Five takeaways from Philly Free Streets 2017

The southern end of this year’s Philly Free Streets in Old City (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

This year’s Philly Free Streets was hotly anticipated, as the first truly official city-directed open streets event following last year’s pilot. I’m a bit of an open streets buff because of their potential for cultural change (see this post on the four separate open streets events I made it to in 2015), so it’s no surprise that I was basically counting down the days to see what this year had to offer.

What was surprising is the mix of joy — but also disappointment — I felt when I hit the streets on October 28th.

Between the dead zones, confusing instructions, and Pokemon GO players stopping in the middle of the street like tourists in Times Square, it lacked the pizazz of last year’s vibrant route down South Street.

A scene from the first Philly Free Streets in 2016 (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

I want to make one thing very clear: this is in no way a criticism of the program itself. It should obviously happen again! But the route’s expansion to 7 miles round trip was ambitious, and presented some challenges that I don’t think were properly addressed.

And so it is with nothing but love (sisterly affection?) that I offer the following list of takeaways — and suggestions — for Philly Free Streets.

A chalk “intersection repair” circle helps a lot — but the lack of a wholesale, holistic, and legible streetscape makeover was a missed opportunity (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

1: Take a lesson from tactical urbanism.

Or better yet, hire tactical urbanists! People who specialize in the quick-and-easy small-scale reprogramming of public spaces have got this pop-up thing down (that’s a lot of hyphens). The route, which snaked its way up to El Centro De Oro at 5th and Indiana Ave., was plagued with uneven pockets of dead zones (blank walls, beware) and equally challenging areas of congestion where the street narrowed in walkable Old City. Where the route widened out, the effect was alienating — making it seem less popular than it certainly was.

An unpleasant intersection made even more confusing by a lack of direction mid-route (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

The programming that did exist attempted to close the gaps in these problem intersections but were facing the challenge that so many suburban roads face: a wide open space with no anchors to make it feel human-scale, and too much pavement to be covered with a few simple tents or Adirondack chairs.

These kinds of places need a comprehensive intervention. I’m talking massive triangle-takeovers with paint, planters, and umbrellas (especially with the weather as nice as it was). To create the “room” effect in such a space (see the first image in this article), you really need to get creative. Turn the empty space into distinct “pockets” — maybe a makeshift market with food trucks, tables, and chairs, opposite that Vision Zero training area with some space for play. Or bring out the big guns and showcase what’s possible on this street when it’s not opened for people by adding trees in standing planters to bring the scale down a bit. More pop-up Indego stations couldn’t hurt, either.

In short: Take the opportunity to spur culture change with tactical interventions to the urban form, more demos of things like buffered bike lanes and complete streets improvements, and bring out the cafe tables and chairs from the local businesses to showcase local culture and create a vibrant street life.
Case study: Open Street #2. Earth Day/CarFree NYC programming on Broadway

2: People first, always.

The value of human capital cannot be understated, and open streets are the epitome of putting people first when it comes to special events in a city. When we take the streets, we interact with each other, maybe even more than when we’re simply hanging out in our local public space. The great thing about open streets is it gets people moving, talking, playing, in a place and circumstance that they don’t otherwise get to use on a daily basis.

When we’re walking around with nothing to do but celebrate our day-long freedom, we’re seeking that kind of interaction. Unless you’re just trying to take advantage of a different running or cycling route, we expect shared experience as we celebrate our city.

Enter Pokemon GO.

Those chance (in-person) encounters during a shared experience like open streets reinforce weak social ties in a community (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

With all the talk of social isolation and keeping our heads in our phones, it was surprising to me to have this event co-sponsored by Niantic, the software company behind the still-popular (?) augmented reality game.

Groups of people huddled around their phones dotted the route changing the atmosphere of the event (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Now, for the record, I was a fan of Pokemon when it first came out on the ol’ Game Boy (hello early stage Millennials!) and I’ve talked about weighing the benefits of getting families out together in public space, even if only through an app. But the huddled masses of zombie-like clusters playing Pokemon GO felt like an invasive species overwhelming an otherwise active and social event.

Making your way around these shambling fans was made even more difficult by the lack of clear signage separating people on foot and by bike, as well as the lack of friendly faces directing certain people (*ahem*) to stay out of the flow. A lack of people also meant that many instructions were printed on signs instead. Some were directed at cyclists to avoid riding with cameras or phones out, creating an atmosphere of negativity (especially when so many people walking were doing just that).

My takeaway: Less Pokemon GO, more people on the ground. Increase the number of smiling volunteers at key intervals to act as ambassadors for the event, and to help guide people where they need to go where signage (or sporadic painted lines) are absent or unclear. Researchers were also notably absent this year.
Case study: Open Street #3. Philly Free Streets 2016 (when the streets were filled to the brim with neighbors)
Kids on bikes further up the route (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

3: Play to your strengths.

Philly is a “city of neighborhoods,” as they say. Why not leverage that wealth of cultural identity? The results of research conducted during last year’s event revealed an unfortunate lack of diversity when the route ran the length of South Street, presumably because it attracted more people from the surrounding (predominately white population) neighborhoods.

Lively Puerto Rican Bomba music at the northern end of the route El Centro De Oro (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Crossing the city from north to south (rather than east to west, nearer to Center City) meant that the event could be more equitable, and allow neighbors from northern areas of the city to simply walk out their door and into the street. I also think (and I could be wrong) that creating a bridge between Old City and El Centro De Oro was meant to bring people together who otherwise may not cross paths on a daily basis.

Was this successful? It’s hard to tell. Participant observations along the route showed what appeared to be a still-segregated event, with more white families toward the southern end and more diversity further up. It could be that people didn’t “complete” the route, instead clustering where they’re more familiar. And if that’s the case, what can be done about it next time?

San Francisco’s Sunday Streets puts on multiple routes per year, rotating the location and programming for both “staying” activity and for travel along the length of the route (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Luckily, we already have a local model for what works: the hugely successful Parks on Tap program. Why not rotate Philly Free Streets to a different neighborhood area each month? A dedicated Northern route, like half of this year’s, could put a greater emphasis on the local culture and incentivize people to make the trip. The same could be done from University City westward, South Street could be replicated again, and a route further south could be added as well. This system is already done in some cities (like San Francisco), allowing neighbors to experience what’s possible right outside their doors, as well as create an opportunity for those unfamiliar with that part of the city to see what it has to offer.

My suggestion: Create the “Parks on Tap” of open streets, celebrating each major quadrant and bringing people to the event for the unique cultural offerings. I’d also suggest trying out a shared space section of the route if done in Center City to give people free reign over an area of the city already primed for walkability (Old City would have been perfect for this).
Case study: Open Street #1. Sunday Streets in San Francisco, and #4. Summer Streets in NYC for the shared street experiment around Wall Street
This is what happens when we prioritize security over safety. (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

4: Dump the dump trucks. Period.

I have one word to summarize my frustration with the situation illustrated above: Nope.

In all seriousness, dump trucks at the intersections where traffic crossed the open streets route was one of the worst features from last year’s Free Streets event. However, last year they were sparsely used and the water-filled barriers (in their ugly high-vis glory) were good enough for most intersections where security was a concern.

Logistically, the dump trucks are a nightmare for any kind of consistent, safe flow of people walking and cycling. Access around the trucks was nearly impossible to navigate by bike, forcing people onto the sidewalk or squeezing them through the narrow gap of available pavement at the rear-end of a garbage collector (fun…).

From Summer Streets NYC this year: clearly marked instructions (right of image), a visible and friendly volunteer at every crossing watching the lights, and no blockades (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

There was also an issue of visibility and even being able to tell what your directive was once you cleared the hulking mass. Do we wait for the light at this intersection, or the police officer to tell us when to cross (or both)? In wayfinding, if you can’t see the next leg of your journey or anticipate your future route (through either viewsheds, landmarks, or direct geographical instructions), you’re less likely to continue along that route.

Miles of streets for people, not a dump truck in sight (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

I was struck (again) by the lack of volunteers giving instructions and the reliance on these high-security brutalist measures that created confusion, interrupted traffic flow, and were an ugly affront to an otherwise joyful event. Not to play the NYC card, but at Summer Streets, miles of open streets create a seamless route through Manhattan, relying only on human direction and blocking streets off further down the block, rather than obstructing the flow.

Hot take: Homeland Security be damned, the trucks have got to go. Think about the experience of the people and create a more friendly — and safe — way of blocking the threat of a runaway/malicious driver. Better still, think about that every day you design our city.
Case study: Open street #4. Summer Streets in NYC
The “festival” section at the start of the route in Old City, near the end of the day and packed to the brim with people (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

5: Give us more time.

People love open streets and they’re great for the city. They create a moment to take a breath of fresh air, enjoy car-free silence, and connect with neighbors. They give us space to roam, explore, and bike/walk/run/skate/roll along a stretch of public space in absolute freedom — even if just for a day.

And yet, without fail, the city closes the street at 1PM.

More of this, not less (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

This is my biggest complaint for all open streets events in the US. For the life of me, I still don’t know why we haven’t moved beyond this arbitrary cutoff period (and yes, even NYC does it for some odd reason). We’ll never advance to the next step and get beyond the car-culture in this country if we don’t keep pushing the envelope for programs like this. Five hours of open streets is done and over with. Time to push forward.

The consensus: We know what works. Give us the time we deserve to exercise, hang out, connect with our neighbors, and have the room to breath and think without the constraints of the auto-dominant paradigm causing us stress. Consider lengthening it to an entire day so we get the full run of this fleeting opportunity. And next year, please do more than one.
Case study: Common sense
Philly, we love you. Let’s get better together. (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)

Mayor Jim Kenney said in July, “It’s such a car-dependent society. People argue about parking all the time… We just want to deemphasize the car for a few hours in a given day so people can enjoy being out here and being safe.”

So let’s take it further. Let’s build on the success of these first two events and really show people what’s possible in our city. Philly has the potential to be the best walking and cycling city in the country, but we need people to experience what life is like when you move beyond antiquated 20th century transportation modes to change our auto-dominated culture.

When cities like Paris are “acting for future generations” and pedestrianizing their city center, we’ve got a serious case of catch-up. And if we already know what works, and know what we want, why not act now?

What’s stopping us?

Do it for them. (Photo by Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman)