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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