When Randy LoBasso, policy manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, set out recently for a bike ride, he was stunned.

“I rode up to Schuylkill Banks, and it was like — mobbed," he said. " ... Nobody was getting six feet distance from each other.”

The Bike Coalition spearheaded a successful effort to close Martin Luther King Drive to vehicular traffic from East Falls Bridge to Eakins Oval so pedestrians and bikers have new space to get exercise or clear their heads during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now LoBasso and other advocacy groups want Philadelphia to close even more streets to cars, such as the roads through the 2,052-acre Fairmount Park.

“There’s not much space in the city to get exercise," he said, “and I think that especially now, physical and mental exercise is really important just because everyone I know is so stressed out.”

The idea has seen support from Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Helen Gym, too.

“We have gotten requests,” city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said last week, but the city has no other plans at the moment.

An uptick on the trails

People are walking and biking on local trails in huge numbers, according to data from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Figures from trail counters along the Chester Valley, Delaware River, Schuylkill River, Wissahickon, and Schuylkill Banks trails are up between March 1 to March 24 this year, compared with the same time last year, by 52% to 96%.

A nearly snowless winter contributed to soaring counts, said Shawn Megill Legendre, assistant manager of regional trail programs at the DVRPC. So did the coronavirus.

The Chester Valley Trail saw the highest spike of 96%, while recent weekday levels along the Schuylkill Banks look more like they would on a summery weekend.

“Just like inside, people using these facilities really do need to be following the guidelines that have been laid out by federal, state, and local officials in terms of physical distancing," Megill Legendre said. “It’s just as important outside as it is inside.”

Pennsylvania officials are asking residents to stay inside unless necessary, though walks or outdoor activity are permitted, as gyms and playgrounds were ordered closed. New Yorkers over the weekend saw a pilot program that shut four streets to traffic in a move to make room for pedestrians to get exercise while staying far apart. But in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed off its popular lakefront area after swarms ignored social distancing calls.

Expanding beyond MLK Drive

People make use of a wide open MLK drive on March 21. The roadway, normally for vehicular traffic, was closed for use by pedestrians and cyclists “in the interest of facilitating social distancing among trail users,” according to the city.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
People make use of a wide open MLK drive on March 21. The roadway, normally for vehicular traffic, was closed for use by pedestrians and cyclists “in the interest of facilitating social distancing among trail users,” according to the city.

Feet First Philly, a Clean Air Council-sponsored pedestrian advocacy group, is part of the open streets effort. The group is circulating a petition and is offering its own ideas, such as Kelly and Lincoln Drives, but also seeks input from others.

Jennifer Dougherty, Feet First Philly steering committee chair, recognizes the importance of creating space in a city such as Philadelphia, where not everyone has a backyard and streets are often narrow.

“As the weather gets more and more beautiful, it’s going to be harder and harder for people to stay inside all the time, and demand is only going to increase," she said. “And we’d hate to see a kind of situation where our public parks or trails become so crowded that they become a vector."