In the debate over MLK Drive, both sides agree: the city skipped necessary community input

After a big announcement that cars would be allowed back on the roadway, a last-minute change will keep part of it closed.

People on recumbent bikes using MLK Drive when it was closed to car traffic in July 2020

People on recumbent bikes using MLK Drive when it was closed to car traffic in July 2020

Kaveen Harohalli / Billy Penn
kaveen

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There was intense debate over Philadelphia’s decision to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to cars this week, but the two sides agree on one thing: the city did not get enough community input.

“There is a very strong emphasis in Philadelphia on community outreach … and we really tried to make that happen,” said Randy LoBasso, policy director at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

“Randy asked for the same thing that we asked for: Why is this not a conversation?” said Crystal Morris, president of the Wynnefield Residents Association.

“Somebody in a room thought it was a good idea, and what they’re telling you is you just need to live with it,” Morris continued. “And that happens way too often in this city.”

After the drive was closed to auto traffic in March 2020, walkers, roller skaters, and cyclists from all over the area came to enjoy the 4-mile stretch that weaves along the Schuylkill River’s western bank. Daily usage jumped from 500 to 5,000, and many bike advocates and outdoor enthusiasts wanted to keep it that way.

“It’s one of the few safe places for people who aren’t inside cars in the city,” said one cyclist using the drive on a July afternoon.

Local residents in neighborhoods like Wynnefield and Overbrook pushed back, arguing the roadway was an important route for commuting to work and other travel.

“We assume people drive because they’re lazy and they don’t want to take the bus,” Morris said. “But what about the fact that I’m working two jobs and the only way that I can get from one to the other is if I’m driving?”

MLK Drive: Roadway or Recreational Trail by Kaveen Harohalli

The Bicycle Coalition made an effort to compromise, and suggested a plan that revamped the route as a split road, with two travel lanes for vehicles, two travel lanes for bicycles, and the sidepath for everyone else.

However, the city’s Office of Transportation Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS) went in a different direction.

The road was downsized to two car lanes, to prevent cars from passing each other, slowing down the drive and hopefully making it safer for cyclists. There were no actual bike lanes added, but Mike Carroll, Philly’s deputy managing director for transportation, said the newly striped buffers along the shoulders could be used by cyclists who feel comfortable riding alongside traffic. That led to backlash from people who questioned the safety of the new layout.

“I don’t think it’s safe to bike on a road this curvy next to cars,” one cyclist told Billy Penn.

In the end, the city’s solution didn’t seem to fully satisfy any of the constituents — and as it turns out, the drive didn’t even fully reopen to car traffic.

A day before automobiles were allowed back on the riverside boulevard, the city announced one section of MLK Drive would indeed remain completely off-limits to cars until further notice. It’s the elevated stretch that leads to Sweetbriar Drive, the first paved intersection as you travel northwest from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The sudden change, according to a release, was because an inspection of that part of the road, officially called MLK Bridge, revealed a worse condition than initially thought.

“[O]ne of the connections of the steel framing to be about 75 percent deteriorated. As a result, we will have to keep the bridge closed to traffic until the rehab construction,” Carroll said in the statement.

The entire drive from Center City to the East Falls Bridge will continue to be closed to car traffic on Saturdays and Sundays, like it was before the pandemic.

Check out the video embedded above to hear more from everyone affected.