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The opening of Martin Luther King Drive to bicyclists and pedestrians has been a point of pride for the City during the Pandemic. Its quick and early closing by the Kenney Administration gained nationwide attention and, has been followed in cities all over the U.S., and the world. Unfortunately, the Kenney Administration has not expanded on this success, but we are continuing to work to make sure Open MLK Drive continues as is for as long as possible.

In late May, we counted nearly 1,000 users per hour on a Saturday — this is exponentially more than would be using MLK Drive on a spring weekend in any other year.  Our volunteer counters observed that the users of the Drive on evenings and weekends were very diverse, with families accessing the Drive by bicycle via the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and Black Rd. Folks from all over the city and region have, since then, been driving into the area just to use MLK Drive.

Now that we are in the COVID-19 Modified Green Phase, many of have been asking us about the future of MLK Drive. Even before COVID-19, changes to MLK Drive were in the works. Most notable of the changes was a reconfiguration of MLK Drive and rehabilitation of the shared use path.

MLK Drive paving

MLK Drive is included under a much larger citywide “paving package”. This is a group of streets that are put together into a single contract for construction. It is likely MLK Drive will be resurfaced in 2021, based on the schedule of the paving package. When it is finished, the Streets Department will be reducing travel lanes between the Falls Bridge and Montgomery Drive from four to two, with the creation of wide shoulders. South of Montgomery Drive, MLK will continue to be a four lane roadway without shoulders.

MLK Shared Use Path

Meanwhile, the shared use path will be getting a much needed overhaul. According to the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability, the City is in the process of putting together a bid package for construction of the path. Once the bidding process is complete, the City will have a better idea as to when construction will begin. We expect to know more about that process later this year.

MLK Drive Bridge

The MLK Drive Bridge is due to be re-decked, which means it will be completely reconstructed, and is currently being designed. This project will finally add a 10-12 foot path to replace the very narrow sidewalk. The City has created a project website and is under testing. No date yet set to go live. The site will be up for a period of weeks and there will be boards with descriptions and videos to describe the project along with the  opportunity to provide comments. Construction of the bridge is scheduled to begin in late 2021 or more likely early 2022.

Future of MLK Drive in 2021-2022

Now, the question everyone wants to know: When, if ever, will the City pull the plug on MLK’s current role as a street for people?

The answer is we don’t know. But we do know that given the current status of the virus locally and nationwide, it is not happening in the immediate future.

We have been concerned with the reopening and so we queried DVRPC who have access to traffic information from INRIX (INRIX uses Cell Phone data and other indicators to measure traffic speeds and volumes).

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, as you can see in graph below, was that that the busiest week was June 8th and that traffic on the I-76 actually eased a bit the week after.

Traffic Data For the I-76

Average Speeds on the Schuylkill Expressway. Source: INRIX Traffic Data compiled by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

We asked oTIS what the threshold for traffic would be. And while we are told traffic volumes will be a factor in thinking moving forward, we were told that the I-76 traffic  is not the only factor in their decision to potentially close MLK Drive to people. The City will be looking at the capacity of other travel modes, especially regional rail, which is still carrying only a fraction of its regular riders.

While the suburban retail reopening has brought back vehicular traffic to the suburbs, there is no indication of a rush to reoccupy Center City Office towers (or suburban office parks). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, several large employers are either waiting for the fall or in some cases making home office arrangements permanent. The city’s universities plan to split on-site classes with distance learning.

This strengthens our case that MLK Drive should remain a non-motorized transportation corridor to allow for safe bicycle and pedestrian commuting and recreation until the City is fully reopened. Over the next few weeks, we will be doing additional outreach and information gathering to make our case that MLK Drive stay open to people for the foreseeable future. Those campaigns are still in the planning phase and we will provide updates on here as that gets going.

John Boyle

Author

John has been a commuting cyclist for more than 20 years. In 1994 he began working as a volunteer for the Bicycle Coalition of the Delaware Valley after attending a volunteer night, and later served as a board member in 1997-98. In 1999 John left Philadelphia for Charlottesville, VA, where he helped establish the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT), a bicycle and walking advocacy group.

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