Reclaiming San Francisco -- from cars

The city's first ciclovia will open a car-free Embarcadero to cyclists

GREEN CITY On Sunday, Aug. 31, the Mayor's Office and several community groups join forces to bring San Francisco into an international movement to increase physical activity, break down invisible borders, and make scenic space available to all during the city's first ciclovia.

More than 4.5 miles of streets will be closed to cars that day from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for Sunday Streets, the first of two ciclovias scheduled this summer. The idea of the ciclovia — which is Spanish for "cycle way" or "bike path" — was conceived in Bogotá, Colombia, during the mid-1990s and has since spread throughout the world.

The concept is to take existing roads — the province of cars — and turn them into temporary paths for walking, jogging, cycling, and other physical activity.

"I think it really helps us re-imagine our city streets as places of safe, non-auto physical activity," said Wade Crowfoot, Mayor Gavin Newsom's director of global climate change. "From an environmental perspective, it's time we re-imagine our space and our streets, and to make streets accessible to everyone."

The route extends from Bayview Opera House, up Illinois Street to the Embarcadero, along the waterfront, and across Washington Street into Chinatown. Five activity pods will feature dance classes, yoga, hopscotch, jump rope, and more, and participants are encouraged to explore as much of the route as they can. The Giants' stadium will be open to pedestrians and bikers who want to run the bases, and event facilitators say they hope this 4.5-mile stretch will grow into something bigger.

"We hope this is just the beginning, and that it succeeds all over the city," said Andy Thornley, program director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

The man largely credited with starting the ciclovia is Gil Penalosa, who implemented the idea as Bogotá's commissioner of parks and recreation in 1995. Penalosa now runs a nonprofit called Walk and Bike for Life that promotes the ciclovia and other forms of active living.

San Francisco's event is modest: Bogotá closes off more than 80 miles of looping streets every Sunday and on holidays. More than 1.5 million people turn out each week, according to the Walk and Bike for Life Web site. Ottawa closes more than 30 miles of space on Sundays from May to September, and events have taken place all over Europe in addition to the American continents.

The ciclovia is also part of the car-free movement, an international effort to promote alternatives to car dependence and automobile-based planning.

Besides saving energy and promoting fitness, event planners at ciclovias in Bogotá noticed the events were causing a cultural shift. The Christian Science Monitor reported in an Aug. 18 article that residents from different neighborhoods began interacting as never before. Indian residents of poorer neighborhoods used to halt at the imaginary dividing lines of the more affluent European neighborhoods, and vice versa, but now people mingle freely.

San Francisco organizers hope to use Sunday Streets to create a similar effect here.

"We deliberately chose the route that connects the Bayview to Chinatown, two communities that are historically disconnected," said Susan King, the event's organizer. "We want people to go to Hunters Point and Chinatown and see what's out there, with the hope that people will see things they want to come back to."

King also noted that these two neighborhoods lack adequate open space. "We want people in those communities to experience what people who live adjacent to Golden Gate Park and the Presidio get to experience on a regular basis — an opportunity to exercise and not worry about getting hit by cars," King said.

Another international trend that Sunday Streets continues is the reclaiming of waterfront space.

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