There are a lot of hashtags flying around for the Pope visit, but my favorite is definitely #popenstreets. A delightful portmanteau of “Pope” and “Open Streets,” it highlights a significant undercurrent of excitement that many Philadelphians are feeling about Pope Francis’ visit - excitement that has little to do with religious fervor.
While the complaints about the road closures associated with the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia have been numerous, I’ve mostly heard a different story from my friends, colleagues, and the Facebook group I manage, Women Bike PHL. Instead of complaining, some of us are positively gleeful about the prospect of pedaling - or walking, jogging, skateboarding or even dancing - through streets free of the usual cars, buses, taxis and trucks.
As early as Wednesday night, I pedaled home down the Fairmount Avenue bike lane fully conscious of the lack of parked cars on my right hand side. Unfortunately, I’m usually constantly watching out so I don’t get “doored” on this and other similar streets. To be able to ride without that anxiety was glorious.
The much-talked-about Pope Ride tomorrow morning is probably the best example of this #popenstreets energy. But you don’t have to be on a bicycle to find it magical. Just to be able to stand in the middle of the street and take a photograph of City Hall from a new angle is exciting. To be able to walk around, talking to my mom on the phone, without getting interrupted by a driver cutting me off in the crosswalk where I have the right of way. To be able to navigate streets without feeling like you’re in a game of Frogger….what a concept
It’s not a new concept, in Philly or elsewhere. We have a vibrant tradition of small-scale, and even some large-scale, street closures. We are a city of block parties upon block parties upon block parties, and we are proud of that. We shut down one of our biggest streets for the Broad Street Run, we shut down streets for Diner en Blanc, we shut down streets for the Food Trust’s wildly popular Night Markets. All of these events, I would hazard to guess, entice people to come out partially for the running, the food, the white outfits - and partially because it’s fun to be out in the street.
Why shouldn't we combine this large-scale #popenstreets enthusiasm with our city’s rich history of blocking off our individual blocks for cookouts, and take it to the next level? Let's have regularly-scheduled Open Streets events in Philadelphia - not just for Broad Street Runners, or Diner-En-Blanc lottery winners, or the residents of a few blocks, or Catholic pilgrims, but for all of us.
If you haven’t heard of Open Streets before, it’s a pretty simple concept: Temporarily close a street to motor vehicle traffic and open it to everything else. Provide some programming - maybe Zumba, yoga or vendors. Then watch how it can strengthen community ties, connect us in new ways, and just provide some much-needed breathing room to a big city’s inhabitants.
As the Open Streets Initiative's mission statement notes: “With more than 100 documented initiatives in North America, open streets are increasingly common in cities seeking innovative ways to achieve environmental, social, economic, and public health goals.”
New York does it. Los Angeles does it. Philly can do it too. Maybe #popenstreets can point us in the right direction? Let’s not let the party stop when the Pope leaves town.