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Traffic stoppers

An increasing number of cities are temporarily closing streets to cars and opening them to pedestrians and cyclists. It fosters a greater sense of community.

By Tim HoltContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 18, 2008

Car-free: Every Sunday from April through November, Cambridge, Mass. closes Memorial Drive to automobile traffic.

Mary Knox Merrill – Staff

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They danced the tango in Portland, Ore., they're doing the samba in New York, and by the end of this month, they'll be dancing in the streets of San Francisco. It's urban planning with a Latin twist, a simple idea imported from South America for transforming the cityscape. Temporary street closures, or ciclovias, are sweeping across the US, as cities take a new look at alternative uses for their streets.

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It all started in Bogota, Colombia, about 30 years ago. The ciclovia – which means "cycle way," or bike path, in Spanish – was designed as a relatively inexpensive way to promote walking and bicycling, and to encourage the mingling of people from all backgrounds in the city's streets.

It worked. Every Sunday Bogota draws nearly one-fourth of its population of 7 million out to walk and cycle 81 miles of car-free streets.

In the early years of the event, residents from the poorer sections of town, many of them of Indian descent, and those from more affluent neighborhoods, of European descent, would halt at one another's boundaries. After a while, though, those invisible lines began to melt, and now people from all over the city mingle freely.

Gil Penalosa supervised Bogota's ciclovias when he was the city's parks and recreation commissioner from 1995-97. He expanded the program from eight to 70 miles of closed streets and now promotes ciclovias all over the world from his Toronto-based nonprofit, Walk & Bike For Life. Mr. Penalosa likes to quote Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted on the positive benefits of public spaces. Penalosa notes that Bogota's ciclovia "is one of the few places where the owners of large corporations share activities out on the streets with their own employees."

Some US cities are hoping for similar social benefits. When it launches its first ciclovia Aug. 31, San Francisco is hoping to help connect a currently isolated, low-income neighborhood, the Bayview, with other parts of the city on a six-mile route. Portland's June 22 event linked an African-American neighborhood with newer, gentrified neighborhoods on the city's north side.

For some public space advocates, this is just the beginning: "London, Paris, and other cities have taken this idea much further, but they started with temporary street closures," notes Wiley Norvell, whose organization, Transportation Alternatives, is participating in the New York event. "Once you get out of the mind-set of 'all cars all the time,' all sorts of possibilities open up."

Every summer Paris closes a portion of one of its major expressways and creates a temporary beachfront and promenade – complete with sand and palm trees – along the Seine. Starting with the closure of one street more than 40 years ago, Copenhagen has gradually developed a central city that prioritizes walking and cycling.