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Reopening MLK Drive to cars is bad for Philadelphia’s collective mental health | Opinion

We need a car-free MLK Drive now just as much as we did in 2020.

During the pandemic, Iresha Picot began cycling after 10 years off a bike. One of her favorite places to ride has been MLK Drive, which the city recently announced will reopen to car traffic in August.
During the pandemic, Iresha Picot began cycling after 10 years off a bike. One of her favorite places to ride has been MLK Drive, which the city recently announced will reopen to car traffic in August.Read moreCourtesy Iresha Picot.

I once heard a person say that if you stay still long enough, you are going to find you.

Like many people, I was forced into stillness in 2020, due to the pandemic. Life came to a halt and I was now having to sit with myself for the first time in a very long time. That isolation came and went in waves. In the beginning of quarantine, I welcomed the new time alone. I had time to care for myself in ways that constant grind culture prevented me from doing. But as the pandemic persisted, I soon felt the pull to get outside.

That’s when I made a return to cycling after a decade of being off a bicycle. Several days a week, I found myself biking on Martin Luther King Drive, which the city shut down to vehicle traffic to become a safe haven for Philadelphians trying to navigate their wellness during a pandemic.

Biking on Martin Luther King Drive in 2020 was one of the first times I saw other people again after being quarantined. People were out cycling and walking. Families and small groups were working out. Everyone who was on the drive was just trying to do their best in a time of uncertainty. Being a part of this community of people was a mood lifter during the earlier darker days of the pandemic, when social isolation was triggering feelings of loneliness. Being able to see others engaging in physical activities made me feel connected to people again.

And it wasn’t just me. During the pandemic, Martin Luther King Drive has seen a 1,300% increase in biker and pedestrian use and has become the most popular outdoor space in Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: MLK Drive will be reopening to cars on weekdays in August

That’s why it’s so baffling that the city recently announced that the drive would reopen to vehicle traffic on weekdays in August. This move leaves all of these newfound users of the drive, including me, without this space to engage in outside activities. Of course, Philadelphia has other green spaces — Fairmount and Wissahickon Parks, the Schuylkill River Trail, to name just a few — but MLK Drive is special because the Schuylkill water encloses the trail on both sides. The trail is wide and open, leaving enough space for bikers and walkers to socially distance safely. It’s also accessible to commuters and has two bike sharing locations on the trail.

Reopening MLK Drive to traffic is such a disservice to the Philadelphia community, especially as social distancing and staying at home for over a year have taken a toll on the mental health of many Philadelphians. Even though the pandemic feels as if it is winding down, thanks to the availability of vaccines, Philadelphians will be grappling with the after-effects of the last 15 months for a long time.

We need a car-free MLK Drive now just as much as we did in 2020.

There have been myriad recent articles that have pointed to outdoor play and nature-based activities as a tool to cope with major stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a positive relationship between green spaces and mental well-being. A study by Ecological Applications, the journal from the Ecological Society of America, reported last year that people with more exposure to the outdoors and nature have higher levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem.

Keeping Martin Luther King Drive car-free will reduce levels of depression, loneliness, and anxiety. Philadelphia is a particularly urban city, where there are residents who don’t even have access to trees on their streets. People who don’t have access to green spaces need more options for getting outside, not fewer.

» READ MORE: Advocates want coronavirus to lead to better public spaces in Philly

One thing I have learned from living through a year of a pandemic is that the world can function differently. Just as many of our places of employment will continue to allow working from home, drivers will continue to get to their destinations, even if Martin Luther King Drive is closed to cars. For the last year, they’ve found alternate routes. Prioritizing a safe space for the wellness and health of Philadelphians should always trump vehicle traffic. Keep MLK Drive car-free permanently.

Iresha Picot is a licensed behavior specialist and therapist, doula, and community activist. A Philly transplant by way of Virginia, Iresha is the co-editor of the book “The Color of Hope: People of Color Mental Health Narratives” and has written articles in Research in the Teaching of English, Elephant Journal, Aunt Chloe’s Journal, Specter Magazine, For Harriet, and The Inquirer. She has been featured in NPR, Bicycle Magazine, and PBS American Portraits.