Drawn by sun and an open street, Philly welcomes spring on MLK Drive - PlanPhilly

For almost a year, Maria Becker Gallagher has walked from Kelly Drive to Center City via Martin Luther King Drive six days a week. She estimates her loops – rain or shine – span about 10 miles.

“I’m a breast cancer survivor, so this keeps me in good shape,” she said, taking a break from her walk Thursday as the mercury hit 70 degrees. “That’s what I do to keep positive since there’s nothing going on and we were stuck in the house.”

MLK Drive has traditionally been closed to traffic on weekends spring through fall. But advocacy efforts of the Bicycle Coalition, pushed the city to close Martin Luther King Drive to cars completely, once the pandemic led to much of the city shutting down.

Maria Becker Gallagher strolls past the Schuylkill River on Martin Luther King Drive on March 11, 2021. (Emma Lee/WHYY)For the last year, walkers like Gallagher, birders, runners, and cyclists have taken advantage of a fully automobile-free MLK Drive.

Before the pandemic, Philly Parks and Recreation staff reported MLK drive had less than 500 visitors a day. After the traffic closure, the drive saw a 1,300% increase in biker and pedestrian use, reaching more than 5,000 visitors a day in 2020. Now as the skies brighten and the air warms, the crowds are returning at a level that hasn’t been seen since the fall.

More than 5,000 people have already signed a Bicycle Coalition petition to keep cars off the winding, tree-lined road permanently — and many more people have voted with their feet.

Emily Hahn lives in Center City and only started to exercise outdoors when her gym closed as coronavirus mitigation efforts went in place. Looking online for good places to exercise, she learned about MLK Drive, which she’d never before considered. Hahn has now run the drive through a year’s worth of lunch breaks. Having access to open space where she could comfortably exercise was essential over the last 12 months as a way to combat anxiety, said a grateful Hahn.

“I’ve talked to friends who live in different areas and they, especially when the gyms were closed… they didn’t have anywhere to go and work out where they’re not shoulder to shoulder with people,” said Hahn out enjoying the sun on Thursday.

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