In July, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia research director John Boyle noted that Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia marked an “amazing, once in a decade opportunity for Philadelphia to host its first open streets event.”
Well, the Pope Weekend came and went, and the city did not run with that idea. But thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians did. Cars were gone in Center City, bikes were the preferred way of getting around, and Philadelphians organized ourselves to make the most of our car-deserted roads. From most perspectives, it was an open streets success. Mass-bicycle rides took place. The Ben Franklin Bridge was an empty dreamscape. And the events were 100 percent people-powered.
As Coalition staff member Katie Monroe wrote for Philly.com last Friday,
To be able to walk around, talking to my mom on the phone, without getting interrupted by a driver cutting me off in the crosswalk where I have the right of way. To be able to navigate streets without feeling like you’re in a game of Frogger….what a concept.
It’s not a new concept, in Philly or elsewhere. We have a vibrant tradition of small-scale, and even some large-scale, street closures. We are a city of block parties upon block parties upon block parties, and we are proud of that.
Indeed. Plus, Open Streets initiatives—a short-term plan where “people traffic replaces car traffic, and the streets become ‘paved parks,’ according to Gil Penalosa, executive director of 8-80 Cities—are already happening all over the country. Without once-in-a-lifetime papal visits!
In New York City, the “Summer Streets” celebration over several weekends in August goes from Central Park all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge, and invites pedestrians and bicyclists (and people on rollerblades, skateboards, etc.) to enjoy activities like zip lines and … water slides.
Cities like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and dozens of other North American cities (and hundreds around the world) also have their own Open Streets initiatives.
Sure, we’ve got MLK Drive closed to cars on weekends from the spring to fall, but many open streets initiatives around the world are about closing down entire downtown areas to cars, creating bicycle and pedestrian areas.
So, what would it take to make it happen here in Philly? Lots of motivation, and lots of help.
The Alliance for Biking and Walking and the Streets Plans Collaborative released The Open Streets Project report in 2012, which defined Open Streets Initiatives and included case studies, news updates and organizational and informational resources for cities and advocates considering an open streets plan.
To begin with, there are health benefits. Lots of them. And not just because Open Streets initiatives provide more walking space for all people, or that there are often gigantic yoga classes set up.
“A 2010 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity* confirms that open streets generate positive public health outcomes,” according to the Open Streets Guide. “The study, which surveyed 37 such initiatives in 11 South and North American countries, found that 71% included physical activity classes, while 89% of the designated routes included parks offering additional opportunities for exercise.”
Then there’s the dreaded economic factor. Many restaurants complained that they did not see the influx of new patrons for which they were hoping. Papal pilgrims, perhaps, were not looking to sit down at the trendiest Philadelphia food holes. As noted by several business owners cited by the Alliance for Biking and Walking in their report, the influx of locals for open streets regularly coincides with added buying. Especially when the people come to an event that is based in shopping.
We’re not alone in thinking this. On Monday, an Open Streets Philly Facebook page and Twitter feed popped up, calling for Philly to host such an event every year.
The Facebook page already has more than 2,000 subscribers as of Tuesday morning and links to a Change.org petition calling for Jim Kenney, who the owner of the page, PlanPhilly Engagement Editor Jon Geeting, assumes will be the next mayor of Philadelphia, to create an Open Streets initiative as mayor.
“I kept seeing words like ‘magical’ and ‘utopia’ popping up in my Twitter feed to describe the street life this weekend, and it was clear that many many people who stuck around in Philly over the weekend felt this was a very special experience,” Geeting tells the Bicycle Coalition. “I wanted to capture some of that momentum to do it again, but in a way that’s directly focused on creating a fun experience for residents and is more considerate of local businesses’ need for foot traffic. Our neighbor cities in NYC and Pittsburgh have been having some serious fun with this, and knowing how much Philly loves a good block party, it just makes sense to make this a regular part of summer here.”
We assure you: Open Streets Initiatives in Philadelphia are possible. And we don’t need a police state to make it happen. We believe more, and bigger, initiatives like this can happen between city, nonprofits, and private business partnerships to create Open Street Initiatives.
There are several “models” for Open Streets Initiatives” Forty-five percent of open streets initiatives, as of 2012, were organized publicly, and 52 percent were funded by a public-private partnership. At this point, it’s not clear which model Philadelphia would pursue.
But either way, the initial concepts cost money. When the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia put together Bike Philly, a 10-mile, closed-street ride from 2007-2011, the police costs were about $50,000 per ride. After running the event for five years, we concluded it made more sense for the city (who could bring in a host of sponsors and money we do not have access to) to take the helm. Perhaps with the success of “Popen” Streets, there will be more of an appetite to figure out how to make it happen.
Once Open Streets gets going, as was the case with New York City, it often becomes hugely successful and private entities want in on sponsorships and private citizens want to volunteer. New York’s initiative now has 63 local programming partners, five media partners, 10 supporting partners, and three “major” partners.
But that’s New York. In a city like Pensacola, Florida, funds come from both the city and seven private business partners when that city closes their bayfront parkway in June.
Of course, it’s not all dandy, always. In Baltimore, the Open Streets Initiative plan was a 5-mile proposal costing $235,000 for implementation, two-thirds of which were “tied directly to the deployment of police officers along the route.” The city asked civic and advocacy organizations to provide the majority of the funds, which was not possible. A scaled back version of the initial plan began in 2009. Obviously, lots of planning—and lots of motivation—is needed to get an Open Streets Initiative going.