Carl Wernicke: Open Streets Are Vibrant
If local officials need any more indication of just how much people crave a pedestrian-friendly downtown, the recent Ciclovia provided it.
Ciclovia shut down five miles of downtown to automobiles, opening the streets to bike riders and pedestrians. I rode my bike down from East Hill to check it out.
I found thousands of people frolicking on asphalt usually devoted to automobiles. There’s something about a downtown street that has been closed to cars and opened to people that draws a crowd.
I cruised the main area on Palafox Street from Garden to Palafox Pier, and from the Gulf Power building to Maritime Park, where a cycling skills event was held. There were numerous activities for kids, with streets and sidewalks jammed with people. Restaurants and coffee shops with sidewalk tables were doing a bang-up business.
And I admit I didn’t realize how many people ride. I mean kids, young adults and old people … including many older than me, definitely a comforting sight.
And the diversity of bikes was amazing. I saw many recumbent bicycles, which older riders favor. There were beach cruisers, 10-speeds, tandem cycles, kids’ bikes with trainer wheels and even something I had never seen before, a stand-up bike powered by a treadmill. The rider walked briskly on the treadmill to provide power to the wheels, and the thing looked fast. There were also bikes with trailers and baskets, carrying both kids and dogs.
There were also people on skateboards, roller blades and other devices.
We already knew, through the crowds that flock downtown for Gallery Night, that people love cruising downtown streets when cars are pushed out. And for all the success of Gallery Night, it has stirred controversy, in no small part because of alcohol consumption and a feeling by many people that the late-night party aspect was getting out of hand.
But Ciclovia proved that the attraction of car-free downtown streets is not about alcohol or late-night partying. This was a day-time party, and it was definitely kid- and family-friendly.
It should be clear by now that a primary part of the resurrection of downtown Pensacola is how friendly it has become to people on foot and, increasingly, bicycles. I’ve mentioned before that I think one of the best things city planners did was installing four-way stops at many central intersections. This step instantly made the streets safer, and thus more welcoming to people on foot and bicycle.
Modern community planning has focused on the value of limiting the impact of automobiles. Planners today stress that perhaps the single biggest thing you can do to restore the economic health of an area is to slow down the speed of passing cars and empower pedestrians and bikers. There is a growing list of success stories around the country where planners have resuscitated economically barren streetscapes by restoring the primacy of people over cars.
There is still resistance to this, including locally. Many planners still cling to the idea that the main purpose of streets is to move cars through an area as quickly as possible. But clinging to that concept puts moving traffic ahead of the interests of people and even the health of local businesses.
People will flock to fill the vacuum left when you push cars off the streets. Anyone who went downtown during Ciclovia could see that plainly enough.