Cars will return to MLK Drive early August, with slimmed down traffic pattern

The Fairmount Park roadway is reopening to auto traffic after 16 months.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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After 16 months closed to cars, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Fairmount Park will reopen to automobile traffic at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 4, city officials announced Tuesday.

However, there’s been a change to the configuration of the high-injury route. The Streets Department repaved and restriped the route to leave only one travel lane in each direction, with a designated shoulder and buffers.

This “geometric reconfiguration” of the road will prevent cars from passing each other, reducing the overall speed and making MLK Drive safer for cyclists, said Mike Carroll, deputy director of the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (OTIS).

“People experienced both the recreational opportunities and the return of traffic patterns differently,” Carroll told Billy Penn. “We wanted to see if we could strike a balance.”

The four-lane street was closed to car traffic in March 2020 to provide Philadelphians with a large open space to exercise during the COVID shutdowns.

It proved immensely popular, with weekday usage increasing from 500 people per day to over 5,000 per day during the pandemic. Weekend usage saw an even larger increase, with about 10,000 recreational users per day in May 2020, according to counts done by WSP, an independent engineering firm.

The popularity spurred a vigorous debate over whether to reopen the drive to cars at all.

Reopening would force all the cyclists, runners, and skaters to find other places to go. The Schuylkill River Trail as it runs along Kelly Drive is much more narrow, and will not accommodate more people.

Some residents who live nearby, however, said closing MLK Drive increased traffic in their neighborhoods as drivers were forced to find new routes into the city. They felt left out of initial conversations about closing the drive in 2020.

Bike advocates counter that MLK provides a much-needed safe space for recreational activity and that reopening it to cars would be a safety hazard. The road is part of Philadelphia’s High Injury Network, one of the 12% of streets where 80% of all traffic deaths and serious injuries occur.

“These are the roads where people get hurt, and MLK Drive is one of those roads,” said Randy LoBasso of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

Under the city’s current plan, after reopening, the drive will resume it’s pre-pandemic schedule, and be closed to car traffic from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

The city plans to continue this schedule through at least October, according to OTIS deputy director Carroll, after which they hope to experiment with new scheduling that would increase hours for recreational use during weekends and possibly during weekday holidays as well.

As far as options for casual users to explore once the drive reopens to cars, Carroll encourages using the newly repaved sidepath:

“It was a pretty significant investment that the Department of Parks and Recreation made,” he said. “We’re adding a little bit of extra lighting along the trail. So there’s a lot of nice features there.”

Mike Carroll made the point that while the restriping does not create a bike lane on the drive itself, its dimensions were intentionally designed to allow advanced cyclists to use it if they felt comfortable riding alongside traffic.

An overhaul is also coming to the eastern start of the roadway, on MLK Bridge behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with construction expected to span from summer 2022 to fall 2024.

The rehabilitation project is being led by the Streets Department, with 80% of the funding coming from the federal government. The plan is to improve structural integrity, widen the deck, and add a physically separated 10 foot wide shared-use path. The anticipated construction is expected to temporarily close vehicle access to MLK Drive once again.