Philly’s Big Open Streets Event Is One Big Disappointment

If you're looking for anything resembling what happened during the pope's visit, look elsewhere.

Ben Franklin Bridge - no cars, all walkers

If you think you’ll be biking down the Ben Franklin Bridge like you did during the Pope’s visit, think again. | Photo by Dan McQuade

When I heard that this Saturday would mark the first Open Streets Philly event — they’re calling it Philly Free Streets — I was both elated but also concerned for the most selfish of reasons. I have a bunch of errands to run in and around Center City on Saturday, and I need to be able to get around in my car. So I was about to rethink my schedule … until I looked up the maps to see what Philly Free Streets is really all about.

The good news is, I’ll be able to get around in my Camry just fine. Yay for me!

The bad news: Philly Free Streets is a poor excuse for what we all hoped the city’s first Open Streets event would be all about.

The inspiration for Philly Free Streets was, of course, Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia last year.

At first, folks were very critical of the security measures being brought in for the pope. The dreaded Pope Fence, known more officially as the “security perimeter,” cut off all traffic in a large section of downtown Philadelphia. Cars weren’t allowed in. Our civil liberties were being trampled for a foreign head of state.

But then the streets were shut down. The fence was erected.

And a funny thing happened.

People who couldn’t care less about the pope took to the streets in vast numbers. We biked. We rollerbladed. We skateboarded. We jogged. We gave impromptu musical performances in the middle of the roadway. We played touch football. And through it all, we enjoyed a unique sense of community and made new friends. It was such a beautiful thing.

“Closing up the streets opened up the town,” wrote Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron in her analysis of what happened that weekend, in which she also recounted people riding their bikes down Broad Street 20 abreast.

Well, you won’t be biking 20 abreast down Broad Street at the first Philly Free Streets. You won’t be biking 20 abreast down any street.

Whereas many, many streets were shut down to car traffic during the Pope’s visit, there’s really only one street in Center City shut down during Philly Free Streets, and that street is South Street. So if you really want to eat some Ishkabibble’s cheese fries in the middle of South Street, party on!

Oh, Martin Luther King Drive is closed to cars, but it’s closed to cars every Saturday (which is a very good thing). And Lansdowne Drive/Black Road is closed, too, but only a tiny stretch of it. So if you’re looking for anything resembling what happened during the pope’s visit, look elsewhere.

We checked out some of the other cities throughout the world that host Open Streets events, and there are many. Although there are some outliers that shut down entire sections of their cities, most follow the same model that Philly is using, essentially closing down one route.

Now, city officials might see this as a defense for what they’re doing. Hey, a forward-thinking, progressive city like Seattle doesn’t do it any better than us. But as I always tell my kids: Be a leader, not a follower. And don’t half-ass things. Well, I don’t use that language, but you get the idea. And Philly is most definitely half-assing its first Open Streets event.

I’ll wave to you from my Camry.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.