In Bogota, Columbia at seven every Sunday morning and on holidays, 70 miles of streets are closed to cars for seven hours.  The tradition started in 1976 and includes the setting up of stages in city parks for music and exercises in yoga and aerobics.  Later, Mayor Enrique Penalosa helped solidify the taking back of the city by the people by building an ambitious network of bike lanes sperated from automobile traffic.  While the open-streets plan in Bogota is only on Sundays for several hours, it is the inspiration and grand-daddy of Open-Streets in over 90 cities in the Americas which have since initiated their own versions of the concept, which aims to foster recreation and healthier living – at least on the days the streets are open only to non-motorized activities.

Open-Streets Spread from Columbia to North America

Known as ‘ciclovia’ in the Spanish language, literally meaning ‘bike lane’, open-streets initiatives in North America are smaller than Bogota’s, both in terms of frequency and geographic range.  There is also a sense of the U.S. events as being ‘staged’ since their infrequency causes them to appear more like special events than a central feature of urban life. Chicago’s Open-Street’s event, for example, happens only one day a year and covers just seven blocks of its main, downtown street – State Street – and a connecting street to the Lake Michigan shoreline, as well as an additional 1.4 mile long section in a residential neighborhood.  New York City also has a formalized Open-Streets event, which occurs only three times a year on consecutive Saturday mornings in August, the time of year many residents are away on vacation.  However, at least the New York initiative is, at seven miles (one-tenth that of Bogota’s), much longer than the two in Chicago, combined.

Federal Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Program

In 2005, the U.S. federal government became involved, if only half-heartedly when viewed in perspective against vastly more pedestrian and bike-friendly cities in South America and Europe.  In that year, Congress set up a new program under its new federal transportation funding bill aimed at demonstrating how the bicycle and more people-friendly streets could represent a significant part of the transportation solution.  Four regions, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, Columbia, Missouri, and Marin County, California, were each funded with $22 million to invest in planning, infrastructure, and public education; as well as to study the impact of these investments on traffic congestion, health, energy use, and the environment.

Minneapolis Leads the Way in Open-Streets ‘Workshops’

The first national training of the Open-Streets concept happened in the summer of 2011 in Minneapolis and was orchestrated by the non-profit organization Alliance for Biking and Walking.  Its stated goal in the closing of some of the city’s streets was to lead a program to train business and community leaders from around the U.S. on the best tools and techniques responsible for the Open-Streets’ flourishing in cities across the U.S. and Canada. 

Open-Streets and its Connection with a Healthy Urban Fabric

The Open-Streets events that are occurring in ever larger numbers are still something of a novelty in the U.S. and certainly don’t exist in the urban mainstream lexicon.  What people know of its existence, either by name, concept, or specific events in their own or other cities, is confined to the idea of walking in general, with biking, skating, and other activities not being a central part of the thesis.  The idea most people have of Open-Streets is simply that there are no cars allowed and therefore the affected streets become sort of their own urban museums – where people flock to enjoy the outdoors without having to heed traffic.  But a new paradigm could spur a much greater set of positive benefits:  the base-point of using the Dutch and Danish models of sustainable urban planning to create year-round modified versions of Open-Streets.

Creating Year-Round Safer and Healthier Streets

True Open-Streets, where all streets are easier for people to negotiate every day of the year, can become a reality when American cities work on traffic-thinning, public bike-share programs, and building extensive bicycle and associated pedestrian infrastructure.  These three features of sustainable urban planning constitute a major share of the urban planning model of cities in Denmark and The Netherlands.  Aside from building bike lanes of the Dutch and Danish standard of safety, the real benefit of creating such infrastructure is the collateral and substantial increase in pedestrian safety.  Such cities then have an easier time when they close streets periodically or altogether to motorized transport, as there is less strain on adjacent roads.