Open Street Networks: Gateways to Change

Ciclovia, Bogota / Kiwi crossfit odyssey
Ciclovia, Bogota / Kiwi crossfit odyssey

Open street initiatives temporarily close networks of streets to motor vehicles, allowing people to walk, bike, skate, dance, and hang out. These initiatives enable things that “usually feel illegal or unsafe,” said Mike Lydon, a founder of Street Plans Collaborative and co-author of Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, at the Congress for New Urbanism in Detroit. But they also open up communities to new opportunities to improve their pedestrian and bicycle networks. And according to Lydon, “people love open streets.”

It has long been assumed that Bogotá, Colombia, started the movement with their Ciclovía in the mid-1970s, but Lydon argued that Seattle’s Bicycle Sundays, which started in 1965, may have been the first open street initiative. Still, Ciclovía was the first large-scale open street network, given some 70 miles of street are shut down every Sunday. Now many Central and South American cities offer the same — at 15, 20, or 70 miles. For these cities, open streets is about equity. “Everyone: rich, poor, old, young, disabled can participate in an unplanned activity together.”

Ciclovia, Bogota / Colombia government
Ciclovia, Bogota / Colombia government

There are now over 130 initiatives all over the U.S. While they may differ on the length of route or frequency, they all reap positive benefits. According to his research, on open street days, cafes, restaurants, and other retail stores see increased business, traffic falls and transit use increases. In many of these communities, open streets have resulted in long-term investment in more sustainable streets. They can be transformational experiences that “open up a gateway to introduce pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvements.”

In Miami, where Lydon lives, there has been a 180-degree change in just two years — from a city with one of the worst biking experiences, to a city in the top 30 for bicyclists. He pointed to the city’s open street initiative as the catalyst for the transformation. “It opened up breathing room, politically,” showing people, businesses, and politicians what change would be like without committing first. After that experiment, the city later passed an ambitious city-wide 2030 bicycling master plan.

Miami 2030 bicycle master plan / Street Plans Collaborative
Miami 2030 bicycle master plan / Street Plans Collaborative

And in Burlington, Vermont, where his firm now consults with the city’s transportation department, city officials recently used open streets to test out their complete street vision, so people could experience the proposed network of bike lanes protected by greenery. “The lesson from Burlington is you can connect open streets with the planning process and work through all possibilities through real-time demonstrations.” The test was positively received by the 10,000 who tried it out, and the 55-mile complete street and bike plan is now underway.

Burlington, VT bike network demonstration / Street Plans Collaborative
Burlington, VT bike network demonstration / Street Plans Collaborative

Here are some of the elements that make an open street initiative successful: “Route planning is key. You don’t want to send people up hills.” Open street planners should brand the event and route and identify a local sponsor that makes sense, like a gym. It’s important that the route crosses “different neighborhoods, rich and poor.” It should be fairly easy to get to the open streets — they should be in a downtown area, where there are large populations and lots of neighborhoods connect in. Local businesses need to be brought in early. “Meet with local merchants and encourage street-level marketing.” Volunteers help keep costs down and they help shepherd people new to the concept.

He also pointed out some issues to watch out for: “If the road is too short, it will get packed quickly, so the route needs to be at least 2-5 miles to accrue benefits.” For example, he said Oklahoma City’s open street route is too compact, so it ended up being like a “street fair or festival.” One of the biggest costs at first will be paying overtime for police. In Miami, they spent $35,000 for the police to control traffic on one open street day, so it’s important to “simplify the route so you don’t need a big detail.” Lastly, more benefits accrue the more often the open streets happens. In Paris, they have it down to a science, so they can do away with hiring police and simply pull out the signs that block streets every Sunday.

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