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Ronnie Polaneczky: Pedestrians deserve a share of the road

TWO THURSDAYS ago, a 29-year-old bicyclist and his 4-year-old son were slammed by a Lexus SUV while trying to cross Martin Luther King Drive on the south side of the Art Museum.

TWO THURSDAYS ago, a 29-year-old bicyclist and his 4-year-old son were slammed by a Lexus SUV while trying to cross Martin Luther King Drive on the south side of the Art Museum.

A driver in one of the southbound lanes stopped to let the pair enter the road's crosswalk. But before they could make it to the center island, a second driver swerved around the stopped car and hit the dad and his boy, who were critically injured.

State law commands drivers to yield the right of way to pedestrians in the crosswalk, but who are we kidding? This is Philly, where we annihilate road rules more than respect them.

Drivers blow through crosswalks. Pedestrians dart against traffic, mid-block. Bicyclists slalom on and off the sidewalk like they're in Telluride.

Basically, too many of us are scaring the crap out of each other as we hurtle around the city.

And two weeks ago, it almost killed a father and his child.

"We have to take back the Drive," said Sarah Clark Stuart, advocacy consultant of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. "This is a park road, but drivers treat it like a speedway. We really need changes here."

She was at the crash site with other coalition members, waving signs reminding drivers to give way to pedestrians.

Some drivers slowed enough to chat with the group, so it's probably safe to say that some drivers unacquainted with the crosswalk law may start curbing their lead-foot enthusiasm. So might others who happen upon these ambassadors at the site on Thursdays this month from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., when they plan to repeat their demonstration.

But it won't be enough. Unless these do-gooders are out there 24/7, they'll never make that crosswalk safe all by themselves.

This wouldn't be a dilemma if the new Schuylkill River Park weren't such a success.

The park - a small branch of its path leads to the crosswalk - has become a huge people magnet in its short life, drawing 14,000 to 16,000 visitors a week.

And the city (which the mayor has committed to making more bike- and pedestrian-friendly) has just completed a great, multi-tiered ramp from the Spring Garden Street bridge down onto MLK Drive.

Both entities are helping link previously unconnected areas of the city to each other, creating recreation routes and "green commute" pathways that, over time, will hopefully link to more pathways. Eventually, the dream goes, one could travel healthfully from any part of the city to another, without ever turning a car's ignition key.

But there are glitches: Currently, the Schuylkill path and the Spring Garden ramp lead people directly onto that MLK crosswalk, which - as that terrible Thursday crash showed - they must use at their own peril.

The thing is, it's not like we don't know how to manage the mingling of commuters using all methods of transport. A perfect example occurs on Ridge Avenue between East Falls and Manayunk, where SEPTA's transfer station sits across from the entrance to the Wissahickon trail.

Vehicular traffic pours into the area from Kelly Drive, off of City Line Avenue; from Lincoln Drive;from Ridge Avenue both into and out of Roxborough; and off of Manayunk's Main Street.

"It's a tight throat," says Bob Thomas, an architect whose firm, Campbell Thomas & Co., designs "green transportation" projects, among other things. "For a biker or pedestrian to try to cross Ridge to the Wissahickon, it's just too dangerous."

The solution: a push-button light that lets users stop traffic momentarily so they can cross. The device has worked beautifully, said Thomas, as has a similar device on Penn's campus where Locust Walk crosses 34th Street.

"Each solution must be site-specific," he said. "A push-button light at one location might be all wrong at another."

Charles Karmalt, the city's new pedestrian/bicycle coordinator, knows well the growing need on MLK Drive. Last weekend, his department installed multiple, neon-green "pedestrian ahead" signs near the crash-site crosswalk, and they are considering installing a pedestrian "stutter flash" light whose jarring strobe has proven to be an effective way, elsewhere, to slow traffic at crossings. Solar-powered, it would be easier to install and cheaper to maintain than a traditional traffic light.

"We're looking at a lot of options," said Karmalt, to balance the needs of disparate users with the safety we deserve when we traverse Philly's streets.

The safety that one particular dad and his son deserved, two Thursdays ago, when they set out on a morning ride. *

E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: Read Ronnie's blog at