Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia needs to manage the return of the car as the pandemic subsides

So far, the message to motorists seems to be: C’mon back. But Philadelphia needs to retain the public space clawed back from the automobile during the pandemic.

Daily recreational usage on Martin Luther King Drive increased tenfold after Mayor Kenney banned cars in March 2020, but now the city is reopening the road to cars.
Daily recreational usage on Martin Luther King Drive increased tenfold after Mayor Kenney banned cars in March 2020, but now the city is reopening the road to cars.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The pandemic has been terrible in a hundred ways but wonderful in one particular instance: It allowed us to experience a Philadelphia nearly empty of cars.

Without the noise and exhaust of daily traffic in the first months of the lockdown, birdsong became the score of city life, and the air took on a country freshness. Center City’s streets turned into jogging courses, cyclists sped across town without fear of being sideswiped, and full-service restaurants sprouted from empty parking spaces.

The city even gained a major recreation space on the Schuylkill waterfront when Mayor Jim Kenney banned cars from Martin Luther King Drive. Daily recreational usage shot up from 500 to 5,000 people, according to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. Every day felt like a festival as people from all over converged on the stretch between the Art Museum and the Falls Bridge.

Given the extreme adjustments we’ve made in our daily behavior over the last 14 months, many hoped that the city would retain the new public spaces that we clawed back from the automobile. But it’s becoming clear that Philadelphia isn’t giving up its driving habit easily. Despite Kenney’s much ballyhooed promise to slash the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and the hiring of a climate specialist with the fancy title of chief resilience officer, his administration is having trouble managing the return of the car.

So far, the message to motorists seems to be: C’mon back. During a City Council budget hearing earlier this month, the Kenney administration casually revealed that it planned to reopen MLK Drive to cars during the workweek, starting in August. Driving will still be banned on weekends, but once again cars will get the road’s three lanes to themselves for the majority of the week. Everyone else — strolling families, teens on long boards, cyclists and joggers — will have to crowd onto the 10-foot sidewalk.

What makes it all so frustrating is that Streets Department officials acknowledged in an interview that the decision was made without conducting a traffic count on the adjacent Schuylkill Expressway or analyzing how working from home is changing commuting patterns.

Kenney is hardly alone in believing that the return of motorists is the key to Philadelphia’s salvation. Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker just introduced a bill that would dramatically cut the tax on garage parking to encourage people to come downtown for work and entertainment. It was Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. who pushed for reopening MLK Drive, partly so his constituents would have an alternative to the expressway. While there is merit in their motives, their solutions encourage driving, undercut SEPTA, and will bring more congestion and pollution to a city with a serious asthma problem.

As Winston Churchill famously advised, you should never let a good crisis go to waste. Across the country, places are taking advantage of the moment to formalize street closures and streeteries. That includes such smart suburban towns as West Chester and Media. Studies have shown that limiting car traffic helps local businesses, making the commercial corridors more pleasant places to shop and dine.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia acts as if nothing had changed in the last 14 tumultuous months. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to keep the streeteries that have transformed Philadelphia into an al fresco dining mecca and that promise to revive a crucial employment sector.

Some argue that Philadelphia can’t afford the luxury of “open streets” right now. (That’s the term that urbanists use to describe car-free roads.) Those who want the car back say — quite rightly — that we need people to leave their dens and dining rooms and return to their old offices for the sake of the downtown economy. They also correctly observe that many workers are still afraid to get back on transit, despite evidence that “shows there is no significant risk from COVID if you wear a mask,” says Barry Seymour, head of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Then, there’s also the issue of who benefits from open streets. In pressing for a return to the status quo on MLK Drive, Jones told Council that his constituents in Wynnefield, Overbrook and other nearby communities of color have seen increases in traffic during the closure, as motorists seek to avoid the expressway. Traffic volumes on I-76 are now reaching pre-pandemic levels, according to Seymour. That increased congestion, Jones suggests, could also mean increased commute times for his constituents.

Still, returning all three lanes of MLK Drive to cars raises a different equity issue. After the road was opened to recreation full time, residents in the adjacent neighborhoods flocked to the space. “There was definitely an uptick in park usage from Strawberry Mansion,” Tonnetta Graham, who runs its community development agency, told me. An avid cyclist, she found herself doing the MLK-Kelly Drive loop more regularly. “Now that people have discovered that it’s a place for families, they want to continue it,” she says.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. With a little creativity, the city can keep MLK Drive available for recreation and still accommodate the car.

Even as the Streets Department moves ahead with plans to restore the status quo on MLK, its engineers have a better option tucked away in a drawer. Instead of giving all three lanes back to cars, they would divide the highway: Cars would get two lanes — one in each direction — and bicyclists would get one. The newly paved, 10-foot-wide sidewalk would be reserved for pedestrians and runners. By separating wheels and walkers, the plan would have the added benefit of eliminating the conflicts common on many of the city’s other 10-foot recreation trails.

“We’re considering it,” Mike Carroll, deputy managing director for transportation, told me, though he acknowledged that there are big implementation challenges — of both the technical and political variety.

To ensure that cyclists would be safe riding in a lane just inches from speeding cars, the city would have to erect some kind of barrier. It would probably have to be sturdier than the white plastic delineator posts used on some bike lanes.

I can’t think of a more perfect compromise. Not only would the configuration provide adequate space for everyone, it would also help calm traffic. For years, the neighborhoods located closest to East and West Fairmount Park have had trouble accessing the space because it is nearly impossible to cross the MLK and Kelly Drive raceways.

Slowing down traffic on the drives would be the first step in improving access for residents living near the park drives. But there is much more to be done. Last August, a young West Philadelphia mother, Avante Reynolds, was killed by a motorist as she tried to reach Cobbs Creek Park. It took her death for the city to finally install a speed table to slow traffic, something the neighborhood had been seeking for years. Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district abuts MLK Drive, said her constituents would be more likely to support the compromise configuration if they thought they could access the recreation space as easily as Center City residents.

So, how about this: While city engineers design a dedicated bike lane on MLK Drive, they should simultaneously make plans to install speed tables and crosswalks in the adjacent neighborhoods. There’s no mystery about where to put them. The key danger points were identified in the Fairmount Park master plan back in 2015.

Parker’s plan to lower the garage tax deserves a different response. She proposed the reduction, from 25% to 17%, as a way to help the low-wage workers who staff the facilities. The city’s garage operators have been complaining for years that the tax is exorbitant. But tax policy isn’t just about raising revenue; it’s also about achieving policy objectives. By imposing a high tax, the city discourages driving and encourages people to use mass transit.

A better way to achieve Parker’s aim of luring people back to Center City would be for SEPTA to offer reduced fares on regional rail, perhaps the same $2 fare it charges on buses and subways. The city could subsidize the discount. Or, it could offer sales tax holidays to entice people downtown.

“We should be marketing the hell out of SEPTA right now,” said Jennifer Dougherty, who runs the pedestrian-advocacy group Feet First Philly (and is also a SEPTA employee). “We’re stuck in a ’50s mentality, where the car equals freedom, and its loss equals the loss of economic development.”

While Philadelphia’s elected officials focus on the city’s immediate economic health, they also need to be thinking about its long-term survival. And that means shaping policies that will create a less car-dependent, more climate-friendly, people-centered future.

Oh, and guess what? Starting in early 2022, MLK Drive is going to be closed to cars south of Sweetbriar Drive, so the 60-year-old bridge over the Schuylkill can be reconstructed. The project is expected to last two years. What a great opportunity to create a road that everyone can enjoy.