By Joan Pasiuk, Bicycling and Walking Program Director
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I made up the admittedly strange name of “street temporary transformation programs” for a range of events worldwide known otherwise as “Open Streets,” “Ciclovias,” “Summer Streets,” “Sunday Parkways,” etc. Communities near and far (Chicago, Miami, New York City, Bogotá, Quito, Baltimore, Portland, Guadalajara, El Paso…) are excited about opening streets to people on selected weekend days. Travel on foot, scooter, skates, stroller, wheelchair, or bicycle (but not motor vehicle) along selected routes sets the stage for a community celebration of city life. Mayors have often been the voice of inspiration after learning of positive experiences in other cities, telling staff to make it so.
A small group of local folks joined bicycle and pedestrian professionals around the country for a recent webinar on the benefits, logistics, costs, and feasibility of these programs. We learned that police security is often very costly; that stakeholders across a community latch onto the concept pretty readily; that promotion and outreach is critical to success; and that, once established, residents flock to the free, family-friendly activities. Cities have come up with numerous ways to build community, have fun, and promote physical activity. Programming includes musical performances, helmet giveaways, dancing lessons, poetry readings, sidewalk art and just about any interactive experience you can imagine. Some routes wind through neighborhoods, others are concentrated in the downtown area. Businesses can be part of the deal – Quito sells advertising space on the barricades; Miami offers free bike valets to accommodate shopping along the route.
I am interested in the idea for building community, but dubious about whether we need a new event here. We heard no evaluation of results except turnout. Is there a lasting behavior or attitude change – something beyond a party on a temporarily transformed street? I live not far from Grand Ave that once a year abandons its car-centric attitude and throws itself open to the masses. And masses come – maybe drawn by the mini donuts, free music and great people watching as much as the open stretch of asphalt. It would be possible to create new messaging — encouraging fewer people to drive to the walking event for example, and new activities – substituting a jazzercise demo for a beer tent. But even so, would they leave with a sense of the vitality of urban streets? Would they recreate the family experience by walking more together? I remain skeptical about the health and transportation benefits, but love a street party as much as anyone.