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When Are Open Streets Events Really Open Streets Events?

5:43 PM PDT on April 22, 2016

Lawndale Community Bike Ride and Open Street Event flier. For detail see [PDF] version
Lawndale Community Bike Ride and Open Street Event flier. For details, see [PDF] version

This weekend, urban walkers, cyclists, and families can gear up for two first-time open streets events:

    • Tomorrow, Saturday, April 23, the city of Burbank hosts CiclaBurbank, billed as "a local Open-Streets event on the Burbank On Parade route while it's still closed to motorized traffic." The event takes place from 8:30 to 10 a.m. on Olive Avenue between Victory Boulevard and Keystone Street.CiclaValley interviewed the organizers who state that "The route is small (1 mile), the time is short (just over an hour), and I don’t expect many merchants will be interacting with riders. The City of Burbank has put a cap on registrations (250) for this first event."
    • Also tomorrow, Saturday, April 23, [corrected] the city of Lawndale hosts its Lawndale Community Bike Ride and Open Street Event. The event takes place from 8 to 10 a.m. on a 2-mile long square route bounded by Hawthorne Boulevard, Marine Avenue, Prairie Avenue, and Manhattan Beach Boulevard. Details on flier [PDF].

I am a big fan of open streets events. I helped start L.A.'s CicLAvia. I've been to lots of CicLAvias, and Beach Streets. I have planned Bay Area vacations to coincide with Sunday Streets. When I was nearby, I made sure to experience New York City's Summer Streets.

I think that CicLAvia and ciclovías have been transformative for greater Los Angeles. For participants, they are liberating. For cyclists, it shows us the breadth of humanity who really want to bike. For pedestrians, it shows how welcoming car-free spaces are. For families, they are safe fun places to explore cities. For new or very infrequent riders, it shows that it is much easier than you expect to bike farther than you think you can (in less time than you thought.) Even for people who just see the photos of the event, it helps to re-imagine what a street can be.

As a cyclist I am used to scaled-back expectations. I am used to taking the crumbs of leftover space after drivers have consumed all they can.

But I confess that I am kind of skeptical of this weekend's open streets events.

How many hours long does an open streets event need to be? I do not recall having done one that lasted fewer than five to six hours. So, if an event lasts 90 minutes or two hours, is it really open streets? If I don't have time to take a break, talk to friends, get a snack, then it isn't really open. If it takes me longer to get to the event than the event lasts, then I won't show. I'm going to get quantitative and assert that four hours is about the minimum duration for an open streets event worth the name.

How far do open streets have to extend? None of the U.S. open streets events can hold a candle to Bogota's Ciclovía, which opens 80 miles of streets every Sunday. But at least a couple miles is very worthwhile. I did a three-mile Sunday Streets route in the Mission in San Francisco one year, and it was great. To me, Lawndale's two miles sounds right around the bare minimum, but Burbank's one mile sounds inadequate.

Should, in Lawndale's case, Metro be investing limited open streets funding in 2-hour long 2-mile long events? In my opinion, probably not - or Metro should at least gear its funding criteria to favor full-fledged events.

In the case of Burbank, there is an opportunistic element to the event. There is no Metro funding. The organizers are taking advantage of already-closed streets for a later parade. It is a bit similar to Long Beach's pre-Grand Prix open streets, even though they pale in comparison to full-on Beach Streets. Burbank's doesn't quite feel open if there is a need for pre-registration and arm-bands, and a limit of 250 participants.

I am for opportunism.

But... should we be calling these mini-events "open streets"?

(I guess they are quite called "open streets" exactly: Lawndale is "open street" and Burbank is "Open-Streets" but I am getting nitpicky.)

Can we call them something else? Half-open streets? Ajar streets? Ciclovía-itas? Mini-streets?

Because if Burbank, or Lawndale, or Pomona, or West Hollywood, or Echo Park, does a tiny little brief open streets event, and not a lot of people show up, there are downsides. Businesses complain. Drivers complain. For years, we get to hear the city officials say "Oh, we tried that once, and it didn't work."

My unsolicited closing advice to wise people in Burbank and Lawndale (I am not in your shoes, so I don't know what you were attempting to do and what sorts of compromises you may have endured): Enjoy this weekend's events. But please keep pushing for a real full-on open streets event. It will be transformative.

Readers - what do you think? How long and how far should be the minimum for an open streets event? What would you call these mini-ciclovías?

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