Last week, we began a campaign to keep Martin Luther King Jr. Drive open to people — and it’s gotten a lot of interest. Mostly positive, but some questions remain. So, we’ve put together this blog post to answer some of your questions about our proposals for the future of MLK Drive.
Let’s start with the basics. In March 2020, the economy began shutting down and motor vehicle usage saw a sharp decline. Philadelphians by and large headed out to our public spaces for some fresh air and social distancing. But there was a problem — one I experienced first hand on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, while out on a bike ride.
I rode my bike into Center City, then up Spruce Street to Schuylkill Banks to get in a relaxing ride away from motor vehicle traffic, but it only lasted a couple minutes. The Boardwalk was so crowded with people that it genuinely seemed dangerous. While we know a lot more about the safety of the outdoors as it pertains to COVID-19 these days, at the time, the recommendation was six feet of space between people, and that was not happening at all on Schuylkill Banks. There just wasn’t enough room for everyone.
So, we thought of a pretty obvious idea: How about closing the gates on MLK Drive and freeing up all that space to people, so they could maintain better social distancing and get outdoors? (Of course, at the time, we didn’t think the pandemic would last a year.) We quickly reached out to our members and supporters and gathered more than 1,000 signatures. After presenting those signatures to the City, the Kenney Administration quickly agreed that MLK Drive should be opened to people, indefinitely. It’s remained that way ever since. Now, it’s in the City’s best interest to keep it that way.
Why MLK Drive?
MLK Drive is an incredible park road on the west of the Schuylkill River with direct access to West Fairmount Park. Since the 1990s, it’s been partially closed on weekends (between April to October) to motor vehicle traffic, but hasn’t been used to its full potential. For whatever reason, many people in the City didn’t know MLK Drive was an option, and Kelly Drive, on the west side of the Schuylkill River, remains totally packed with people. MLK Drive, notes Viren Patel of Philadelphia, is a “beautiful protected area. Best part of Philly.”
Understanding the budget constraints of Philadelphia, we asked for MLK Drive to close largely because it had the built-in infrastructure to make it happen. There are gates that block off MLK Drive to motor vehicles at all entrances and it didn’t seem like that big a deal to simply close them. And closing those gates, for thousands of people, made a world of difference.
Thousands? How do you know?
Yep, thousands! There are two ways we’ve been able to figure out the number of people using MLK per day. The first is our old-school method of counting users. On May 16th, 2020, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and volunteers counted the number of people using MLK Drive using our clipboard, paper and pencil method. We found a massive increase in users. Volunteers were positioned in front of the Center for Adaptive Sports at about 1.8 miles north of the Art Museum. We counted for a six hour period, between 10am and 4pm. Overall, we counted 4,400 people — or, nearly 800 users per hour, with a steady stream of traffic throughout the day.
But OK. Maybe our counters were biased. Maybe they secretly double-counted every user for bike propaganda purposes. Maybe no one actually used MLK Drive that day!
We considered these arguments. So, we partnered with engineering firm WSP, which conducted digital counts of MLK users using camera technology (which you can read more about here.) Turns out, our counters were a little off: They undercounted! WSP found more than 5,000 users per day on weekdays and more than 9,660 people on weekends. While we don’t have pre-COVID weekend counts to compare that to, we do have weekday counts, and WSP’s data, when compared to the city’s data, shows a 1,300 percent increase in users on weekdays, which is the fastest increase in trail users on any trail in the area we are aware of.
Why should MLK Drive stay open though? Can’t those people walking, rolling, biking, scooting, riding horses, and pushing strollers just go back to the sidepath when the pandemic ends?
Wait, did you say people riding horses? Of course you did! Part of what makes MLK Drive so great is that it’s wide enough to accommodate all sorts of uses.
Anyway, while we had asked the city to open MLK Drive, in part, to unload users off Kelly Drive and Schuylkill Banks, that’s not really what happened. Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission electronic counts don’t show any difference in users on Kelly and Schuylkill Banks since MLK Drive was closed to motor vehicles. That means most of the 5,000 daily users on MLK are new trail users who did not use trails before! If MLK Drive opens up to motor vehicles, those new trail users will not fit on the 10’-12’ trail alongside MLK Drive. That’s why we believe this proposal is actually necessary.
“MLK drive closed to motor vehicles has been one of the greatest things about Philadelphia since the pandemic,” notes MLK Drive user Sarah Kirschbaum of Philadelphia. “It encourages outdoor activity in a safer and more enjoyable environment. Bike lanes shared with traffic are still dangerous, but MLK drive is practically danger free!”
Adds Aisha Loeks of Philadelphia: “I love walking and jogging there and having a place without traffic and car fumes to enjoy.”
Doesn’t the region need the space on MLK Drive to relieve vehicle congestion?
MLK Drive is one of the most dangerous roads in Philadelphia. It’s on the City’s high-injury network (12 percent of streets where 80 percent of deadly crashes take place) and it’s obvious why: It’s a 4-lane road without speed controls through a city park. That road was meant to be a scenic route for people traveling in motor vehicles, but sadly it has become an alternative route for people in cars to speed into and out of Center City.
Luckily, there are other express routes into Center City from the western suburbs: I-76, which is six lanes; and Kelly Drive. Our proposals for MLK Drive do not touch those routes. And they will both still be available for folks to drive in and out of the city.
Losing the space on MLK Drive likely will not make a difference. For decades, there has been a line of thinking that, if we just add one more lane, traffic will decrease. But the opposite has always been true. Expanded highways are always sold to the public as a way to decrease congestion, but increasing roadway capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to improve congestion. This is a concept called “Induced demand.”
The Drive has been closed for a year and city traffic is back to 80 percent of its pre-COVID capacity. This is happening while SEPTA saw a 92 percent decrease in users, from which it has not fully recovered.
While this has all happened, Carmageddon (i.e., massive car congestion) has ceased to materialize.
Eventually, people are going to get back on buses and trains as they did before COVID — and that’s what will relieve congestion on I-76 and Kelly Drive, assuming that congestion is a genuine problem.
Why are you trying to get 5,000 signatures?
To represent the 5,000 people who use the Drive every day! Plus, 5,000 is just a lot of people. If 5,000 people sign our petition before the end of the month, it will be the most signatures we’ve gathered in the shortest amount of time.
What are you going to do with those signatures?
Our plan is to deliver them to Mayor Jim Kenney, and ask him to keep MLK open to people while the city studies our proposals, traffic, usage, neighborhood support, and figures out the best possible option for the future of MLK Drive.
Isn’t this just another anti-car ploy, designed to demonize motorists?
Got more questions about this? Send them to me! I’ll answer them. Email: Randy@BicycleCoalition.org