Central Philadelphia became an unexpected happy experiment during the Papal visit. Not only was the public realm free of the noise, pollution, frustration, and danger of motor vehicles, it was well-used by smiling people of all shapes and sizes, many of whom rode bicycles.
By allowing people to experience human-oriented streets, the sudden and widespread freedom from cars had an effect no amount of logic, graphics, advocacy, or public meetings could achieve.
It is unclear to what extent the people-centered utopia was anticipated. The doomsday-like media coverage probably scared thousands out of town – and hurt small businesses. But Alexandria Schneider, a Philly cyclist had the foresight to plan Pope Ride, a mass bike ride to take advantage of security-mandated Open Streets.
The Pope Ride was lots of fun, and likely increased the number of bicycles, but what struck me as extraordinary was the sheer mass of city streets and intersections being used exclusively by people.
The traffic box produced something radically new. Never before had people reigned car-free over as large an area, for that much time, on streets made of smooth pavement mostly free of horse dung and trolley tracks, riding modern bicycles, some pulling trailers with toddlers, each person having the ability to capture photographs and share in distributed media platforms.
Open Streets on steroids
More and more cities are holding Open Streets events, in which an isolated street is temporarily closed to vehicles – and opened to people – but the papal security plan inadvertently triggered Open City. The area in which people reigned free of cars was massive. And it lasted for more than two days, far longer than the few hours typically allotted for Open Streets.
The sheer amount of space and time over which we enjoyed people-oriented streets was unprecedented. At first it was strange, but we got used to simultaneous quietude and vibrancy. Moving vehicles were so uncommon that we keenly noticed the few that did move.
One of the greatest displeasures was seeing cars again at borders like South Street. A woman from the Pennsylvania National Guard playfully foresaw our disappointment at 38th Street in West Philly.
Open Streets is one of an innovative set of approaches known as Tactical Urbanism (also the name of a book by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia). Originally borne of the first Open Streets in Miami, Tactical Urbanism seeks to short circuit preconceived notions and bureaucratic planning by allowing people to experience low-cost changes on a temporary basis before committing to permanent conversions.
When people feel the immediate benefits of a curb bump-out made of orange cones, a protected bike lane made of flower pots, or a crosswalk painted by vigilantes, they and their elected representatives are much more likely to buy-in to permanent changes than they otherwise would be if the improvement was described verbally or graphically.
The same is true for restricting automobiles on city streets. Most well-meaning Americans can hardly imagine such a thing. For all who visited Center City this weekend, however, imagination is no longer necessary.
Thousands of adults and children walked, biked, and played in the streets and intersections. The often spoken consensus was that it was wonderful. It felt as natural and instinctive as it should have for a species that walked freely on city streets for thousands of years.
More Open City
Thousands of people experienced something new and positive during the Papal visit. It follows that the net level of support for enhanced public space, active transportation, and Open Streets is greater than pre-Popenstreets levels.
Cities like Paris, Madrid, and New York are restricting automobiles in significant parts of their centralities. Philadelphia just proved that massively restricting cars in a car-dominated American city is not only possible, it can be transformative.
There is little reason not to repeat this exercise regularly at varying scales, without any need to restrict highways, major bridges, or transit systems, or to deploy secret service, national guard, or miles of fencing. Rather than scaring people away, Open City should be about welcoming people to Philadelphia and its businesses.
Pope Francis speaks a message of social, economic, and environmental equality, but he is likely unaware of the blanket of civilized justice he bestowed on the streets of Philadelphia just by showing up.
By Monday afternoon street life in the city returned to the reality that is automobile dominance. We felt some level of PopenStreets withdrawal, being forced back onto the sidewalk by the powerful momentum of cars and car culture. But the seeds were planted in our brains of what an Open City feels like, and that too is powerful.