MLK Drive to reopen for cars in two weeks

Martin Luther King Drive has been repaved and is in the process of being restriped, officials said.
City of Philadelphia

Martin Luther King Drive, closed to cars for more than a year, will reopen to vehicular traffic at 5 p.m. Aug. 4, city officials said Tuesday.

The scenic road, formerly known as West River Drive, was blocked off in May 2020 in an effort to provide additional recreational opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, when residents were permitted to do little else.

More than 5,000 cyclists, runners, walkers and others took advantage of the street during the busiest days, officials said.

Cycling advocates and urbanist groups had advocated for the city to reimagine MLK Drive, with some suggesting it should remain permanently closed to cars.

Mike Carroll, the Kenney administration’s deputy managing director for transportation, said the city has to balance everyone’s interests, including drivers who use the road to access Center City.

“We feel like the Drive is there not just for folks to recreate but also it’s a path for circulation, and it was always intended to be a scenic park drive for people to drive along,” he said Tuesday.

Congestion, Carroll said, had started to return to the Schuylkill Expressway, which runs adjacent to MLK Drive, as well as other nearby roads. Prior to the pandemic, about 20,000 cars travelled on the Drive daily, he said.

As has been the case for years during the warmer weather months, the road will be off-limits for vehicles from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through October.

Officials signaled that they are committed to piloting several ideas in the future to expand opportunities for cyclists, walkers and runners, including year-around weekend and holiday closures.

“We also understand that there’s a lot of desire for folks to retain recreation use as much as possible on the Drive,” Carroll said.

He added that, at some point, the city will try out extending weekend closing hours to 8 p.m., though no further details were provided.

While MLK Drive was blocked off, crews began repaving and repainting stripes on the road, work that is almost complete, Carroll said.

In most sections, the number of lanes will be reduced from four to two, with one in each direction. Raised markings will also be installed to alert drivers when they have veered out of their lane.

The changes are designed as safety measures, Carroll said. The Kenney administration has identified MLK Drive as having a high number of traffic-related deaths and crashes.

“There are going to be times when it’s going to be a little bit longer for folks to get from one end to the other because there’s fewer lanes for people to pass,” Carroll said. “But, looking at our analysis, it seems like it shouldn’t be too bad most of the time.”

In addition, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation spent $1.4 million to reconstruct and widen the existing 4-mile trail that runs alongside the drive.

The Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia, in a response to the city’s plans, acknowledged some positive modifications, such as the reduction in lanes, but decried a lack of public engagement.

Organizers with the group had been calling for the road to be divided, with one side made into a protected lane for pedestrians and cyclists.