Towards Carfree Cities: Everybody into the streets!


Steven T. Jones covered the Towards Carfree Cities conference, which closed yesterday with the first Sunday Parkways, and brought back these photos and words.
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Clear the streets of cars and they will fill with happy people riding their bikes, playing games or music, strolling with their families, communing with friends and strangers, teaching children to bike or skate, and generally building community across class, racial and regional lines.

That’s a lesson pioneered during the Sunday road closures known as Ciclovias in Bogota, Columbia and other foreign cities, events that made their U.S. debut yesterday in Portland, Oregon, drawing huge crowds and rave reviews. The city’s six-mile Sunday Parkways loop connected several North Portland parks and created a healthy, fun, communal atmosphere.

Next up are New York City, Baltimore, and San Francisco, which are all working on Ciclovias planned for later this year. SF’s version, dubbed Sunday Healthways, proposes to open up more than four miles of roadways from the Bayview Opera House to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown along the waterfront for three weekends starting in August (officials tell me more details are due for release after July 4 once current permitting discussions wrap up).

There’s bound to be a backlash among the cars-first set in San Francisco once the event is publicized and underway. But as Gil Peñalosa, who developed the concept as parks director in Bogota and now promotes it internationally, said at last week’s Towards Carfree Cities conference in Portland, “The educational benefits are huge.”

Simply having a community discussion about carfree concepts – even if it means arguing about the details and scale of Ciclovias -- helps people understand the environmental and social imperatives behind reallocating urban spaces, he said. In many U.S. cities, more than half of all land goes to circulating automobiles, but as Peñalosa said, “The roads are big enough for people to do many things.”
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For example, after pedaling through the carfree Portland streets with other San Franciscans for a few hours, I joined a game of doubles tennis that started on a closed street, a simple game that made us all giddy simply because it was in the street. Even playing Scrabble on a table in the street has a sublime quality to it.
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Others played Frisbee or hopscotch or took advantage of the large crowds with lemonade stands, BBQs or garage sales in front of their houses. Every park became a party, with live bands, DJs, and performers. And in San Francisco, plans include yoga, dance, and tai chi lessons in the street. The possibilities are endless.

Peñalosa noted how people of all classes and walks of life can meet each other in the streets during Ciclovias, becoming a way to create community and bridge cultural and socioeconomic differences as they figure out how to share newly cleared space. He said, “It’s an exercises in civility.”

I asked Peñalosa about San Francisco’s plan and he said doing in three weekends it a row is ideal. He said the first event is a learning process that will invariably trigger complaints and some confusion. “There is always opposition to everything,” he said. But by the third event, people not only accept it, they grow to love it and demand bigger and more frequent carfree spaces. In Bogota, 70 miles are now closed for Ciclovias.

Ciclovias are now taking root around the world, including Mexico City, which will do one this summer as part of an aggressive push to promote bicycling in that traffic- and smog-choked city. Tanya Muller, who is coordinating the Mexico City Ciclovia and was at the conference, said the purpose of the event was “elevating the quality of life and making us a friendlier city.”

Portland’s Sunday Parkways wasn’t perfect. The use of pedestrian bridges rather than roads to cross the freeway broke up the flow and required bicyclists to walk for long stretches (something they might not do in San Francisco). The event also ended at 2 p.m. just as the crowd peaked, causing some mild clashes between motorists and attendees (again, clashes that might not be so mild here).

But Peñalosa noted how Ciclovias are a low-cost way of using existing infrastructure to demonstrate the transformational power of creating carfree spaces, even on a temporary basis, because he noted that, “Life is at a different rhythm when you’re walking or cycling.” And once people try it, they might just like it.
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