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.
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With the encouragement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city's transportation czar, Janette Sadik-Khan, New York is becoming an open-air laboratory for alternative uses of public space. On three Saturdays this month, seven miles of streets in Manhattan, including a long stretch of Park Avenue, will be closed to traffic for six hours each day. Vehicular traffic has been permenantly removed from two lanes of Broadway in midtown Manhattan to make room for pedestrians and cyclists. As part of this transformation, people will soon be sitting at cafe tables on what used to be one of Broadway's busy southbound lanes.Skip to next paragraph
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Barbara Randall is in the thick of this latest experiment. She heads an association of property owners in midtown Manhattan's Fashion Center. Both she and her organization are fully in support of the new project. Ms. Randall points out that New York City's population is expected to grow by 1 million in the next 20 years and asks: "How do we accommodate them as they move around the city? The obvious answer is to use our limited space more efficiently by freeing up more of it for pedestrians and cyclists. And if you transform a crowded, traffic-choked environment to one that's more beautiful, more user-friendly, it becomes a destination, and that's good for neighborhood merchants."
For some time now, New York has been temporarily closing some neighborhood streets in the summertime and turning them into "play streets" for children. Its Department of Transportation has just launched a Public Plaza Initiative convert underused streets to public plazas throughout the city's five boroughs.
Not surprisingly, with all these plans to limit auto access to city streets, there's been some squawking from businesses. It's helped somewhat that the weekend ciclovia events occur on days when deliveries are usually minimal. And the approach has generally been to avoid turning them into street fairs, where vendors often compete with established merchants. Instead, the emphasis is on free activities such as yoga, bike repair lessons, dancing and, as Mr. Norvell puts it, "just letting open space be open space" for people to enjoy as they choose.
Before Brooklyn Heights closed a major boulevard to cars for four Sundays in July, organizers soothed merchants' concerns with a survey that found that 91 percent of their customers arrived by foot, bike, or public transportation.
Still, it isn't an easy sell, this idea of car-free streets in cities that have long catered to the automobile. Portland helped ease concerns with a "soft closing" of streets on its six-mile route. Police were on hand to direct traffic through major intersections. On other blocks, volunteers escorted drivers to and from homes on the route.
Portland is already making plans to expand to three or four ciclovias next summer. In New York, supporters envision a regular event on the scale of Bogota's that goes through all five boroughs. Chicago plans two ciclovias for October; Baltimore, one next April.
"It's part of a sea change in how we're viewing city streets," says Susan King, the coordinator of San Francisco's event. "A city street becomes an entirely different landscape when you take the cars away. It creates opportunities for people to come out and exercise, meet their neighbors, and learn to appreciate their city in a whole new way."