSP, as well as evidence from users and some planning, we introduced to three ideas for the future. Two of those ideas involved splitting MLK Drive into separate sections for motor vehicles and bicycles, while promoting the sidepath for pedestrians. 

This is in part because the recently rehabilitated sidepath, while great in many respects, simply is not large enough to accommodate all the new users who’ve begun using MLK Drive for bicycling, walking, and rolling over the past year. After 26 meetings with people around the city to discuss this, as well as a petition signed by nearly 6,000 people, the idea hit a roadblock.

In May, the City announced that MLK Drive would be reopening to motor vehicle traffic in August. They did, however, leave open the opportunity to configure MLK Jr. Drive differently than it was before. 

We believe the best option for MLK is one vehicle lane in each direction, a physically-separated bicycle path and a pedestrian path. As seen here:

Not only would this solution maintain space for many of the trail users who helped turn MLK Drive into the most-used bike/ped path in Pennsylvania, but it would slow down motor vehicle traffic on the Drive, making it safer for drivers. It would also continue to allow local access to neighborhoods in the area of MLK. The Drive has historically been one of the most dangerous roads in the City of Philadelphia.

From what we understand, there is consideration going into the striping of the now-repaved roadway.  Whatever decision is made, we hope that the post-pandemic configuration of lanes makes this High Injury Network road less deadly and doesn’t preclude a separated bike/ped facility to be installed in the near future. 

This is an opportunity — like it was in March 2020 — for Philadelphia to do something different and create something with people in mind. Motor vehicles are prioritized above pedestrians, bus riders and bicyclists, on literally every single street in Philadelphia. That’s 2,500 miles of streets built for cars. It’s time for a change.

Part of our goal was always to get this conversation going within Philadelphia’s government. Thanks to the thousands of people who signed our petition and made the future of MLK Jr. Drive be something that could not be ignored.

As it happens, the next three years are going to be the perfect time to try new ideas out for MLK Drive. The MLK Drive Bridge over the Schuylkill River (behind the Art Museum) is set to undergo reconstruction in early 2022 and that project will likely last two years, according to the Philadelphia Streets Department. And once that project is complete, the Falls Bridge will undergo work, as well, which will last at least a year. 

Which means that after just a few months of the August opening to private cars, a portion of MLK Jr. Drive will be closed again, between Sweetbriar and Eakins Oval. Two years after that, drivers will not be able to access MLK Drive from Ridge Avenue or Kelly Drive.

Our hope is that the City takes all of this into consideration when figuring out what MLK Jr. Drive looks like going forward, and how it functions. MLK Jr. Drive has, for too long, been an alternative to I-76, and drivers have used the road as a high-speed corridor, cutting pedestrians off from the riverfront, and creating a space for preventable traffic violence. While the future of MLK Jr. Drive is still in question, we welcome the prospect that progressive ideas that prioritize people are being considered.

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  1. Andrea Silver

    The separate car/bike/ped path solution illustrated in this article is the best solution. I truly hope this can be pushed through.
    There will still be peds who insist on walking or jogging in the bike area and cyclists who are incredibly aggressive or bike in the wrong direction but first things first.

    • Gregory J. Allen, Ph.D.

      Why are things being “pushed through?” Why can’t the surrounding communities most impacted by this decision be surveyed about the effect this decision will have on them? If we really care about “all users” why don’t we ask the Black and Brown people and the drivers who use MLK Drive the most?

  2. Gerber Len

    Plz Separate motor vehicle traffic from Bicycle traffic to prevent injury/accidents

  3. Sharon Caine

    That rendering of a newly designed MLK looks great.

  4. Janet D’Alesandro

    Thanks to the Coalition for tireless advocacy. MLK could be a crowning jewel of Philadelphia with the current upgrades and your multi- use plan. The access has changed lives-it kept me sane during Covid, I’ve made friends there, and the experience of riding it now is smooth and heavenly. Families are together, cyclists and pedestrians are safe, and collective fitness is another hugely important result. I hope planners see this- they should grab a bike and go there and check out the smiling faces. They should look to cities like Amsterdam with cycling cultures. My fingers are crossed for their decision.

  5. Gregory J. Allen, Ph.D.

    I am an advocate for open public spaces.

    I am an advocate for BIPOC communities.

    This blog post like the survey, blog posts and all information before it seem tone deaf to me. For nearly 2 years or more, The Bicycle Coalition and others have been advocating for a change in how King Drive is used by polling it’s members and folks who like to visit and recreate. No surprise – they want it open to pedestrians, bikes and recreation.

    If only they would survey the surrounding communities that are most impacted by their proposed changes as thoroughly as they do their membership. I wonder how the West Philadelphia communities of Wynnefield, Belmont, Parkside, Overbrook, Overbrook Farms, etc. and North Philadelphia communities of Strawberry Mansion, East Falls, Allegheny West, etc. think about this proposal? In the world according to Greg, these Black, Brown and White communities should have weighted input on this conversation since they will have to live with a decision that most of The Bicycle Coalition members and guests on King Drive will visit on their free time to recreate.

    As far as I know, The Bicycle Coalition held one Zoom meeting to discuss this with the communities most impacted. How many meetings and conversations has The Bicycle Coalition had with its members and others who could help influence their position on this proposal?

    The history of urban planning in Philadelphia and throughout the United States is filled with countless examples of how communities most impacted by major decisions like this have not been considered. Let’s not make the same mistake that has been made for centuries by not listening to this surrounding communities who are most affected.

    • Randy LoBasso

      Hi Dr. Allen. Thanks for the comment. I agree, local communities need to have a say in any changes moving forward, and there is a history of that just not happening. That’s why after meeting with Councilmember Jones’ staff in December 2020 to discuss some of these ideas, I began reaching out to Parkside, Wynnefield and Mantua in January and continued asking the city via blogs published on this website, for a formal public process to discuss MLK Drive, as well as traffic studies and surveys of all city residents. Nothing was going to get done without a formal process.

      After not getting a response from the RCOs I originally contacted (including follow-up notes), I reached out again to Jones’ office to try to figure out a formal listening session process with all neighborhood organizations that would potentially be affected by any changes to MLK Drive.

      I was kindly invited to a Wynnefield Block Captains Association meeting in May. I also spoke to the Parkside BID that day and was in touch with Parkside Centennial.

      After the Block Captains meeting, I discussed a joint letter with the organizers, that we all ask Councilmember Jones for a public process so all voices are heard. I even drafted the letter to be sent, but did not receive a response. The public process with the city I had been asking for since January, of course, never happened.

      The city then announced in a Council session that MLK would be opened back up to private motor vehicles in August, after the street has been paved and restriped. They seemed to leave the door open to something that was not the dangerous I-76 alternative route it had been before the pandemic, but it was vague and there hasn’t been any public talk about that since then.

      To be clear, the Bicycle Coalition has not held any formal meetings about MLK Drive. Rather, I have asked to be invited to community meetings to garner feedback and come up with the best solution possible for the road, one that makes the street safe for everyone and deals with the uptick in users who’ve begun walking, biking, rolling, etc. on the Drive since March 2020. Given construction is set to last for three years along parts of the Drive, and the city announced plans to remake Eakins Oval, it seems like there’s a lot of time to figure out how the Drive works for everyone.

      At this point, the Bicycle Coalition is not involved in whatever talks are going on city politics regarding the future of MLK Drive. I’ll also say this 6-month process has been filled with several missteps, by me, to properly present information. I do believe, though, that reopening the Drive as it was before is not a viable solution, especially given the city’s climate and traffic safety goals.

      • Gregory J. Allen, Ph.D.

        Mr. LoBasso –

        We agree on one thing – that this process has been filled with missteps. The timing for them appears to be more like 4 years, not six months. The DVRPC report cited in these comments titled “Improving Safety for All Users on Martin Luther King Drive” was commissioned in 2017. Who are these “all users?” Pedestrians and bicyclists.

        The report specifically states “This project was developed to address safety concerns for pedestrians and bicyclists on MLK Drive from the Art Museum to Falls Bridge.” Nowhere are people who live in the surrounding communities that are most impacted by the change in MLK Drive traffic patterns mentioned in the DVRPC study.

        In addition, the Summary Points from page 5 state the following: “This project was developed to address safety concerns for pedestrians and bicyclists on Martin Luther King Drive (MLK Drive) from the Art Museum to Falls Bridge. The Philadelphia Streets Department developed a conceptual reconfiguration of the road and asked DVRPC to evaluate the feasibility in terms of traffic and safety. DVRPC visited the site, worked with Philadelphia STAKEHOLDERS (emphasis added), developed a computer model, and researched best practices.” Who are these stakeholders?

        As with The Bicycle Coalition survey conducted earlier this year, the DVRPC study did not ask any of the stakeholders who live in the surrounding communities what they thought of what was obviously being planned on MLK Drive since 2017. This seems to me to be much more than a misstep. This is a conscious and intentional oversight for the surrounding communities whose residents are not seen as relevant to this discussion. Or perhaps this issue can be “pushed through” as one of the other commentators on this blog post has expressed. Moreover, it includes a pattern that spans generations on behalf of multiple city agencies and organizations who don’t value the thoughts and experiences of Black and Brown folks who are struggling with the increased traffic that has backed up into their communities as a result of the closure and limitations imposed on the traffic flow of MLK drive.

        During these times when lots of socially conscious corporations, government agencies and organizations seem to be focused on diversity, equity and inclusion these “missteps” seem tone deaf to me and the people I know who have expressed strong concerns about how this project is being implemented. It’s way past time to ask the Black and Brown people who reside in the communities surrounding MLK Drive who are most impacted by this decision what they think of having traffic limits placed on this critical transportation route between Center City and their homes in West and North Philadelphia.

        • Randy LoBasso

          I agree, and can’t speak to the intentions of the DVRPC report you mentioned here. No one at the city level appeared interested in a public process around MLK, despite pleas to have a real conversation about it. I wish there could have been a real transparent process to discuss the positives and negatives, but that never happened.

          Whatever the line striping happening now, we didn’t have anything to do with it and I don’t know what it’s going to look like.

          Last, as surveying people who live near MLK Drive, we had also been going door to door in the 4th district asking folks their opinions on MLK and gathering information in that regard. The people who live near MLK deserve a voice in the process, but there never was a real process.

  6. Derrick Howie

    Why are we not considering this plans for Kelly Drive ????Data shows that Kelly Drive is much more dangerous than West River drive and its historically more popular.

  7. Suzanne Hagner

    I would like to see the drive split into 2 sections. 2-way protected bike lanes on one side and the other side for buses. We need to get buses off the Schuylkill expressway if we want to support Transit. The path would remain for foot traffic.

    I ride through the Wissahickon Transit Center frequently….and the bus drivers are very accommodating to bicyclists. I can not say the same for drivers of cars….who are aggressive and run the red lights and violate traffic rules.

  8. Mike Heaney

    Is this yet another case of councilmanic prerogative kiboshing something that would be good for the city as a whole for the false hope of alleviating of local traffic congestion?

  9. Judith Benedict

    My husband and I used MLK Dr. frequently over the past year. I think it is a great idea to reconfigure the road for one land of traffic in each direction, along with two separate paths, one each for bicycles and pedestrians.


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