Street Smart Chicago

State of Freedom: Can Open Streets downtown sell City Hall on future ciclovias?

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Photo: Brett Mohr

By John Greenfield

“On State Street, that great street, I just want to say
They do things they don’t do on Broadway”
—“Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” by Fred Fisher

The question is, can Chicago do on State Street what New York City already does successfully, not on Broadway but on Park Avenue; what San Francisco does on Grant Avenue; and what Bogotá, Colombia, does on Calle 11?

After two previous attempts, the Active Transportation Alliance hopes Saturday’s car-free event on State Street will finally convince City Hall to embrace the ciclovia concept.

Born in Bogotá, the “ciclovia” (Spanish for “bike path”) concept closes streets to motorized traffic, creating safe spaces for citizens to bicycle, jog, stroll, play and mingle, encouraging healthy recreation and social interaction. Ciclovias are now popular around the world, and most of America’s bike-friendly major cities are holding successful events, but the model still hasn’t gained a foothold in Chicago.

This could change after Saturday’s Open Streets on State Street ciclovia, when for five hours the sight, sound and smell of hundreds of automobiles, cabs and buses on the famous thoroughfare will be replaced by thousands of people enjoying a giant block party. The free event takes place from 10am to 3pm, with State Street closed to traffic between Lake and Van Buren. Vehicles will be permitted to cross the route at Madison and Monroe.

The Active Transportation Alliance (Active Trans), a local nonprofit that advocates for sustainable transportation, and the Chicago Loop Alliance, the downtown chamber of commerce, are coordinating the event. This is the third year Active Trans has staged a ciclovia, but unlike in most other towns that have held successful car-free events, Chicago’s city government has not been actively involved in organizing or funding the ciclovias.

Sunday Parkways 2008/Photo: John Greenfield

“The coolest thing about Open Streets is that for one day State Street will be transformed from five lanes of motorized traffic into the ultimate playground for everyone to walk, dance, skate, relax and breath,” says Julia Kim, Active Trans’ Open Streets manager. While the roughly half-mile route doesn’t offer much distance for jogging or biking, the event promises to be unlike anything ever experienced on the celebrated street. There will be a temporary skateboard park, and a 500-square-foot “Imagination Playground” where kids can construct their own playground equipment with giant blue blocks. Brickheadz, a local breakdancing crew, will be performing and giving lessons and participants can try aerobics, yoga and Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. There will also be “pop-up lawns”: twenty-by-ten-foot sodded areas with furniture installed in the street where folks can people-watch, read or nap. The event also features dunking booths (which might be a bit chilly in October), four-square competitions (the physical game, not the mobile social app) and even a roller-disco rink, complete with a booming sound system and mirror ball.

The price tag for Open Streets is $125,000. The Illinois Center for Broadcasting is the presenting sponsor, with additional funding coming from PNC Bank, Walgreens and Lady Foot Locker, plus donations from The Polk Bros Foundation and the Hopps family, according to Kim. The Loop Alliance is contributing $50,000 via its role as administrator of the State Street Special Service Area (SSA), the local tax district that funds expanded services and programs within the area via a special property tax.

The Loop Alliance is no stranger to innovative programming, having also presented Looptopia, an all-night arts celebration that took place downtown in 2007 and 2008, as well as last year’s giant eyeball installation on State Street. It’s also responsible for this year’s “GO DO GOOD” campaign on State, promoting volunteerism via a six-story mural and street banners. Open Streets is doubling as the closing celebration for the campaign.

The Loop Alliance helped Active Trans organize the ciclovia and facilitated approvals from various city agencies and local aldermen Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward) and Robert Fioretti (2nd Ward), according to the chamber of commerce’s executive director Ty Tabing. His organization also helped with marketing and promoting the event to downtown colleges and condo associations.

Tabing says the Loop Alliance’s involvement is all about economics. The State Street business strip has long been an underperforming stepsister to Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile. In 1979, Mayor Jane Byrne converted the street into a bus-only pedestrian mall, a move that Mayor Richard M. Daley reversed in 1996 after it failed to revitalize the district. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that ciclovias benefit retailers,” Tabing says. “In other cities, events like this have resulted in an increase in sales for adjacent businesses.”

Although Active Trans staged ciclovias in 2008 and 2009 with little assistance from the city, Kim acknowledges that the advocacy group doesn’t have the resources to continue organizing and funding the events without more help in the future. “We really need to partner with the city to make this a long-term, sustainable program,” she says.

“The reality is this is something that benefits the whole city so the city government should be paying for it,” says Gil Peñalosa, who helped pioneer the ciclovia concept when he served as Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation in Bogotá, where the event first emerged in the 1970s. In the late nineties, Peñalosa helped grow that city’s Sunday Ciclovia into an event that takes place every week, regularly drawing 1.5 million residents to play on a seventy-mile network of car-free streets. He now serves as executive director of 8-80 Cities, a Canadian nonprofit that promotes walkable, bikeable communities.

Peñalosa says the ciclovia model offers many benefits to cities. “It’s really good for public health and for people’s mental health,” he says. “Traffic emissions and noise go down. People realize how close together things are and they say, ‘Oh my God, if there was a safe bike route I could bike there.’ It’s good for economic development because it makes your city seem fun, energetic and youthful. And it’s an exercise in social integration because it brings old and young, rich and poor, and all races together to socialize, which is very nice for a city like Chicago with all kinds of ethnicities.”

In the last decade the ciclovia concept has spread to other Latin American and European cities, and after former Active Trans executive director Randy Neufeld experienced the Bogotá event firsthand in 2003, he became an early proponent of importing the idea to the United States. Active Trans soon began lobbying the City of Chicago to put on a ciclovia, and in 2006 the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) included the proposal as a strategy to improve cycling in its Bike 2015 Plan: “Establish a free ‘Sunday Parkways’ bicycle ride along a network of streets closed to motorized traffic.” The bike plan recommended holding the event along the Chicago Boulevard System, the “emerald necklace” of tree-lined roadways linking many of the city’s major parks.

Rob Sadowsky, who was Active Trans’ executive director for much of the last decade and now heads the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Oregon, recalls giving a presentation about Chicago’s ciclovia proposal at a planning conference in 2006. A staffer from the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s bicycle program was in the audience. “She said, ‘We’re going to beat Chicago to this,’ and they did,” Sadowsky says.

While various City of Chicago agencies declined to take responsibility for a ciclovia, Portland’s transportation department pitched the idea to then-mayor Tom Potter. “He said, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Sadowsky. “He was willing to champion the idea and take the political risk.” Portland now stages five events, also called Sunday Parkways, per year on various, roughly twelve-mile routes, each drawing up to 35,000 participants, more than five percent of the city’s population. The local government spends $250,000 of city funds per year on the ciclovias, Sadowsky says. “That’s not a lot of money for five programs that touch a large percentage of residents and get a lot of people moving.”

City-sponsored ciclovias have blossomed in other U.S. cities as well. New York City now shuts down seven miles of Park Avenue for three consecutive Saturdays in August for its Summer Streets program, drawing an average of 50,000 people per event. San Francisco’s eight Sunday Streets ciclovias this year are drawing 15,000 to 20,000 people each. Other U.S. cities holding car-free events this year include Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minneapolis and even Durham, North Carolina.

But launching the ciclovia in Chicago has been a bumpy ride. In 2008, after New York, San Francisco and Portland had already put on successful events, Active Trans finally staged two Sunday Parkways events on two different 3.5-mile routes encompassing both the North Side and the South Side, including Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Lawndale, Little Village and Pilsen, mostly low-income neighborhoods. In 2009 Active Trans combined the two routes into a seven-mile course for a one-day event, drawing 12,000 participants. Since it took place on a Saturday rather than a Sunday, the name changed to Open Streets.

With no financial help from City Hall, the advocacy group took responsibility for all fundraising. The 2008 events cost a total of $400,000, largely because the city required a heavy police and traffic-control-aide presence to manage intersections, where motor vehicles were permitted to cross the route. The following year, the city government felt more comfortable with the event and eased these requirements, so the cost fell to $300,000.

Although turnout was not as heavy as the organizers would have liked, these ciclovias were joyful affairs as the leafy boulevards were filled with bicyclists of all stripes, kids on tricycles, Rollerbladers, joggers and parents with strollers. Like the upcoming event on State Street, there was skateboarding, yoga, aerobics, Capoeira and breakdancing, as well as salsa dancing and high-school band performances. It was unlike anything Chicagoans had ever experienced, and people wanted more.

But in 2010 there was no major ciclovia here. Less grant money was available from the Chicago Community Trust, the charitable foundation that was one of the principal funding sources, according to Sadowsky. The Open Streets Stakeholders Committee, a consortium of public-health organizations and neighborhood groups that Active Trans assembled to help gather support for the events, decided to put the ciclovia on hold that year. They determined instead to use grant money to hire a full-time staffer to work on making the ciclovia a sustainable event.

Despite these difficulties, Sadowsky calls his role in organizing the ciclovias, “one of the most enjoyable and fruitful experiences of my life,” largely due to his involvement with the community groups. “What was frustrating was not getting Mayor Daley’s support,” he says. “It wasn’t that he opposed it. It just didn’t rise to the top of his list. Therefore no one from city departments like Special Events and Public Health felt like they could stand up for the event.”

Using Chicago Community Trust funding, Active Trans hired Julia Kim in February and she immediately set to work finding partners and sponsors for a future ciclovia. “At first we weren’t planning to do another ciclovia until 2012,” she says. “We didn’t try to get the city to organize an event or line up sponsors this year. It seemed premature because of what’s been going on with the changes to the Taste of Chicago transitioning [to a smaller-scale event that is less expensive for the city to fund] and the changing of the guard at City Hall. It didn’t seem like the right time to ask.

“But when we connected with the Chicago Loop Alliance and the opportunity came up to do this on State Street as the final celebration for ‘GO DO GOOD,’ we decided to go for it,” says Kim. “We pulled this off in only seven months.”

They also shrunk the event to seven blocks instead of seven miles, let alone Bogotá’s seventy, and moved it away from low-income neighborhoods to some of the city’s most expensive real estate, a strategy that might have alienated the community groups on the stakeholders committee. But Active Trans’ Director of Outreach and Advocacy Adolfo Hernandez, who grew up in Little Village, thinks the gamble will pay off. “The change in venue to an iconic downtown corridor with all its associated attractions will raise the profile of the event,” he says “It will engage the public and get everyone excited about the movement.”

Photo: Active Trans

“I don’t think Active Trans would be excited about doing this every Sunday only on State Street,” he adds. “We want to stay true to our vision and connect the neighborhoods.” He hopes that a successful State Street event will convince the city to give more support to the event, allowing it to expand to more days on a longer route that could eventually connect to low-income communities via streets like Ogden, Madison and Milwaukee. (The Wicker Park-Bucktown Chamber of Commerce has discussed the possibility of staging a ciclovia on Milwaukee with Active Trans and local alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno, who was open to the idea, according to Brent Norsman, the owner of Copenhagen Cyclery who serves on the transportation committee for the local SSA.)

Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, one of the stakeholders-committee organizations, supports the move to State Street. “I think it’s great to have gained the support of the retail and corporate community for a street closure that celebrates active living,” she says. “After this event I am hopeful that we can discuss connecting the neighborhoods to State Street like spokes of a wheel with downtown being the hub.”

Jaime de Leon from Enlace Chicago, a nonprofit based in Little Village, also on the stakeholders committee, approves of the new location as well. “Five years ago the intention was to bring the event into communities of color. The error we made was that there was not enough population density along the boulevards and they weren’t iconic in the same way State Street is.” Last year he traveled to Bogotá with Hernandez for a workshop on ciclovias. “They told us ciclovias are generally more successful if they start on iconic streets,” he says. “In time the goal should be to reach all parts of the city.”

Kim and Hernandez are optimistic the new leadership at City Hall will be more receptive to the ciclovia than the Daley administration was. “With Rahm Emanuel and [new CDOT Commissioner] Gabe Klein we now have a mayor and a commissioner who understand the importance of livability and understand what pedestrians and people riding bikes can do for the city,” says Hernandez. “It’s not just about people having fun but also improving public health and boosting the local economy.”

So just how receptive is City Hall to the ciclovia concept if, five years after CDOT endorsed the idea in the Bike 2015 Plan, the city still hasn’t done much to make the event happen? “Our position has been that not every strategy in the 2015 Plan is designed to be done by the city,” says longtime CDOT spokesman Brian Steele. CDOT has been involved in planning meetings with the organizers and other city departments regarding traffic control for the event.

Steele adds, “We have a brand new mayor and commissioner and there is a very strong commitment to providing alternatives to the automobile.” In his transition plan Mayor Emanuel pledged to make Chicago a more bike-friendly city by creating one-hundred miles of car-protected bike lanes, building the Bloomingdale Trail, a 2.75-mile elevated greenway, and launching a large-scale public bike-share system with thousands of vehicles, all within his first term. Emanuel hired Klein, Washington, D.C.’s former Transportation Director with a track record of accomplishing innovative biking, walking and transit projects, as CDOT commissioner, and the city has already made progress on all three bike initiatives in the transition plan.

“We obviously support the efforts of Active Trans and the Chicago Loop Alliance to stage this event,” Steele says. “They have done a fantastic job of conceiving, organizing and executing Open Streets. It’s an effort we very much support because it’s in keeping with Mayor Emanuel’s efforts to make Chicago a world-class cycling city.”

Photo: Brett Mohr

“[Open Streets] may be something that we’ll  be more involved with in the future,” Steele adds. “But it’s too soon to say what the involvement will be. After October 1 we may have a better idea of it. This upcoming event will be a great opportunity to see how a large-scale [ciclovia] in a dense area works. It will be an example for the city to look at and learn from: pros and cons, challenges and opportunities.”

Kim is optimistic that with the new leadership at City Hall, future Open Streets events will get better support. “The times I saw Gabe Klein at planning meetings he was very excited about the idea,” she says. “If we can prove the concept with this event, I believe there will be an opportunity to work closer with the city next year.”

“I hope their strategy works,” says Peñalosa. “But the truth is, almost all the successful ciclovias in the world, in Paris, Guadalajara [Mexico], Bogotá, New York and Ottawa [Canada], are funded by the city government. For many years Chicago used to say it was bicycle-friendly but it was more a slogan than a reality. With your new mayor you now have an opportunity to really make Chicago bike-friendly.”

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