Take it from Gil Penalosa: The Open Streets movement in the United States is at a tipping point. The former parks commissioner for the city of Bogota who grew the city’s spectacularly successful ciclovia to a weekly initiative that engages more than 1.3 million Colombians, Penalosa is perhaps the top (and certainly most passionate) expert on the importance and impact of closing streets to cars and giving the pavement back to the people.
The Open Streets Project, a partnership between the Alliance and Street Plans Collaborative have been documenting the rise of Open Streets nationally and abroad for years and we’re proud to be the organizers of the third annual National Open Streets Summit in Atlanta from Sept. 25th-27th. Experts from the Open Streets Project, 8-80 Cities (founded by Gil Penalosa), Atlanta Streets Alive, the Atlanta Regional Commission and many more will come together for two days to share their experiences and lessons learned in starting and sustaining Open Streets. Participants will also have the opportunity to take part in Atlanta’s very own open streets initiative, Atlanta Streets Alive on Sunday, September 27th.
Before he hopped on a flight to Mexico this week, I caught up with Penalosa to get his take on the state of the Open Streets movement — and where it’s headed. “This is such an important moment,” he said, “because a lot of good things are happening with Open Streets. We’re at a tipping point and if we can get some of these cities to have Open Streets more frequently and [with] longer [routes], it’s going to be unstoppable.”
Help tip the scales toward safe, equitable streets in your community. Read more from Penalosa below — and register for the Open Streets Summit, September 25-27, in Atlanta by July 31!
What overall role do you think Open Streets and ciclovias can play in advancing the work to create more bikeable, walkable, and healthier communities for all U.S. residents?
Open Streets is transformational. It really changes minds. All the time we hear people say, ‘No, we cannot do this [build bikeable, walkable communities]. We need a change of culture, a change of mind.’ Well, Open Streets is changing minds more than anything else.
First, people realize that streets are public spaces. Even though it’s right there in front of our noses; even though streets are, on average, 25% of the city; and even though streets — once you exclude housing and private space — are between 70% and 90% of public space, we don’t see it as public space. We see it as space to move cars from point A to point B, 24-7. With Open Streets people realize, ‘This belongs to everyone: drivers and non-drivers, old and young, rich and poor.’ That change of mindset is transformational.
I think also it’s an exercise in social integration. There are very few places in society today, where we meet each other as equals. People might say, ‘Oh, I know everybody in my office,’ but they don’t meet as equals. The senior VP knows the other VPs and the ones who clean the floors know each other, but one’s making $300,000 per year and one’s making $30,000 per year. If you take those same two people, with their spouses and families at Open Streets, it doesn’t matter if one has a $5,000 bike or $50 bike — they’re equal. I love parks, but in the parks people are very homogenous, because it’s the people who live around it. When you have Open Streets that are 20 miles or longer, you’re mixing rich and poor, people of different ethnicities. That’s so important.
Then of course it’s good for public health, but public health we see only from the point of view of physical health. In the U.S. there are 42 million people over 65 years old; in 25 years there will be 85 million. For older adults, one of the big concerns is isolation. With Open Streets, all of sudden, they can be out and be with other people. A person in a wheelchair, who can barely use the sidewalk, all of sudden can go on an Open Street, on a perfectly paved road. Physical health is very important but it’s just as beneficial for mental health.
Now that we’ve seen the concept of Open Streets gain wide acceptance here in the United States — at least on an event basis — what are the next steps we can take to grow those efforts into lasting initiatives — and then integrate those values of shared streets into our transportation systems on a wider, more systemic basis?
First, length is important and frequency is important. In L.A., we’re working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on how to promote healthy practices and we say Open Streets should be weekly and should be eight miles or longer. In Oklahoma City last year, they got 25,000 people but it’s not even a mile, it’s 0.8 miles. That’s not an Open Street. Open Streets are about physical activity. If you have 25,000 in 0.8 miles, people can’t even walk. If you use a street for a farmers’ market, that’s great. But it’s not an Open Street. It’s about physical activity and connectivity between high- and low-income neighborhoods.
I think it’s very important also for cities to move from events to at least monthly. And in places where they have winter, do May to September. To do that, we need to get decision makers more into it. In Bogota, we took a very small program and turned it into 75 miles and more than 1.3 million people every week — and a lot of Colombian cities started following what Bogota was doing.
In Peru, three years ago there was only one small one in Lima. Then the national government — the deputy minister of health — told municipalities, if you commit to do 26 or more per year, we will give you all the infrastructure, give you all the training. It went from one to 160 in two years. This past January in Chile, Santiago had one small one in a wealthy neighborhood that was mostly run by the private sector. The Minister of Sport did what Peru did, the events were fully funded by the national government and it went from one neighborhood in Santiago to 56 municipalities in one year. Her goal is 130 next year. Why? Because there’s nothing as cheap, as inexpensive, that provides that cost benefit in getting people fit and active.
[City leaders] need to know that they need to put money into it. The reality is that part of the move from events to a more permanent part of the city means there has to be money put to it. You can’t expect it’s going to be funded privately. That’s ridiculous. The private sector can help and NGOs [non-profits] can help organize the activities but many are barely surviving without having to raise money for Open Streets. Cities need to realize how great this is for them. Cities are trying to retain the best people to be economically competitive. This makes their cities exciting, dynamic.
What do you think are some of the barriers to expanding Open Streets in the way you just talked about, to shift from the episodic events to drivers of lasting change?
Making it an event is a huge problem. For example, if you think about a concert, you might need 500 police officers. If you think about Open Streets that way it becomes undoable. And that makes no sense. We have people walking and cycling and cars on the streets everyday — why do we need more police when we take away the cars? When we think about Open Streets as an event we start thinking we need the same kind of infrastructure when we have a concert or a marathon — and then the cost of the police becomes prohibitive.
We need to convince people they don’t need as many police. In Bogota, we have more than 20 miles and have two police. The intersections are adopted by companies. Proctor and Gamble has an intersection, Citibank has an intersection and so on. They volunteer and their staff go down and watch the people go by and people stop and talk to them. The reality is most Open Streets in the U.S. could be done with 10% of the police and that brings the cost down down tremendously. Also, when you do it not as an event once but six times, the cost goes down for things like promotion and signage and operations to get volunteers because now you’re dividing not by one, but by five or six.
We’ve been talking a lot in the U.S. about the efficacy of discussing open streets, not just in the context of recreation, but also in improving health and advancing transportation equity. Are those aspects important to the success of Open Streets?
Yes — and we need to do more. Public health has to become more of a partner. We need to invite public health not because they have the power to write a check or a place at the [decision-making] table, but because they have credibility on the benefits [of active transportation] and the urgency [to increase physical activity in the U.S.]. Open Streets in many ways is also a symbol of democracy and equity and equality. The streets belong to everybody and everybody should have access. Open Streets can show people that this is how it should be, not just on Sunday, but 365 days a year.
ou’re widely considered the catalyst of the modern ciclovia movement. Over the past few years, as we’ve seen such a rise in Open Streets in the U.S., what has surprised or inspired you?
The champions I see everywhere. It’s incredible. For every single Open Streets there are true champions behind it — sometimes where you least expect it. Sometimes it’s transportation engineers leading the charge, sometimes it’s citizen advocates. The people are so amazing. You might think Atlanta [the site of the Summit] is the last place that will get on board with Open Streets, but the beauty really is that it can work in any place, any city, any size.
And it’s not one size fits all, but every city that is interested in doing Open Streets can learn from everybody else — not from the point of view of copying and pasting but adapting and improving. In New York City, [former] Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan flew to Colombia on a Friday, came to the Open Street on Sunday, flew home that night and the next day announced they were going to do it in New York City. A few months later it was on Park Avenue. But then you go to the other coast, to Portland, and it’s very community-led. While New York is more corporate and it has outsourced most of the things, Portland is very hands-on with community groups. And then you to L.A. and there’s all this work between the city and the NGOs. It’s amazing how every city is different.
I’m going to Mexico this weekend and Mexico City has a really nice Open Streets. Unfortunately, it has to get longer. It’s weekly but it doesn’t go into low-income areas. For equity, you need to have those high-income places with the stores and the buildings that people want to see but they also need to go into the low-income neighborhoods that have the least access to parks, the least opportunity for recreation — and connect those low-income areas to the most iconic streets, the Park Avenue of the city.
Guadalajara just had its 10th anniversary. Ten years ago it was only eight miles with about 70,000 people. Now it’s 40 miles, they have close to 500,000 people each Sunday and it’s really integrated the lowest and highest income areas of the city. This has empowered the citizens to do other things, too. When it started there were only two NGOs working on city issues; at last count there were 44 different NGOs working on different things, like the environment, health, biking and walking. Open Streets are empowering. If, together, we are able to get the cars off the streets, maybe we can have the power to do things that are bolder and more ambitious, too.
Hear more from Penalosa and dozens of other inspiring leaders at the National Open Streets Summit, September 25-27, in Atlanta. Register by August 14 for early-bird rates.