According to urban planning heartthrob Gil Peñalosa, Open Streets means “people traffic replaces car traffic, and the streets become ‘paved parks’ where people of all ages, abilities, and social, economic, or ethnic backgrounds can come out and improve their mental, physical, and emotional health.”
“Open Streets” as a concept has been around since the mid-60s when Seattle created the carfree celebration “Seattle Bicycle Sundays.” While a smattering of similar events popped up around North America that decade, they didn’t last long.
Bogotá, Columbia introduced their own version, Ciclovía, in 1974 and has been a primary source of inspiration for today’s Open Streets initiatives. Bogotá’s Ciclovía ambitiously closes 70 miles of the city to cars and opens them to one million participants every Sunday.
I was so smitten with this idea that I gathered together some like-minded individuals to organize the first Carfree Day in Washington, DC in 2007. It started out as an all volunteer effort and we threw our hearts, souls, and soles into the idea. We developed a collaborative (and pretty good-looking!) proposal, making the case for Open Streets in the nation’s capital and canvassed hundreds of residents and businesses for their support. Councilmember Tommy Wells introduced a bill declaring September 22 Carfree DC Day and the following year DC’s Carfree Day spread to embrace Maryland and Virginia and is now known as Car-Free Metro DC.
Portland, San Francisco, and New York launched their own interpretations of the Ciclovía in 2008 and there seems to be no sign of these incredible innovations losing steam. According to the Open Streets Project, there are currently over 100 initiatives around the world and cities are scrambling to offer similar amenities to their residents and tourists.
I had the excellent opportunity to work with San Francisco’s Open Streets program, “Sunday Streets” and saw the elation on faces of all ages and backgrounds as people joined their friends, neighbors, and soon-to-be friends on the street.
At 10:59am, it’s business as usual, but when the clock strikes 11, the street belongs to people! Leaping into the streets, people walk, run, saunter, frolic, skate, do yoga, dance, take classes, prance, cartwheel, or bike.
Active exploration of the city is encouraged and embraced. The saddest part of the day is 4pm, when the program ends until the next month and people are once again relegated to the sidewalks.
Though Open Streets events are wildly fun, free adventures for everyone, they are not just spectacular for individuals, they’re also a great boon to local businesses.
It’s quite common for business owners to fret initially that cars won’t be driving by, but it doesn’t take long for most to recognize — and reap — the benefits of people passing by on foot or bike.
When people are enjoying themselves in the streets, rather than driving over and past them, there is a much greater likelihood of them patronizing a business that they may not have noticed before.
Sunday Streets is now so popular among businesses that the program cannot keep up with the demand!
This charming video shows a slice of Sunday Streets in the Mission.
When I lived in the dreamy city of Pittsburgh several years ago, I drew up a plan to make the Strip District more accessible and pleasurable for people crammed onto sidewalks already packed with vendors. The idea hasn’t quite been realized, but there is now Open Streets Pittsburgh which started in 2014 and I am thrilled to be able to attend this weekend for the first time. Perhaps it is a first step to removing cars from the Strip District!
At last, it seems that there is no stopping the Open Streets movement.
Where can we go from here? Where should we go from here?
Have you had the chance to experience your city from the middle of the street?
What would you like to see in your city or town?
Share your thoughts in the comments below! If you’d like to find out more, I highly recommend checking out the excellent work of Streetfilms to see some of these plans in action around the world.