The loop itself is often characterized as 8.2 miles, although, this being Philadelphia, you can get an argument on that. You can get an argument on anything in Philadelphia. The round-trip from my house, which occasionally involves cordial exchanges of invective with taxi drivers, is about 12 miles.
Anyway, as I said, it was spring, the time of new things; a lovely day, the trees were freshly green, and I wasn't overly tired - and I was coming downstream on Kelly Drive through an area just short of the Art Museum called Boathouse Row.
I think at this point I should talk about the extraordinary mix of traffic that coexists on the loop, and generally gets along pretty well, even cheerfully. There are bicyclists, runners, in-line skaters (I think fewer of these in recent years), a smattering of skateboarders (they're generally looking for hills), people on scooters, pedestrians, and pedestrians with dogs. The pedestrians with dogs on extendable leashes deserve a category of their own. I remember standing, my cleats firmly planted on the earth, and saying to a dog owner, "I'm trying, ma'am. Really I am." At any rate I managed not to kill her dog or myself.
Boathouse Row is the home, not surprisingly, of the boaters. They're quite beautiful out on the river, rowing their boats up and down. These are the long, skinny boats that take as many as eight rowers and someone called a coxswain, who steers and screams at the rowers.
Occasionally the rowers need to load their boats onto trailers parked on Kelly Drive. This involves carrying them out of the boathouse and across the path, which is about fourteen feet wide at this point. The rowers are quite certain that they have the right of way, and because there are a lot of them, and they're young and strong, I always agree.
Boathouse Row is a bottleneck. You never know quite what's going to cork it, but you should always be prepared to stop on short notice. I had processed all this, and was at peace with it.
A New Arrival
Then, there it was. I think we may have been by the Vesper boathouse (many of the boathouses have wonderful names). My first thought was of the surrey with the fringe on top, from the Broadway show Oklahoma. But there were no horses. It was a large, four-wheeled vehicle that seemed to be propelled by the people in the front seat. Pedaling. Just like me. Only it was forty inches wide (I later measured one), and with children on board. I uncleated from my pedals, braked, and put my feet on the ground.
There was no way to pass. The oncoming traffic was a solid, and I thought rather grim, mass. The surrey in front of me - they actually are called surreys - was having a conversation and had rolled to a stop. I stood patiently.
Actually, I was panicking. I've been running and riding the loop for more years than I care to remember, and I was seeing it come to an end.
Eventually, the surrey moved ahead, and I cleated in and floated along behind it. As we got to Lloyd Hall, at the end of Boathouse Row, I saw that the bicycle rental shed had been moved and transformed. These folks had dozens of surreys for rent. My heart sank.
Then I took a breath. The people riding these things were very happy. Their kids were thrilled. It was a whole new way to enjoy the loop, which in the past has frankly not been terribly child friendly.
The loop is for everyone, I told myself. It should be for everyone. So how do we do this so everyone enjoys it and nobody dies?
Where Do All These People Come From?
I went home and thought. (First I took a shower.) The traffic on the loop has increased dramatically since the opening of a trail, called the Schuylkill Banks, that runs downriver to Locust Street, at the end of Center City. Think of the Schuylkill Banks as a firehose belching the people of Center City out onto Kelly Drive.
And the demographics of Center City have changed pretty dramatically. There are a lot more young people, and many of them seem actually to enjoy breaking a sweat. Stylishly, of course.
There are those who suggest that the increase in park traffic is a result of the recession: Money's tight, the beach is out, so are the mountains - hey, let's check out the park. Surely there's something to this, but I don't buy the implication that park visits will decline if the economy ever improves.
Go and have a look at the people who are actually using the loop. If you have been thinking that Kelly Drive is largely populated by what Emma Lazarus called the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, you will find yourself thinking again. I'm inclined to believe that people riding $3,000 bikes can get to the beach if they want to. Maybe in the south of France.
(The Lazarus quote is on the base of the Statue of Liberty - odd how we used to welcome the "wretched refuse" of other countries and no longer seem inclined to do so. Personally I think the loop would benefit from greater economic and ethnic diversity, but just now I'm trying to describe things as they are.)
Let's face it. We Philadelphians have a huge success on our hands. Now all we need to do is follow through. That means, among other things, lightening the burden on Boathouse Row.
The Long Term
The obvious long-term solution is already on the drawing board, and parts of it have actually been built.
Let's go back to the Schuylkill Banks. In fact, let's go to the base of Locust Street. This is where all those Center City people enter the park. They cross the CSX railroad tracks, and then they all turn right onto the path, which goes not just to Kelly Drive but all the way out to Valley Forge. If you're feeling energetic.
Nobody turns left. There's no place to go. You can go upstream on the Schuylkill Banks from Locust Street, but you can't go downstream.
Actually, some people do turn left. You can go a few feet before you run into a chain link fence. And then you can gaze downriver, towards the South Street Bridge. And you can dream.
You will not be alone. The dream is for a path that will run downriver, past the South Street Bridge, jump to the other bank of the Schuylkill (using an existing bridge), head to Bartram's Garden (one of the city's most undervisited treasures because it's currently so hard to get to), and eventually end near the airport at Fort Mifflin, a historic site that dates back to the Revolution.
One part, south of the South Street Bridge, was recently completed. It's called the DuPont Crescent, and it's currently a nice neighborhood park waiting to be connected to the larger trail. Another piece, a boardwalk over the river connecting the current trailhead at Locust Street with the South Street Bridge, is scheduled to start construction soon.
I very much look forward to the day when I can ride a bicycle from Locust Street to Fort Mifflin. But let's face it. That day is years from now. It'll be fabulous when it comes, but the Left-Hand Trail won't be uncorking Boathouse Row anytime soon.
Hunting for a Corkscrew
Let's go back to the loop, and see if there's a quick fix. A cheap, quick fix. Quick because the crowding is there now, and cheap because the city is currently broke. Elegant solutions that cost a lot of money will not be built.
On the east bank of the Schuylkill, on Kelly Drive, there's no space. The pathway is already doubled from the Connecting Railway Bridge upstream to just short of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. (For you art lovers, the Connecting Railway Bridge dominates the background of Thomas Eakins' famous 1871 painting Max Schmitt in a Single Scull.)
Upstream of Strawberry Mansion, the path wedges tightly between Kelly Drive and a retaining wall that keeps me from falling into the river. And, of course, there is no more room on Boathouse Row. None at all.
Okay, guess what? There's space over on the west bank. Martin Luther King Drive is four miles of roadway that is, frankly, underutilized by automobiles.
The city has recognized this. Quite a few years ago, the city closed MLK Drive to automotive traffic on the weekends - just during the day, and only from April to October.
It's a wonderful thing. I can hop on my bike in the morning, cruise up the Schuylkill Banks, and then enter a green park space filled with old trees and running next to a river. For bikers and runners, I submit this is close to nirvana. If you're not interested in nirvana, I can talk about elbow room.
There's a spirit to it - possibly what Emma Lazarus meant by breathing free. And it's not just the usual suspects. The Philadelphia Rowing Club for the Disabled launches squadrons of hand-cyclists from its boathouse near Black Road. And whole families show up on their bikes - moms, dads, peewee tots in profusion.
Originally the Drive was closed to virtually all automotive traffic all day on Saturday and Sunday. (My impression is that there were always exceptions, such as people going to the disabled rowers' club.) Local residents objected, however, and now the full length is closed only until noon. At that point the downstream portion opens from Sweetbriar down to the bridge over the Schuylkill (I'll be calling this the MLK bridge).
On weekend afternoons, the automotive traffic on the lower portion is extremely light, to the point of evanescence. That's because the only upstream access point is Sweetbriar. People who drive on MLK Drive generally go the whole length. They want to get on at Falls Bridge and barrel down to Eakins Oval, or vice versa.
I suppose I could suggest making the lower portion of MLK Drive once again "closed for recreation" on weekend afternoons. "Closed for recreation" is how the radio puts it. The automobile traffic doesn't justify keeping it open for cars, and there's significant demand from "recreationists."
But I'm not going to do it. The fight the last time was too vitriolic. I don't want to revisit that ugliness.
In eighteenth century England, there was a famous landscape architect called Capability Brown. Actually his first name was Lancelot; he got his nickname because he liked to tell his potential clients that their estates had "capability." I think Brown would have liked Martin Luther King Drive.
Let's take a closer look at this asphalt phenomenon. Both the upstream and downstream sides of MLK Drive vary between one and two lanes. (At its very end, the southbound part blimps out to three lanes for a few feet.)
The upstream part starts by the Art Museum as one lane and stays that way almost to Sweetbriar, by the zoo, where it sprouts a turning lane just before the light. This second lane continues after the light. I have no idea why, since one lane has been perfectly sufficient to this point. Near the upstream end, the engineers finally admit that the second lane is unnecessary. Three very large bridges cross MLK Drive and the Schuylkill River at that point, and the large piers for these bridges only allow space for one lane in each direction. After these bridges, as the upstream roadway approaches the Falls Bridge, the second lane reappears, again as a turning lane. The upstream side of MLK Drive is one lane for nearly a third of its length.
The downstream roadway is more capacious, but again there is only one lane going under the three bridges. Again begging the question of whether the second lane is necessary. Two lanes it is, though, all the way down to and across the MLK bridge. As I mentioned, the final bit, leading into Eakins Oval in from of the Art Museum, actually expands to three lanes. Why have grass when you can have asphalt?
There are intermediate access points on MLK Drive, most notably Montgomery and Sweetbriar, which actually have traffic lights. And cars do get on and off. But not a lot. As I mentioned, most of the traffic shoots from one end to the other.
MLK Drive is best analyzed as a straw. What goes in one end comes out the other end.
Americans are raised on the concept of limitless possibilities, so let me throw a few bromides in the way. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The capacity of a straw is determined by its narrowest point.
And the narrowest point of MLK Drive is the section that passes under the three bridges at its upstream end. One lane in each direction. I can tell you right now that nobody is going to move those bridge piers. So the capacity of this road, unless we have a nuclear war, is one lane in each direction.
A second lane is useful for turning - I get that - and also for passing , which of course leads to abrupt lane changes and speeding. The speed limit on MLK Drive is 35 miles an hour. Let us examine our consciences here. If we're serious about 35 mph, and the actual volume of cars has already been determined by the choke point, what do we need passing lanes for?
I suppose at this point I should argue for taking the excess paved space on MLK Drive and turning it into a bike lane. But I'm not going to. It's a perfectly good idea, easy to implement from a technical point of view, and perhaps one day it will happen. I just don't feel like dealing with the Society of People Who Like to Drive Really Fast on MLK Drive. Life is too short.
My Bright Idea
So here's my bright idea. Kelly Drive, on the east side of the river, is crowded. MLK Drive, on the west side of the river, is usually not crowded. Why?
You can get an idea by standing on lower MLK Drive at noon on a Saturday or Sunday. The Schuylkill Banks winds its way up a hill and presents recreationists with a choice. Continue on to Boathouse Row and Kelly Drive, and never have to share the road with motorists. Or go to MLK Drive, where the situation depends on the time.
At 11:59 a.m., you, your spouse, and your children can roll off the Schuylkill Banks and onto the three lanes of MLK Drive, with nary a car in sight. And you can then ride for four miles, surrounded only by other recreationists.
That's 11:59 a.m. Fast forward to 12 noon. Here come the cars - not so many, as I mentioned, but enough to put fear in the heart of a mom. I could mention an accident in May of 2009, but I won't.
So how do you get up to what's left of nirvana, the part of the drive upstream of Sweetbriar that's still devoted to recreation?
Here's how you do it. You get on the single sidewalk that crosses MLK bridge. It's on the upriver side, and it's 58 inches wide. I know. I measured it. Two inches shy of five feet, and it's two-way.
Virtually all the recreational traffic in both directions gets pushed onto this sidewalk. A few hardy bikers will go in the roadway, but the cars are going very rapidly and there's only one lane on the upstream side, next to the sidewalk, so it's not for the faint of heart.
Basically, this stretch over the bridge doesn't pass the cat's whiskers test. Cats stick their whiskers into a mousehole to see whether their head can get through. I think bicycle handlebars can do the same thing. Only they don't bend. The handlebars on my old bike are 24 inches wide. Throw in an oncoming bike with 24-inch handlebars, and you've got 48 inches in a 58-inch space. Plus runners and walkers. There are no dogs on extendable leashes here, and I think you can see why.
Okay. On the bridge there are three lanes of automotive traffic, one upstream and two downstream. I've already suggested that the second downstream lane is unnecessary. If it were necessary, you'd expect to see two lanes in the other direction as well. People go to town to work, and then they actually do go home. So, two in means two out. Only here we have two in and one out. I don't get it.
So let's get some white paint and make a bicycle lane. It can be for runners and walkers and all the other recreational users as well - even the surreys and the dogs on extendable leashes.
At the upstream end of the bridge, a good-hearted construction crew years ago left the curb quite low. Bikes have no trouble crossing it as it is, and then you're on a decent path that takes you to the Falls Bridge.
All this requires is a few gallons of paint. There's no construction involved. And then there would be plenty of room for everyone - and not just on weekends. This repainting would make MLK Drive highly accessible seven days a week.
And guess what? You just - pop! - uncorked Boathouse Row and Kelly Drive. The people are flowing like champagne at a Main Line wedding.
I've run ten marathons on two continents, and I've trained for all of them out on the loop. I cannot tell you what a jewel this strip of parkland is. I don't know of any city in the country that has anything better. I've run the loop on the Charles River in Boston, and it's a lot of fun, but I prefer Philly. In New York I've run Central Park, Prospect Park, and the Hudson River park. They're all great, but they're not better than Philly. We have a gem. We should keep it sparkling.