Come to Boston’s first Open Streets festivals – called Circle The City – on July 15 (closing streets between Jamaica Pond and Franklin Park) and August 15 (closing parts of the Kennedy Greenway and nearby streets). Next: what about opening Storrow Drive’s outbound side every Sunday from 7am to 10am – nine miles of uninterrupted and totally safe room for bicycling, roller blading, walking, and family fun! And then Dot Ave!
The streets may belong to the people – in most cities comprising the single largest physical asset the public owns – but they’re functional dominated by cars. And the more traffic the less we are likely to use the roads, and the space around them, for anything else – and the less livable our neighborhoods become.
There are lots of ways to reclaim the public right of way, the space between buildings, for purposes other than car traffic. Street fairs, Farmers’ Markets, and Concerts do it periodically. Pedestrian malls do it permanently, drawing crowds to re-invigorate downtown business areas. But wonderful as these events are, they tend to be prescriptive, consumption-oriented, and constrained – mostly organized around vendors or businesses, with the public’s role limited to buying things, and physically bounded within a relatively small area.
Open Streets have a different vision and goal. While they are a boost to local business, their mission is to facilitate physical activity, social connection, and public self-mobilization. They have the typical crafts/food/information booths, but these are outnumbered by activity centers – dancing, exercise, yoga, street games, and sometimes just a pile of equipment waiting to be used. Beyond these spot offerings, the best Open Streets stretch for miles along one side of a divided boulevard (with cars restricted to the other side) or on a fully car-free road – allowing families and individuals to move themselves by bike, or skateboard, or roller blade, or foot, or anything else that doesn’t make noise, pollute, or use any fuel other than human effort.
Open Streets are a parade where the performers stay still and the crowd moves along — longer than a walk, but within a safe and manageable bike-riding distance. Because of their open-ended nature, Open Streets imply new visions about how urban areas can deal with key issues like transportation, recreation, public health, and even community relations. In New York, the “Play Streets” initiative allows the Parks and Police Departments to work with community groups – usually in low-income areas with few playgrounds or open space – to create a block-long and safely car-free “front yard” at regularly scheduled times during the summer. San Francisco’s Sunday Streets rotate their open streets events to different neighborhoods, bringing thousands of people outside and showing that it’s possible to maintain business activity without traffic. (As usual, many local stores initially opposed the program fearing that the loss of car access and parking would reduce sales – and, as usual, just the opposite occurred: more people came and sales went up.) Over 70 US cities now host Open Streets events, with most having started in the past five years. The national Alliance for Biking and Walking’s Open Streets Project and the Project for Public Places provide advice and facilitate idea sharing.
Open Streets can also change the way families think about, and use, their recreational time. Every parent sincerely wants the best for her child, but not everyone has the time and resources to go together to safe and beautiful places to play. As Bogota and other cities have shown, Open Streets brings the needed parks and playgrounds into the neighborhoods, and the public responds – with families pouring out of their small, hot houses into the welcoming streets. Open Streets are a Health Fair and Play Day wrapped into one.
A CHANCE FOR TRANSFORMATION
Open Streets are a chance for the public to create, even if temporarily, the kind of culture and society we usually only dream about. We know it works because even small feints at Open Street type events triggers spontaneous outpourings of public creativity. Last Friday evening, just as rush hour and summer weekend traffic was at its height, Cambridge opened up Mass Ave in Central Square for the annual City Dance Party. There was no alcohol or food, other than what picnickers brought with them as they sat on the City Hall lawn. And there were no cars. But the music was loud and the street was packed: mostly 20- and 30-somethings with a sprinkling of (slightly) elders including Mayor Henrietta Davis. It was one of the most racially integrated crowds I’ve ever seen in the Boston area. And everyone was dancing – spontaneously forming into lines then clustering around some fancy break dancer or jumping up and down waving their hands in unison across the area then dividing into small groups of friends or couples or just individuals feeling good.
When it comes to stretching the Open Streets concept to its full mileage, the US is behind many other parts of the world. In Bogota, Columbia, birthplace of the Open Streets movement, over 100 miles of roads are closed every weekend to create temporary ciclovia’s, drawing nearly a third of the city’s entire population to get out and play. And sometimes the temporary is made permanent, with the city now boasting a huge network of designated bikeways or ciclorutas.
In the Boston area, Memorial Drive is already closed every Sunday from Western Avenue to the Eliot Bridge after 11am from April through November, temporarily creating Riverbend Park. Kids learn to bike. Families stroll. Roller Bladers show off. Couples picnic. Food trucks sell. Traffic is detoured across the river. It’s fabulous.
But rivers have two sides. Hub On Wheels already runs up and back down the Boston side of the river on Storrow Drive, bringing giggles and grins to nearly every participating cyclist – there is something transgressively delightful about doing something that is always within reach but usually forbidden! But Hub On Wheels only opens Storrow for about two hours once a year. What if the 9 miles of protected road on the out-bound side of Storrow were closed one Sunday a month (or every Sunday all summer!) from Leverete Circle to the Eliot Bridge from 7am to about 10am. Ambulances or other vehicles heading in-bound towards the medical area wouldn’t be affected. The low-volume of early AM outbound traffic could be easily diverted to Memorial Drive on the Cambridge side. There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years whether or not regional parkways – including the Charles River basin roads – should remain under the control of the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) or be transferred (as the bridges have already been) to the Transportation Department (MassDOT). Wouldn’t such an Open Streets initiative help DCR illustrate that there really is a difference between a Parkway and a Highway?
And what about the more in-land streets? How about learning from San Francisco and successively opening bike-appropriate stretches of roads around each of Boston’s neighborhood Main Streets business districts. It could be a circulating celebration of each neighborhood’s history, ethnic communities, local stores, and social/civic groups! Each Sunday a different part of the city from Spring through Fall. A way to get to know, appreciate, and enjoy each other.
What if we go New York City’s Summer Streets a step better – we use our Open Streets as a stepping stone towards a larger transformation of our entire roadway system: from car tunnels to Complete Streets, from polluting danger to bike-friendly and pedestrian-friendly boulevards, from isolate corners to transit-accessible entry-ways.
A few weeks ago, I was in Austin, Texas and just happened to stumble into their first “Viva! Streets, Austin” festival that opened two miles of downtown road for an afternoon family events and non-motorized fun. There were organized activities and vendors at a few spots along the route, but most of the distance was used by families and kids bicycling, roller skating, skate boarding, pushing strollers, and just walking. Yes, Austin is weird, but if oil-industry dominated Texas can support something this non-car oriented then is there any excuse for Boston?
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