Campaign Aims to Bring Car-Free Streets to Philadelphia

Temple University’s take on “open streets” roads are blocked off from traffic to prevent backups and give students more space at high foot-traffic hours. Photo credit to Jason Pepper

In late September, Philadelphia collectively began gearing up to prepare for Pope Francis’ historic visit to the City of Brotherly Love. Like a scene from out of some sort of apocalyptic fiction, the streets became deserted. Rather than housing the daily bustle of traffic, the roads became home to security personnel and concrete barricades.

One needs to look no further than social media to see the public outcry about this, but as time has passed after the event, more and more Philadelphians are realizing that a traffic-free city may not be as bad as it once seemed. When the streets emptied of cars, it became a chance for many to walk around a city that hasn’t catered strongly to foot-traffic.

Despite initial uncertainty, after residents had a chance to use their streets openly for playing, walking, biking, or anything else, many began to try to create support for having this sort of thing happen more often, albeit in a way geared towards the people, not a single event like the Papal visit.

The #popenstreets, as they were dubbed, started a movement to have open streets more often in Philadelphia, including a petition aimed at Democrat mayoral nominee Jim Kenney. The petition, titled “Bring Open Streets Weekends to Philly in Summer 2016” made immediate waves, with more than 1,000 supporters signing it within 12 hours of it being posted. Since then, the movement has maintained a steady pace, rapidly approaching its 5,000 signature goal.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said avid biker and Open Streets supporter Jacob DeAngeles. “It’ll be great for the environment. I know Beijing had a similar thing, where they limited cars for certain days, and it massively helped with pollution problems.”

This movement has even gained support from high-profile people, including Mayor Michael Nutter, who expressed interest at possibly having another Open Streets day this fall, far ahead of the petition’s Summer 2016 goals.

“We’re very excited for that possibility,” said a spokesperson from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “A lot of people came out for the open streets during the pope’s visit…and [Mayor Nutter’s] endorsement will help, too.”

The Open Streets Project began in 2010 as a cooperative initiative from the Alliance for Biking & Walking and the Street Plans Collaborative, which created a website and a printed guide for advancing the idea of open streets initiatives. Jeffrey Miller, President and CEO of the Alliance, expressed his goals as using open streets not only as a way to get people walking and biking, but also getting people to look at city streets as public spaces.

Philadelphia is far from the first to have this push towards vehicle-free streets.  A look at Open Streets Project’s interactive website shows initiatives across the country, from California to Florida, and even up to Nova Scotia in Canada.

There are some concerns, however, including the petition’s acknowledgement that local businesses saw a dip in sales. A ground-up effort that included local businesses could be a fix for that, though. A review of 47 open streets initiatives found that 73 percent of participants spent money at a restaurant or store along the route and 68 percent of participants discovered a new store. Other cities with similar initiatives have also been successful, with the New York City “Summer Streets” program seeing more than 300,000 participants.

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