Gil Penalosa presents Ciclovias in Palo Alto

Gil PenalosaGil Peñalosa, Executive Director of the non-profit organization 8 – 80 Cities, gave an inspirational presentation to about 200 residents on Monday, June 4 at Cubberley Community Center in south Palo Alto. The event, co-sponsored by Greenbelt Alliance and the Grand Boulevard Initiative, showcased examples from around the world of auto-oriented streets that have been transformed with new designs that enable efficient transportation for pedestrian, bicyclists, and motorists alike, and are safe for everyone ages 8 to 80. Mr Peñalosa stressed that such street reconstructions are not being held back due to a lack of funding, but by a lack of strong political leadership and community support. He showed many photos and a video from his native Colombia, which has implemented many transportation projects still considered “advanced” in the Bay Area, such as Bus Rapid Transit systems and separated bike lanes (“cycle tracks”), even though Colombia is 8 times poorer than the United States. [1]

Gil Penalosa presenting in Palo AltoMr Peñalosa introduced his presentation with a series of thought-provoking questions: “Think of a child you really love. Now think of an old person you really love. Now ask yourself: ‘Is it safe enough in my city for them to go where they want to go – walking or on a bike? If not, ask yourself, ‘Why not? What can we do to make it safe?’. That’s what the concept of 8 – 80 cities is all about – making our streets safe for everyone ages 8 to 80.”

Mr Peñalosa is internationally-renown for initiating and promoting a program that many “8 – 80 cities” share – ciclovías, which is Spanish for “bike path”. Ciclovías are temporary events, typically held on Sundays, in which streets normally used almost exclusively by private automobiles are closed to vehicle traffic and opened up for residents to walk, jog, bicycle, skate, dance, play, and socialize. The events have a festive atmosphere, with performing musicians, and aerobics and dance instructors leading visitors through various routines. The Bogotá Ciclovía is still the world’s largest such event – it occurs every Sunday year-round, includes over 70 miles of the city’s streets, and up to 2 million residents participate (roughly 30% of Bogotá’s population) each Sunday. [2]

The ciclovía concept has spread to over 70 cities in North America alone, which are listed on the Open Streets Project website. These open streets events have proven to be popular among residents, visitors, and business owners. Participants enjoy improved health and strengthened communities since the events create opportunities for families to exercise and meet neighbors in the streets, typically the largest public space in any city. Open street events create temporary public parks available for everyone to use for free, help alleviate traffic congestion and air pollution, and benefit local merchants who operate retail businesses located along the streets closed to vehicle traffic.

San Francisco Sunday Streets - Valencia St

San Francisco Sunday Streets on Oct 23, 2011. View facing north on Valencia Street.

San Francisco’s open streets event, called Sunday Streets, attracts thousands of visitors from all over the Bay Area, and recently celebrated its 5-year anniversary.  It has steadily expanded from 2 events in 2008 to 10 events in 2012. The most popular are those located in the city’s iconic Mission neighborhood, for which Valencia Street from 14th St to 24th St and 24th St from Valencia St to Hampshire St (a distance of 2 miles) are opened up to public use. Los Angeles’s open streets event, called CicLAvia, has taken place 4 times since 2010, and the most recent event, on April 15, 2012, included a total of 10 miles of streets.

San Francisco Sunday Streets - Parklet

Parklets replace vehicle parking spaces with small public parks. This one allows the adjacent retail business to increase revenues with an outdoor coffee bar. It also includes a bike parking corral. Parklets can be installed on a temporary basis for open streets events.

Open streets events have yet to take off on the same scale in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, however. San Jose’s Via Velo, held May 15, 2010, included less than 1 mile of San Fernando Street in downtown. And even though the event had a corporate sponsor (Mattson Technology), it hasn’t been held a second time due to concerns over costs to the city. San Mateo County’s Streets Alive event, held the first weekend in May in 2011 and 2012, includes about 15 different cities/towns in the county, but only a few blocks of downtown streets are typically included – and these streets are already closed to vehicle traffic for several events such as farmers markets at other times of the year.

Palo Alto’s new Bicycle + Pedestrian Transportation Plan, which has been under development for over a year as is expected to be approved by the City Council in July 2012, includes open streets events as one of many recommended programs to encourage more walking and bicycling.

In Section 5.2.6 Recurring or Temporary Spaces and Events, the plan states:

Some of the proven benefits/successes of Ciclovía-style events include:

  • Focused public attention on active transportation and physical fitness
  •  Opportunities for residents to explore and rediscover areas of the City that they would otherwise be uncomfortable to walk/bike/jog during normal traffic operations
  •  Focused economic development that celebrates downtown and/or neighborhood eateries, merchants, and culture
  •  Family/Senior-friendly social events

[1] GDP per capita (current US$), 2010. The World Bank.
[2] Car-Free Streets, a Colombian Export, Inspire Debate. Javier C. Hernandez, The New York Times, June 24, 2008.

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