When a City Closes the Streets to Cars, It Opens Streets to People

By Ed Solis

Ed Solis is the Recreation Superintendent at the City of San Jose, California.

If you ask the average American if they’d like to see a street closure on the street leading to their favorite restaurant or park, the answer will likely be, “no!” If you gave the average American the option to walk or drive, they will generally choose to drive. However, these sentiments are slowly changing. An amazing trend is sweeping our nation: cities are beginning to see the transformative power of open streets programs.

 

The Power of Open Streets

If you look at any city in the world from the sky, the largest public space is always the streets. Streets are designed for one purpose: to get vehicles from one place to another. Open streets programs transform those streets into meeting places, art installations, and parks, by closing them to cars and opening them to people. For anyone who has experienced the power of open streets firsthand, the sense of joy and freedom can be overwhelming. You would never tell your child or grandparents to play in the streets. You would never plan a picnic in a street median. You would never lay down in the middle of the road and take a selfie. But when streets are open, they are safe for everyone. Thousands do exactly what they've been told not to do their whole lives. Through open streets, people meet each other as equals. Participants see parts of their city they may have not visited in the past due to lack of accessibility, lack of curiosity, or negative perceptions.

 

Seeing is Believing

In 2014, I was fortunate to spend three days in Guadalajara, México with 880 Cities (Toronto, Canada based nonprofit) and its founder Gil Penaloza. My task was simple: attend the open streets training provided by 880 Cities and provide feedback on the value and effectiveness of the three-day experience. As a former nonprofit and current recreation professional, I had heard my share of sales pitches and attended many trainings. What Mr. Penaloza was saying seemed too good to be true. How could the simple act of closing streets create sustainable happiness? How could allowing people in the streets have such an impact? On Sunday, I jumped on a bike and experienced the power of Via RecreActiva. I stopped on an uphill crest to see a street filled with people as far as the eye could see - 300,000 individuals biking, walking, or running; the young and the old; the able and disabled. Everyone was smiling and experiencing the freedom of traversing 40 miles of car-free streets.

 

Yes Way, San José!

When I returned to San José, I immediately reported to the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS). “We need to start an open streets program,” I exclaimed. In 2015, the 10th largest city in the United States launched their open streets program, Viva CalleSJ. Led by PRNS, Viva CalleSJ has averaged over six miles of street closures traversing some of the most iconic neighborhoods, business districts and parks in the city. San José has done a great job of reimagining its public spaces. Viva CalleSJ creates miles of linear parks.

 

The Transformation of a City

Viva CalleSJ has connected organizations and community members who engage their city leaders. Through numerous subcommittees, business leaders, community advocates, interdepartmental agencies, non-profit agencies, art groups, and park advocates can provide input on program delivery that improves every Viva CalleSJ event. Open streets provide a new canvas on which to paint a unique programing masterpiece with something for everyone. Watching crime drop, air quality improve, healthy active communities emerge, and economic impact drives cities like Los Angeles to institute a monthly activation.  Bogota and Guadalajara both operate every Sunday of the year.

 

If You Close Them, They Will Come

In the first year, the expected Viva CalleSJ attendance was 10,000 participants. Event attendance surpassed expectations when 35,000 people explored six miles of city streets. In 2016, 100,000 people played in our 6.3-mile linear park. In 2017, Viva CalleSJ went big with 7.3 miles of open streets and pioneered a collaboration with Niantic Inc., the makers of Pokémon Go. In six months, Niantic developed a Viva CalleSJ-specific game experience in partnership with the Viva CalleSJ team. On September 17, 2018, 130,000 participants from across the Bay Area and around the world came to San José to participate in Viva CalleSJ.

Every city in America could benefit from a vibrant open streets program. There will be challenges with launching the program. There will be opposition to closing streets to vehicles. But something amazing really does happen during those first hours of the inaugural event that can change even the most cynical of critics. Cities and communities come to life in ways long forgotten. People come out to play and enjoy the sunshine, they speak with strangers and neighbors, they see beautiful art, and they see their city through a new lens. Many will visit neighborhoods and communities they have never visited before. Open streets gives the streets back to the people, and empowers residents to think boldly about what their streets can be when they are open and safe for all.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

8 Comments

  1. Be careful of what you wish for!

    Our post-war urban history is littered with failed redevelopment attempts to turn main streets into parks/malls. Complete closure to vehicle traffic has been disastrous and should be done only in places where it has all of the correct elements to assure success. It works in places like Aspen, Boulder and Santa Monica but fails in places like Redding, CA, Fresno and Helena MT. In many cases, the answer is well designed complete streets and respect (celebration of) for the traditional main street.

    Reply
  2. Hi, Birmingham in the UK recognised the power of closing its streets back in 1988 at a City Centre Symposium called the Highbury Initiative (after its well known political Leader who lived there – Joseph Chamberlain) and which produced a radically pedestrianised city centre. This has revitalised the city. it brought its own citizens back into the centre who felt totally excluded after a City Engineer in the 1960s and 1970s had built ring roads and pedestrian subways (muggers paradises) galore, so that people felt like scurrying rats. Now look at the city. Its alive! Having been one of the organisers of this, I feel proud!

    Reply
    • Sandy Taylor: Kudos to you! Viena has also done something similar as Birmingham and with apparent success. Pedestrian-only precincts seem to work well in dense compact old world (and some new world) cities and places with critical population mass or captive pedestrian populations (the ski resort example). The Plaka in Athens comes to mind also. Clearly, one solution does not fit all situations. I believe certain elements/conditions are required to achieve the desired results for these exclusive precincts. These may include, density, sizable residential populations within walking distance, good public transit feeding into a core district, and a rich urban fabric from a cultural geography perspective. Unfortunately, many smaller and medium-sized North American and Austrailian cities lack these characteristics. Well managed vehicular access and movement may be an attribute in these places (complete streets).

      Reply
  3. Had a great time 2 years in a row on closed off streets riding my bike. We should do it monthly from May – Sept in different parts of town. It would be amazing.

    Reply
  4. Regarding the comment that streets are the largest public space it reveals how necessary they are since the start of urbanization in ancient times everyone (not just revelers) needed a way to efficiently get around and bring our stuff with us. For certain resort or entertainment areas well served by public transportation and a high nearby residential population, street closing may work. However as lived experience as a long time resident of Washington, DC, they don’t really work in the generic urban situation. During the 1970-80s “Streets for the People” activity (two blocks near the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian’s American Art Museum) showed that without unique and high maintenance support they become blighted and crime ridden. They have since been removed. For commercial businesses (not just restaurants or entertainment venues) or a mix of them to survive streets for vehicles are needed. Most disabled individuals can not make it to/through most areas without streets and supplies for all areas need street accessibility. The cost of taking care of these streets turned parks can be a real budget breaker and a source for crime since it limits police access. To illustrate that closed streets lead to confusion and push traffic congestion out to the fringe of the area need only try to get through NYC’s Times Square pedestrian area.

    I am a long time pedestrian (ten years since I have driven a car) and am much happier for it, but without periodic access to a car has taught me good streets make good neighbors. We should remember cities need to be open to everyone to function and the concept of a street with sidewalks works best for that purpose.

    Reply
  5. Ed, you’re the Man!

    Reply
  6. Had a great time 2 years in a row on closed off streets riding my bike. We should do it monthly from May – Sept in different parts of town. It would be amazing.Thanks for sharing such interesting and informative post.it is really interesting article.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Read more from the Meeting of the Minds Blog

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

IoT and Cities: Enhancing Parking, Traffic and More

IoT solutions allow drivers to make smart parking decisions based on facts rather than luck, ensuring less congestion – in regard to both the amount of cars backed up in a certain area and the emissions released into the air. It is essential for drivers to be able to rely on accurate real-time information about where to go, and more importantly, where not to go when all spaces are occupied.

Resilience Calls for Smart Planning and Great Leadership

Fear can spurn action but it can often be paralyzing. When it comes to “acts of God,” leaders can take a fatalistic or resigned approach. We can’t prevent earthquakes or hurricanes, so if the big one hits, what really can we do about it? The fallacy in this approach is an all or nothing perspective. The belief that if I cannot solve the entire problem, then why bother?