Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Bottleneck on MLK Is Still There

The sidewalk, MLK Bridge. Indego bike # 02662.
On May 21, 2009, there was a crash at the point where the Schuylkill Banks connects with the beginning of the Martin Luther King Drive. A motorist swerved around a stopped car and smacked into a father and a child who were crossing MLK Drive in the crosswalk. Father and child were seriously injured. A news report said that the motorist was very upset.

A Geography Lesson
Time for a brief geography lesson. My daughter hasn't lived in Philly for a while, and she was completely lost when I started to explain the MLK saga to her. So here you go.

The area we're talking about runs along the Schuylkill River by the Art Museum. The Schuylkill Banks is a riverside park and trail that now starts down by the South Street Bridge. It is essentially a firehose that collects torrents of walkers, runners, bicyclists, skateboarders - you name it - from Center City and University City and then vomits them into Fairmount Park, upstream from the Art Museum.

When you get to the top of the hill at the northern end of the Schuylkill Banks, near the Thomas Paine skateboard park, you have a choice. You can go up the east bank of the Schuylkill, on the trail by Kelly Drive, past Boathouse Row. Or you can go up the west side of the river on the trail by Martin Luther King Drive.

People mostly go up the trail by Kelly Drive. That's because the trail connection is easy and direct. To go up the trail by Martin Luther King Drive involves crossing MLK Drive on the infamous crosswalk and then crossing the Schuylkill River on something many people call the MLK Bridge.

MLK Bridge is a bottleneck for pedestrians and bicyclists. It is Valhalla for motorists. There is one lane for motorists headed upstream, and there are two lanes headed downstream. Why the imbalance? Nobody seems to know. But powerful forces are clearly committed to keeping both of those downstream lanes.

Meanwhile, pedestrians and cyclists share one sidewalk on the bridge. It is 58 inches wide, and the traffic is two-way. Cyclists in particular tend to spill over into the narrow shoulder of the cartway, which is dominated by storm drains with deteriorated grates placed well below the level of the pavement.

If you're in a car, crossing the bridge is a dream, and many motorists do it at truly dreamy speeds, thereby adding to the terror of the people who are out there for a little recreation - or, increasingly, trying to use this route to commute to work by bicycle.

It's not surprising that most non-motorists choose the Kelly Drive side, which as a result is frequently overcrowded.

The pity is what just about everybody is missing. I think that MLK Drive is possibly the most magical place in all of Philadelphia. But the bikers and walkers and runners are pretty much not there. And the motorists are going too fast to notice anything.

The crosswalk.
Back to the Crosswalk
The mayhem on the crosswalk, just before the MLK Bridge, did have one positive outcome. The City installed traffic lights. You can push a button, and the cars actually stop. (I still wait until they have stopped completely before I enter the crosswalk.)

Otherwise, nothing much has changed in the intervening eight years. It's not for lack of trying, though.

In 2012, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission issued a report entitled Improving Safety for All Users of Martin Luther King Drive. Among its recommendations: Eliminate one of the two inbound motor-vehicle lanes on the MLK Bridge, and use the space to build a two-way, shared-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists (pp. 1, 7-10, 34-35).

Nothing much happened.

In 2014, Fairmount Park got a new master plan, courtesy of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the William Penn Foundation, and several other organizations. The plan recommended a two-way cycle track across the MLK Bridge.

PDF spread 19, under River trail: "Fully rebuild the MLK Drive trail with an alignment closer to the river and a two-way cycle track along the bridge from Schuylkill Banks."

PDF spread 26: "Encourage the Streets Department to paint a demonstration bike lane along the MLK Bridge, before the deck is rebuilt, to ensure safe bicycle access."

So there you have actually two proposals: a new, permanent cycle track when the deck of the bridge is rebuilt, and also a temporary, quick-build path to improve conditions while we wait for the major construction.

And nothing much happened.

Matryoshka Dolls
Recently I was chatting with a young man who had just started an exciting job as a transportation planner in New Jersey. I asked him how things were going; he said he was beginning to figure things out. And then I found myself flashing back to my days as a junior city planner in 2 Lafayette Street, working for the New York City Planning Commission while the City was basically going bankrupt. I told him I didn't think he'd ever really know what was going on. He seemed a bit shocked, so I talked about the Russian Matryoshka dolls - every time you open one up, there's another one inside. I told him it was okay - just open enough dolls so you feel comfortable, and then use common sense. He seemed to like that story.

Will we ever see a quick-build cycle track on the MLK Bridge? I doubt it. Will the bridge be redecked? Yes, sometime. Will the new bridge have a cycle track? I don't know.

It's Chinatown, Jake.

Storm drain, MLK Bridge. All photos 1/6/17.
See also Uncorking the Bottleneck.

No comments:

Post a Comment