4 Lessons for #Open Streets PHL

Here's what one California city learned when it shut down streets for a day.

The Ben Franklin Bridge during the papal visit. | Photo by Bradley Maule

The Ben Franklin Bridge during the pope’s September visit. | Photo by Bradley Maule

It’s not just Philly.

When the city of San Jose, California briefly shut down six miles of its streets last fall, the car-free roadways suddenly filled up with pedestrians — roughly 35,000 of them. The scene didn’t look too different from when Philly’s Center City streets shut down in September for the visit of Pope Francis.

There was a difference, though: Philly shut down its streets for security reasons. San Jose did it just for fun, calling its event Viva CalleSJ. Now a new survey of attendees shows what lessons organizers can take away from the event — and perhaps offers a guide to Open Streets PHL activists as they seek to repeat last fall’s success.

Here are four lessons from San Jose:

• If you build it, they will come: People apparently like the idea of being able to roam car-free streets — they came to San Jose from 33 other cities around the region, and they did so without much in the way of a paid campaign for the event. Twenty-nine percent of surveyed attendees learned of it through social media, another 21 percent through word of mouth.

• But it helps to have something to do: Three-quarters of those surveyed watched some of the entertainment provided along the streets — there were dance and music performances, as well as fitness classes, a display of the Bay Area’s Super Bowl trophies (Philly would have to, uh, skip that event), and more — while two-thirds were happy to find something good to eat, as well.

• They spent money: Fifty-three percent of attendees said they’d spent $11 or more at the event. That adds up.

• Once you start, you can’t stop: Eighty-five percent said they were “very likely” to come to the event again in the future.

The idea of closing streets and letting pedestrians take over for a day or two is becoming increasingly popular — at least on the West Coast. CicLAvia has been shutting down Los Angeles streets since 2010. Internationally, similar events have been held in Bogota and Guadalajara.

“This is happening in hundreds of cities, all over the world,” Gil Penalosa, who has helped organize such events, said in San Jose last fall. “It’s a very positive virus that’s spreading.”

In Philadelphia, last fall’s visit of the pope sparked the creation of the Open Streets PHL campaign, which received vocal support from Mayor Jim Kenney and the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, among others, to repeat the “open streets” experiment. Open Streets PHL is still gathering support and making the case; the group’s spokesman speaks Wednesday at “Nerd Nite” in Frankford Hall. Admission is $5.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.