Group petitioning Kenney to enjoy car-free streets again next summer

Bicyclists ride along the empty streets in Center City during the pope’s visit. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

AFTER EXPERIENCING a deserted downtown during papal weekend, a group of bike lovers is petitioning mayoral front-runner Jim Kenney to re-create the empty streets next summer.

Open Streets Philly has received almost 3,000 signatures online in the past 48 hours from city dwellers who want to experience a quiet Philadelphia again.

Alexandria Schneider, a Comcast technician from Horsham, Montgomery County, expected a few friends to join her when she told her social-media followers that she was going for a bike ride in Center City on Friday.

Hundreds followed her, and on Saturday, thousands.

"To sit down in the middle of the street, just because you can, is an incredible thing," Schneider said, adding that the campaign got more than 1,000 supporters in the first 12 hours on its change.org petition.

Restricted access to public transportation and the lack of vehicles, Schneider said, made for the perfect setting for people to bike, walk and even dance in the street.

The group's Facebook page said the mission is not to re-create the traffic box or interrupt the lives of Philadelphians on the same scale as last weekend, but to temporarily transform cars-only streets into mixed-use community spaces.

"We're not against cars," Schneider said, "but Philadelphia wasn't necessarily built for cars."

Other cities like New York and San Francisco have played with the idea of open streets, and now it's Philadelphia's turn, Schneider said.

Monitoring the campaign has been a group effort. Philadelphians Jon Geeting, an editor at the development website PlanPhilly, and Nate Hommel, director of planning and design for the University City District, have been managing the Twitter and Facebook accounts with Schneider.

"Clearly, people want this," Geeting said.

The group believes that Kenney will be mayor this time next year and that he'll stand behind the movement when he takes office. They haven't heard from Kenney yet, but said they've experienced a whirlwind two days.

The trio is open to negotiation about what sections of the city should be considered for an open-street day. Geeting suggested city festivals that already shut down some streets to vehicles as an opportunity not to interfere too much with public transit or businesses.

"It's been a grass-roots effort," Schneider said. "People want to see their city like that again."