Dr. MLK Jr. Drive has been open to walkers, runners and bicyclists, but closed to motor vehicle traffic for over a year. In that time, MLK has become one of the few places in the City where people on bicycles, people walking, and everyone, can recreate and commute without the danger of motor vehicles.
And it’s being used — a lot. According to electronic counts conducted by WSP Engineering, more than 5,000 people use the Drive for walking, biking, etc. on weekdays, on average; and nearly 10,000 on weekends. This represens a more than 1,300 increase in active transportation since being opened to people.
Beginning in January 2021, the Bicycle Coalition began meeting with, or trying to meet with, community organizations, representatives, and businesses that are proximate to MLK Drive. Our goal has been to get an understanding of how local communities feel about the closure, and what the best future for MLK Drive would be. While this has happened, 5,846 of you have signed the petition we created, asking the City to “Reimagine MLK Drive.” We also offered three potential ideas for the future of the Drive.
The focus is on MLK Drive right now, but it should be noted that this is a much larger issue than that particular road. Opening MLK to people proved what can happen when you pedestrianize a street 24 hours per day: It’s used more often, by more people, and gives more people access to the open space it’s connected to (Fairmount Park usage also rose 50 percent over the past year.) Going back to a post-pandemic “normal” shouldn’t just mean opening streets — especially dangerous streets like MLK Drive — back up to motor vehicles.
After months of feedback, those three ideas have whittled down to one. The proposal we’re promoting involves separating the Drive into two sections — one for motor vehicles, and one for people using active transportation, with the re-paved sidepath dedicated to pedestrians.
The separated road idea may sound like an unexciting compromise to some, but it’s worth understanding that communities close to MLK Drive rely on access to the road to get in and out of the city without having to use I-76. Their opinions and needs matter. Additionally, motorists have been using neighborhood roads instead of MLK Drive, impacting those communities with higher volumes of traffic and air pollution.
But there’s a problem. Earlier this month, the City announced the road would be reopened to motor vehicles in August, after repaving is complete. Additionally, as this news item is being written, MLK Drive is currently in the process of being repaved, the process of which, along with the configuration, should take a couple months to complete. During this time, all trail users will still have access to the repaved sidepath along MLK Drive and can bike or walk on the milled pavement, as well.
But how MLK Drive re-opens to cars is still a question. The City has noted in the media that they are still determining the best configuration for the Drive. We have continued our advocacy for the shared road idea in that time, and it was featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer this week.
We also believe a commission involving all stakeholders should be set up to figure out the best plan for MLK Drive, with the understanding that this is our idea:
By turning MLK Drive into a shared road, with a substantial barrier between motor vehicles and bikes (and bikes and pedestrians), the roadway would be much safer than it has historically been (MLK Drive is part of the City’s “high injury network,” the 12 percent of city roads where 80 percent of all deadly and injurious crashes take place).
It would also provide additional space for the thousands of new trail users who’ve begun riding bicycles and utilizing the City’s outdoor space during the pandemic, a trend which is likely to continue.
Lastly, it would provide separate pedestrian and bicycle space while at the same time, also provide access for the Center for Adaptive Sports and local access to communities near West Fairmount Park.
Turning MLK Drive back into a highway-adjacent highway and crowding all active transportation users onto a small 10’-12’ path is not a solution.
We are hopeful that the City and City Council Members will find a solution that re-imagines MLK Drive so that it meets the needs of and serves all community members who live and the roadway.