Open Streets Four Ways


It’s the time of the year again when the sun is out and the streets are alive. From festivals to block parties — and my favorite, open streets — there’s just something about summer that makes a city more vibrant and human scale.

Philly Free Streets, the city’s first open streets event in 2016 (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Open streets events in particular are important in more ways than one. Not only do they showcase streets as public spaces — as some of the largest public spaces we have in cities — but they provide a demonstration of ownership of space and remind us all that we have the right to the city in how we play, get around, and prioritize people over cars. More than this, they provide the incentives and cultural shift necessary to make lasting improvements to our urban landscapes.

In the past year I’ve been lucky enough to take part in several different iterations of open streets events across the country. In my observations of these events I noticed some interesting similarities as well as differences — in part due to geography perhaps, maybe even population, or just the preferences of the open streets coordinators. Coming from the perspective of an uninformed participant*, I’ve summarized my observations and the basic information for four open streets events, ranging from the Mission District in San Francisco, to Philadelphia, PA.

Open Street #1: Sunday Streets SF in the Mission District

Sunday Streets in San Francisco’s Mission District, 2016 (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

The Mission District in San Francisco is a famed cultural hub — one of contention in a changing and ever-expensive city, but one of prideful heritage as well. I stumbled upon this event purely by happenstance: I was lucky enough to be visiting San Francisco on a work visit in one of my first trips to the city, and even luckier to spy a flier at a local restaurant advertising the event (for the very next day!).

Evidence of prior infantile activity (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

The event, a part of what they call Sunday Streets, runs along Valencia street and is one of many traveling open streets events that take place annually from March to October. Inspired directly by Ciclovía in Bogotá, Colombia (like many are) the events are technically organized by Livable City, a non-profit that works with the city’s Department of Public Health and transit agency SFMTA.

The formation of this open streets in particular was such that despite the relatively large width of the street, pockets of clustered activity sprung up along the route — either planned or otherwise. Some crowded around existing public parklets that occupy parking spaces — something San Francisco is well known for thanks to Park(ing) Day — while others were literal outdoor living rooms complete with furniture in the street.

An outdoor living room (literally) at Sunday Streets (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Along with other planned activities (including rock climbing, organization tents, and activities for the kids) one of my favorite clusters were the musicians that gathered large groups of onlookers. What really worked well with this event was the seemingly even mix of participants — either on foot, by bike, or otherwise — which allowed space for people to congregate, and didn’t require a strict separation system.

The pace seemed slow, neighborly, like an expansive block party for an entire district’s community. As a non-local I felt like I was given a glimpse of what it’s like to live in the Mission through its murals and storefronts, to music and performance.

Musicians outside the Radio Habana Social Club (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Open Street #2: Car Free NYC on Earth Day

Car Free NYC along Broadway in Manhattan, 2016 (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Brand new as of 2016, the Car Free NYC campaign is an Earth Day only event that aims to reduce the amount of people driving in New York City, if even for a day. It emerged as a much-needed addition to the city’s existing Summer Streets program (included below) but also came with not only a bolder message, but also a difference in program styling overall.

Broadway’s bike lane buffered by people (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

The inaugural event took place on Broadway from Madison Square Park to Union Square, taking full advantage of its connection to existing greenspace, including the Union Square Market at the south end. (This year’s event went even further than this and made it all the way up to Times Square! You can watch the Streetfilms of it here.) Not only that, but it also allowed for a more pleasant separated bike ride than usual, buffering the existing lane with people (rather than cars) seated at the many movable tables and chairs placed along the route.

One of the existing pedestrian plazas along Broadway that have reclaimed space for people permanently (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

The street itself is also almost perfectly positioned for this kind of activity to begin with. Broadway is broad, yes (sorry) but also lined with a variety of shops and cafes that retain a human scale. It also boasts an impressive amount of plaza improvement projects where a portion of the street has already been reclaimed for people. The shops, fun events, and tables and chairs (and beanbags!) combo made for a pleasant lunchtime stroll down an otherwise average NYC street. Now if only it were permanent…

Open Street #3: Philly Free Streets in Philadelphia

Philly Free Streets’ inaugural event in 2016 along South Street (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Okay yes, I’m clearly a nerd for this kind of take-the-streets culture change so when I heard that Philadelphia was holding its very first open streets event I just had to make the trip from NYC to see it for myself. Over the course of the last year I was visiting Philly on the regular, growing more and more impressed with its livability and walkable urban form on every visit. I finally made the move south this year, like so many others, and am happily settling in to a better quality of life (mostly thanks to apartment size, using a bike as transportation, and lower cost of living!).

A piano on a cargo bike brings neighbors together (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Philly Free Streets is the city’s response to the initial Open Streets PHL grassroots effort-turned-nonprofit that arose after the Pope’s visit closed much of the city center to traffic — and opened it for people.

The route ran the length of South Street, the famed southern edge of the old city that runs east-west from river to river, and continued along the Schuylkill River Trail to the north (which is closed to traffic all the time). I was happy with the route choice in part because South Street has a lot of history and a mix of uses, good storefronts, and is accessible from the north and south of the city as the city has expanded. While not as bold of a choice as say, Broad Street which runs north-south, it’s still a significant street to close in the city, and one that does not have an existing bike lane (yet?).

As the first open streets in Philly, careful attention was paid to gathering the data necessary to prove its worth. While it’s clear at this point that research is unnecessary to prove the value of an open streets event due to its obvious benefits to health, happiness, and even economic activity (this coming from a researcher), it is sadly still necessary to get the data for the purposes of convincing some people that it is not detrimental to the city (but seriously people, get on the train or GTFO).

Ownership of public space by children at Philly Free Streets (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

The recently released findings (pdf here) from intercept surveys of participants and business owners unsurprisingly found overwhelming support for the event and an increase in business that day. But one of the more interesting observations I made while there was 1. the sheer high numbers of people (that I think were beyond what was expected), and 2. the number of people cycling in particular.

Philly Free Streets as inspired by the Pope’s visit (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

While Philly boasts a few separated cycle lanes to Center City (that I use on the daily), it is clear that more work needs to be done to tap into the obviously huge potential for cycling as a major mode of transportation in this city.

I would be lying if I said that Philly Free Streets — the grassroots effort, the motivated urbanists in charge, and the spirit of community — didn’t further inspire me to move and start my business here. Walking the length of South Street, and taking my first Indego bike share ride back again, allowed me to experience what I consider the real human side of “the city of brotherly love” — on human transport, at human scale, face to face with your fellow humans. I’m looking forward to seeing where the city’s priorities lie and witnessing what can be accomplished as Philly moves into open streets season 2017…

Open Street #4: Summer Streets in New York City

Summer Streets in New York City, August 2016 (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Last but certainly not least is the annual Summer Streets series in the largest American city, New York City. For three Sundays in August, roughly 7 miles along most of Manhattan are open to people in a highly coordinated and expansive half-day event. After living in NYC for three years, I’m happy to have witnessed a small (but no less significant) evolution of their version of open streets, including the addition of a shared streets area in lower Manhattan last year.

Try doing this when the streets are full of cars… (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Because of the popularity of the event (and the high population of the city in general) the event keeps north-bound and south-bound participants separated as you would a car-dominated street. Additionally, each direction is further segregated into people on bikes and people on foot presumably due to the high volumes of people on bikes.

The lower half of the route on Lafayette St. after a sudden downpour (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

I guess it wouldn’t be very “New York” of me to not complain a little, but I offer the following constructive criticisms out of a sense of support:

  • On Park Avenue at the northern section of the route, separating uses is much more successful due to its existing median. However, further south you can run into conflicts where the route narrows and relies on a series of cones to separate people (especially around a few bottlenecks as the street goes around Union Square and makes its way onto Lafayette).
  • Another constraint lies in the events that are on side streets along the way, but inevitably spill out onto the main route. If these were pushed back further into the side streets (of which there is room), it would help facilitate what is clearly a large flow of people.
  • Further, much like with auto-user’s behavior on wide and straight streets, people using bikes on this route really take advantage of having the streets to themselves, and can certainly dominate those going by foot.

Riding along the Park Avenue Viaduct at Grand Central Station, normally only accessible by car (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

But — having full reign of the street by bike is certainly one of the best things about this open streets event as well. If you’ve ever been to NYC you know it’s almost never worth it to drive compared to taking the subway or walking — and the cycling infrastructure, while improving, hasn’t quite caught up with the demand (or the actual majority of non-auto users in the city, which numbers over 50%).

Sunday Streets truly allows you to explore the city in a way you rarely get to experience — some of which are even impossible on any other day of the year. The freedom to take the streets in this city is nothing short of blissful, and I’m looking forward to taking part in it again this year (only from Philly this time).

Cycling in safety and comfort — another sight not necessarily common (yet) in Manhattan (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

As a self-described “third wave” urbanist though, it’s hard not to be critical of New York City and others for their slow pace as compared to many other car-free events around the world. If they are so inspired by Ciclovia — which takes place every Sunday and covers nearly 75 miles (120 km) of the city’s streets — then where’s the comparison?

Four days out of the year in NYC (including the new Earth Day event) is a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the time that cars dominate and endanger our streets. As compared even to San Francisco (and places like Portland, Oregon, to say nothing about cities around the world), which hold many more routes in different parts of the city, there’s certainly no reason why any city can’t expand their program to full-day events every weekend, even if only in the summer.

The fact of the matter is this — as we continue our rapid pace in urbanization and run headlong into the Anthropocene, cities in the US are going to have to keep pace and start thinking like the cities that are planning permanent car-free downtowns in the next several years (let alone temporary open streets events). Through the continued use of open streets as demonstration projects, we can work towards a vital cultural shift, raising awareness of public space ownership, streets as places (rather than auto-arteries), and improve the health and wellbeing of our citizenry.

With our collective knowledge on open streets best practice both here and abroad, I hope that not only my new home city of Philadelphia, but many others around the country, hasten their efforts to create human-scale cities for people.

Summer Streets NYC, 2016 (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

*A brief note on process: As an urban anthropologist I often approach a situation or location initially as though I were an average person in order to get a base reading first. While this comes with a set of assumptions and privileges, as a woman it affords me a sensitivity as well. Following these initial reactions, I then take note of specific details that are causing that reaction — be it joy or fear — and the systems in place (whether built or policy-driven) that create that sensation.

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