Rob Butler of West Philly is taking advantage of Martin Luther King Drive’s open space on his electric bike during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nearby on the Schuylkill River Trail, “everybody’s right on top of each other,” said Butler, 38. At least on MLK Drive, closed to cars since March after a push from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, he can stay away from others.
As May turns to June, the runners glisten with sweat, and bikers swarm parallel in packs, like schools of fish. MLK Drive has become a bit more crowded as time’s gone on, though “not brutal," Butler said. He thinks the city should open more streets to pedestrians and cyclists but has another focus in mind.
“It’s weird,” he said. “I know Philly drivers don’t respond real well to roads being closed, but I just think — Do better bike lanes.”
The proposal, considering the pandemic and beyond, recommends ways Philadelphia can rethink streets as other cities have during the COVID-19 crisis. Cincinnati and Tampa, Fla., let restaurants expand into the streets, for example, and Oakland, Calif., launched a “slow streets” program that closes streets to through traffic.
“MLK was a big win, a good win, but it was one of those things where it’s just not available to everybody,” said Randy LoBasso, policy director at the Bicycle Coalition. "It’s just not.”
Among the advocacy groups’ ideas: opening up more streets and slowing traffic on others, boosting bike lanes and creating bus-only lanes, and allowing more outdoor seating for restaurants. The groups are responding to safety and equity concerns as well as congestion and air pollution.
The sounds of Philly in the summer — basketballs bouncing on hot asphalt, the hiss of a lifeguard’s whistle — will be quieted without pools and recreation centers, creating a need for other safe outdoor spaces. The groups, aware that the city is facing a budget crisis, suggested that some streets can be realigned using minimal resources, with cones or metal barricades.
“No one’s calling for permanent concrete to be laid. No one is saying do this forever. It’s all an experiment,” said Jennifer Dougherty of Feet First Philly, a pedestrian advocacy group sponsored by the Clean Air Council. “And maybe some of this will stick; maybe some of it won’t stick. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.”
The city does "not have any imminent changes in the works at this time,” said city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco. In the near term, “closures will focus on opportunities to reopen the economy, by assisting restaurants and other businesses.”
“Ongoing evaluation of changes to the street network will be tied to well-defined goals,” she said in a statement. “For instance, the restoration of travel options for families that cannot depend on car-use. All options will require balanced consideration of feasibility, public health and safety, and equity.”
“Recovery Streets” has drawn grass-roots support, evidenced in a petition circulated alongside the plan that’s attracted hundreds of signers, including Councilmember At-Large Derek Green.
“Normally this time of year we get out more anyway because we’ve been kind of, for a lack of a better word, cooped up in our home because of the wintertime,” he said. “Well, when you add a shelter-in-place on top of that, it creates more of a concern.”
Trail use is up during the pandemic. Some of the biggest increases are happening on lesser-used paths, “suggesting that users are seeking out less busy trails," said Shawn Megill Legendre of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission
The Schuylkill Banks saw an 11% spike between March 1 through May 26 this year compared with last. Trail use along the Delaware River Trail at Port Richmond jumped 153% during the same period, according to the DVRPC.
MLK Drive might be “too successful,” according to the plan. While runners, bikers, and walkers maintained proper social distancing during a recent afternoon, Alanna Corwin, 27 of Fairmount, said there’s sometimes crowding along the first mile of the opening near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But it thins out, she said.
MLK Drive is closed to traffic from Eakins Ovals to East Falls Bridge until further notice. “Opening up this street was a total game changer,” Corwin said.
Congestion, an issue that plagued the city long before the virus, remains a big question as the city reopens. Scott Petri, executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, imagines full garages and strain on the streets.
“As things start to open up," Petri said, “a lot of people are going to at least initially think, ‘I want to take my car and I need parking.’ ”
The plan calls to expand Playstreets, a program that closes streets and provides meals for children. It’s unclear how exactly the pandemic will shape Playstreets this summer, but officials hope to boost the number of participating streets.
Outdoor dining will be allowed in the “yellow” reopening phase, per Gov. Tom Wolf. Philly is slated to move from “red” June 5, though Mayor Jim Kenney wants restaurants to proceed cautiously on an immediate launch as the city works through logistics.
“Outdoor dining, done properly in the midst of a pandemic, is extremely complicated,” Kenney said Thursday.
An alliance of business improvement districts urged the city earlier this month to relax regulations on sidewalk cafes and make parking lanes flexible, said Job Itzkowitz, Old City District’s executive director.
“I’ve been saying that we are rowing in the same direction in different boats, and that’s OK,” Itzkowitz said of the “Recovery Streets” effort. “That means that we’re all going in the right direction.”
Expanding outdoor seating could help Tattooed Mom, which like many restaurants is operating with just a fraction of its normal business. About 75% of its staff isn’t working, said Robert Perry, the bar’s owner.
Perry reached out to the Bicycle Coalition in support of “Recovery Streets," rallying behind all its recommendations — not just the element highlighting restaurants.