Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced that a three-mile section of Georgia Avenue will be closed to automobile traffic for several hours in October for the District’s inaugural Open Streets event. Open Streets is a worldwide program that temporarily pedestrianizes streets. It’s an effort to encourage community building, more active transportation, and to help people think differently about this public space.
People first on Open Streets
More than 130 cities in North America already participate in the Open Streets program, including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Seattle was the US first city to participate, but the concept originated in Bogotá, Colombia in 1976.
Colombia’s Ciclovias attract a million or more participants every Sunday and public holiday, when 120 km of main streets in Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, and other municipalities are closed to cars from 7 am to 2 pm. People on foot, bike, skates, and more enjoy fitness classes and musical performances. Brussels’s Open Streets event covers an area larger than the entire District of Columbia.
In DC, nearly three miles of Georgia Avenue (between Barry Place NW and Missouri Avenue NW) will be host people on foot, bicycle, scooter and more from 10 am to 2 pm. The event is part of the District’s Vision Zero pledge, and it hopes to encourage non-automobile modes of transportation.
“Open Streets is a unique event that will allow residents and businesses to reimagine public roads as community spaces and to consider new possibilities about the future of transportation and infrastructure in our city,” Bowser said in a press release. “Together, at a fun, family-friendly event, we can explore the benefits of having fewer cars on our roads.”
The program aims to democratize the use of city streets, reduce air pollution (albeit, briefly), and promote more active modes of transportation. A number of Open Streets events around the world also host vendors. DC’s event will host demonstrations, children’s activities, and bike clinics, and there are three stages for aerobics and Zumba classes, music, and more.
Some business owners have misgivings
Since people walk around rather than drive, it’s easier for them discover new local shops. A similar event in Baltimore called Fells Point Al Fresco has proven very popular with residents and local businesses alike. “We need more tables!” one restaurant owner said after the event.
That being said, at a recent public meeting some business owners on the affected section of Georgia Avenue expressed concern that closing the street to cars would mean fewer customers. One said that “the process of developing the event has been imposing and dismissive of similar events such as the Georgia Avenue Day Festivals and the Caribbean Carnivals.”
Local businesses are welcome to get involved though. Businesses can submit a plan to DDOT about how they want to use space on Georgia Avenue until Saturday, August 31, and agency is also looking for volunteers to host water stations or to allow attendees to use restrooms.
Open Streets programs have faced some resistance from cities mostly due to their cost, but they have a net benefit from health improvements (so long as cities host them frequently enough). Plus, it’s hard to quantify the value of helping people envision another way of using public streets and bonding with their community, but it is certainly valuable.
Although smaller in scope and duration than some more established Open Streets events, the Georgia Avenue closure seems like a step in the right direction. What do you think of the Georgia Avenue event? What else do you want to see out of Open Streets in our region?