As crowds flock to Philadelphia’s riverfront parks and nature trails, turning them into dangerous breeding grounds for germs, the Kenney administration is coming under growing pressure to close selected streets to motor vehicles and turn them over to pedestrians and cyclists for the remainder of the coronavirus crisis.
Over the last few days, seven civic groups have sent letters to Mayor Jim Kenney asking him to establish temporary car-free zones to relieve the congestion at popular parks like the Schuylkill River Trail. Five city councilmembers, including President Darrell L. Clarke, have joined the chorus calling for street closures.
Although many parks around the city are seeing a surge in users, the crowding has been the most intense on the narrow trails that wind along the Schuylkill and through Wissahickon Valley Park. “Social distancing is problematic, if not impossible,” Maggie Mund, president of the Center City Residents’ Association, wrote in a letter to the mayor. "The Schuylkill Banks has become a petri dish,” she added in an interview.
The call for street closures is part of a coordinated effort organized by the CCRA, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the Fitler Square Improvement Association, and a collection of urbanist groups. In separate letters, the three civic associations suggested that the city could easily close the outer lanes of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, effectively creating an extension of the Schuylkill River Trail and allowing people to spread out.
“The city closes the outer lanes of the Parkway all the time, so it shouldn’t be difficult to do,” Mund argued.
The city has already repurposed one major road, Martin Luther King Drive in West Fairmount Park, to relieve crowding on the Schuylkill River Trail. Philadelphia was one of the first cities to recognize the need to provide more options for recreation while people are under lockdown for the coronavirus. But now the drive is in danger of becoming overcrowded. Meanwhile, other U.S. cities have gone further, banning traffic from a variety of key streets to create more elbow room for their residents.
In their letter to Kenney, the urbanist groups — the Bicycle Coalition, Feet First Philly, the Clean Air Council, and 5th Square — argued that the city needs to create car-free streets in a wider variety of neighborhoods. That letter was co-signed by five councilmembers: Clarke, Kenyatta Johnson, Jamie Gauthier, Helen Gym, and Derek Green.
While the coalition’s letter applauded city officials for the decision to close MLK Drive to vehicles, the signers argue that the roadway is too far afield for residents of many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
One reason the city has been slow to create more car-free zones is because of the cost and logistics of managing the closures. According to a city spokesperson, the administration is currently “analyzing the benefits of possible additional closures with public health being our most important consideration, in addition to operational impacts.”
In their letters, the seven groups all acknowledge that banning cars from local streets could be complicated and expensive. But they argued that the city has a long track record of organizing closures for special events like concerts and festivals. The coalition of urbanist groups noted that traffic is down at least 37%.
“We’re running out of space” on the Schuylkill River Trail, said Dennis Boylan, president of the Logan Square group, who wants to see the Parkway’s outer lanes closed to cars. “We need to give families with small kids a safe spot where they can run around.”