'Open streets' in Pennsylvania's cities: closing streets to cars, opening them to cyclists and salsa lessons
Each Sunday, miles of streets in Bogota, Columbia are closed to cars, and people riding bicycles, strolling on foot, and rollerblading take over. This has been happening since 1974; today, the closed-off route runs 75 miles and hits every part of the city. The number of people who turn out is estimated to be between one and two million, which is 15 to 30 percent of Bogota’s entire population.
Bogota is largely credited with originating the concept of “open streets” — where city roads are closed to car traffic and given over to people for fun and fitness — but it has grown beyond that city. The thinking goes that open streets can reconnect citizens to their cities and their neighbors, spur spending at local businesses, as well as provide more equitable opportunities for physical activity.
More and more U.S. cities are establishing similar programs, but their scope is often more limited than Bogota’s. For example, many open streets initiatives in the U.S. are annual events, not weekly or even monthly opportunities for city-dwellers.
How the events function also varies. In some cities local government has taken a lead on organizing and funding open streets days, while in others non-profits organize the events with private sponsors’ dollars. Some open streets events simply provide citizens with the space to recreate, while others are full of activities ranging from organized bike rides, to yoga and dance classes, and everything in between. While many towns don’t have the same sort of extensive route Bogota has developed, some cities, like San Francisco, switch up which streets are closed off so different parts of the city can experience open streets.
Another similar concept is “play streets.” Play streets function more at the neighborhood level, rather than the city level, closing a block off to cars to give children in dense urban neighborhoods a safe place to play.
Pennsylvania cities are a mixed bag when it comes to open streets planning. Below, find some of the open streets initiatives throughout the Commonwealth. If your community has an open streets or play streets initiative, let us know and we’ll add it to the list.
Philadelphia has been closing off Martin Luther King Drive for years, every weekend starting in the spring and through the end of October. The nearly 4-mile stretch of road curves along the Schuylkill River and connects with the well-trodden path on the east side of the river. The road often sees traffic from races and various fundraisers, but on a typical weekend it’s a quiet, wide-open road shared by athletes, families, and people out for a stroll.
This year, on three Sundays, OpenStreetsPGH, the Steel City’s open streets initiative, will take over about 3.5 miles of streets – primarily Penn Ave. – spanning several neighborhoods. It’s the second year the event has been organized and the route has already grown from last year. The schedule is chock full of organized runs, historical tours, yoga and salsa lessons, and even uni-cycling and hula-hooping.
It’s the second year for Lancaster’s open streets event, as well. The city closed off portions of Water and Chestnut Streets, making a safe thoroughfare between two parks, and the Lancaster Recreation Commission organized sports, music, food vendors, and kid-friendly activities along the route. The city wants to make it an annual event.
In 2012 Harrisburg hosted an open streets event along one mile of Front Street. The initiative was largely bike-focused, but it hasn’t happened again since. Marilyn Chastek, the Chair of Bike Harrisburg who helped organize the event, said that although about 200 people came out, the response wasn’t good enough to re-create. Her group has taken an alternative approach to encouraging people to ride; it primarily organizes outings on trails and quiet streets now.
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Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. Four public media newsrooms are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state's urban crisis — and on possible solutions. Keystone Crossroads offers reports on radio, Web, social media, television and newspapers, and through public events.