Open Streets: A Gateway to Better Cities

People walk, bicycle, hula-hoop and hopscotch. This is the genius of Open Streets: closing public space to cars and opening it to human activity.

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A car-choked urban street becomes a temporary public park. People walk, bicycle, hula-hoop and hopscotch. Musicians give impromptu concerts. Small children ride tricycles and push bikes down the center of the street. This is the genius of Open Streets: closing public space to cars and opening it to human activity.

“It is a very profound sight to see and to hear, or not hear, what a busy city street becomes when you take the cars away,” said Susan King, San Francisco’s Sunday Streets program manager at Livable City. “Standing in the middle of the street you can take in the architecture and notice things that you don’t have the opportunity to notice when there are cars around.”

In 2005, there were 11 Open Streets programs in North America. There are now more than 80. Gil Peñalosa, one of the organizers behind Bogota’s pioneering Ciclovía, which draws two million people to 70 miles (115 kilometers) of opened streets every Sunday, continues to inspire the movement as executive director of 8-80 Cities.

Peñalosa offered this description of Open Streets: “It’s magnificent. All of us talk about sustainability. Part of sustainability is good use of our resources. What is public? What belongs to all of us? The streets.”

Mike Samuelson, Member Services and Open Streets Coordinator at the Alliance for Biking and Walking, sees its Open Streets Project as a way to help the 60% of people who are interested in bicycling but concerned about safety. “Once people experience getting around the city by bicycling or walking, they enjoy the experience and they begin to advocate for it,” Samuelson said. “We’ve seen Open Streets as a great way to begin dialogues with neighborhoods that haven’t been engaged with biking and walking in the past.”

“The biggest success of Sunday Streets is helping people think differently about what the purpose of our streets is,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “In the beginning, it was hard to convince people that taking cars off the streets would be good for business and good for neighborhoods. It didn’t take long before they were asking for more.”

Berkeley, CA, a city of 113,000, recently opened its streets to 40,000 walkers and cyclists, with the support of the business community. Organizer Emunah Hauser said, “People slow down at Open Streets and end up noticing businesses they may not have before. They are in an exploratory frame of mind.”

The immense popularity of Open Streets can lead to human-powered congestion. Shahum has a solution: a 5-year goal to open streets weekly along a major, citywide route in San Francisco, following the model of Bogota’s Ciclovía. Brownsville, TX, is an example of how quickly a city can open its streets to healthy activity. Less than 100 days after the initial idea was discussed with Peñalosa, Brownsville held its first Open Streets event in November 2012. Peñalosa said, “Where there is a champion, it can happen. Behind every successful project, there are champions.”

Four great Open Streets events:

Summer Streets in New York, NY

ORGANIZED BY NYC Department of Transportation

CITY POPULATION 8,175,000

AVERAGE ATTENDANCE 250,000

HIGHEST ATTENDANCE Over 250,000

SPONSORS Corporate sponsors fund the route activities

RUNNING SINCE 2008

EVENTS PER YEAR 3

BUDGET $350,000 in donations from sponsors plus in-kind support from city departments

FUNDING Public-private partnership

MILES OF OPEN STREETS 6.9 (11.1 km)

SETTING Park Avenue from the Brooklyn Bridge to 72nd Street, spanning many neighborhoods

ACTIVITIES Climbing walls, zip lines, fitness, dance, and yoga classes, bicycle and rollerskate rentals, and dumpster pools, all underwritten by the corporate sponsors.

New York’s Summer Streets may be the only Open Streets program with its own yelp page, and it has received 5 stars. Enthusiastic attendees are raving about the chance to attend an event where everything, including bicycle rental, is free. While the NYC Department of Transportation primarily organizes the event, Summer Streets are truly a collaboration of many city agencies and affiliate orgainzations. nyc.gov/summerstreets


Sunday Streets in San Francisco, CA

ORGANIZED BY Livable City (nonprofit) and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

CITY POPULATION 805,000

AVERAGE ATTENDANCE 27,000

HIGHEST ATTENDANCE 75,000

SPONSORS City of San Francisco, nonprofit businesses

RUNNING SINCE 2008

EVENTS PER YEAR 10

BUDGET $300,000 for 10 dates, plus in-kind support from the city

FUNDING Public-private partnership

MILES OF OPEN STREETS 4.6-6 (7.3-9.7 km)

SETTING Commercial, tourist and residential neighborhoods throughout the city

ACTIVITIES Favorites include hula hooping, Rock the Bike mobile live music, Funkytown Roller Disco, free bicycle rentals and repairs, Tricycle Music Festival with kid rock bands, bicycle training for kids, fitness classes and many more. Spontaneous and unofficial activities are encouraged.

Sunday Streets In 2013, San Francisco will introduce Play Streets for All. The goal of this initiative is to give local leaders the training and resources they need to create their own events. The program will launch in four neighborhoods with the greatest health and income disparities and the least access to open space and recreational opportunities. sundaystreetssf.com


Streets Alive! in Fargo, ND & Moorhead, MN

ORGANIZED BY Dakota Medical Foundation

CITY POPULATION 209,000

AVERAGE ATTENDANCE 4,500

HIGHEST ATTENDANCE 8,000

SPONSORS City of Fargo, City of Moorhead, with support from many local businesses, and the Dakota Medical Foundation

RUNNING SINCE 2010

EVENTS PER YEAR 3

BUDGET $27,000 for all three events

FUNDING Public-private partnership

MILES OF OPEN STREETS 3-mile loop (4.8 km)

SETTING Downtown, residential neighborhood, park

ACTIVITIES Streets Alive offers four destination locations: Activity Alley, a kid-focused play area; Participation Parkway, with Zumba, yoga and other fitness classes; Eat and Greet Street, offering healthy food and a farmers’ market; and Broadway with athletic demonstrations including pole vaulting, fencing, Olympic triple jump

Streets Alive! is the only Open Streets program in North America spanning two states. Fargo and Moorhead are examples of smaller cities that have discovered the benefits of Open Streets. In 2012, participants got a chance to mix with local athletic stars, including Olympic triple jumper Amanda Smock. dakmed.org/cass/about-streets-alive


Open Streets in Hamilton, ON

ORGANIZED BY Open Streets Hamilton

CITY POPULATION 505,000

AVERAGE ATTENDANCE 12,000

HIGHEST ATTENDANCE 15,000

SPONSORS Collaboration between the city, public agencies, foundations, a university, and private companies

RUNNING SINCE 2010

EVENTS PER YEAR 2

BUDGET $50,000 CAD for two events

FUNDING Public-private partnership

MILES OF OPEN STREETS 1.25 (2 km)

SETTING Downtown through business and residential areas

ACTIVITIES Awkward Hockey, Open Mic Stage, skateboard park, Zumba, dance, bike tours, community hub

Open Streets Hamilton attracted student clubs from Hamilton’s McMaster University who have used the events to introduce students to bicycling in the city and to connect with residents about their ideas to make Hamilton more walkable and bikeable. Organizers invited local businesses and “green” organizations to help showcase healthy options available in Hamilton. Food vendors and art exhibits add color and life to Hamilton’s open streets. openstreetshamilton.ca


Laura McCamy is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, artist, and bicycle activist. She is a former Alameda County Bicycle Commuter of the Year and currently chairs her town’s Bike/Ped Advisory Committee and volunteers with the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

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