Removing Cars to Create Public Space

Cars dominate cities, especially in America. But as many cities in other countries have found, removing cars can turn busy streets into lively public places. Now the U.S. is starting to catch on.

Public space has a loose definition. It can be sidewalks, government buildings, or even streets, which account for nearly a third of the land area in an average city. But in people's minds, "public space" is a park or a forest or a beach – places associated with recreation, the out-of-doors and that "nature" thing we tend to divorce ourselves from. Making a connection between the idea of public space and the mundane reality of potholes and rush hour can be difficult. But by temporarily taking cars out of the picture, cities are converting the public space of streets into the public space of common perception.

It's an idea that started out in Latin America more than 30 years ago. The Colombian capital of Bogota began to prohibit cars from driving in certain parts of the city on Sundays, creating safer places for people to walk and bike. The event picked up in popularity and has grown to cover more than 70 miles of the city's streets, attracting more than a million residents every week.

Numerous other cities in Latin America and Europe have followed the lead of Bogota, but this is a trend that has only recently picked up in the United States. Portland, Oregon held its first street closure in June, New York City held three similar events in August, and San Francisco had two of its own in September. Chicago is the next major city to try it out, with two Sunday events this month. The main idea in each of these cities is the same: get cars off the streets and people on them.

 Revelers in San Francisco

Bikers and pedestrians crowd the street in San Francisco for a recent street closure event, "Sunday Streets". Photo courtesy Frank Chan, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

These events came about largely as a reaction to the lack of public spaces and parks in many cities, which is endemic in the dense urban areas of Latin America. By creating parks on the streets of the inner city, city dwellers living far away from proper public parks are able to do a little recreating in their own front yards. The Chicago events, dubbed "Sunday Parkways", are specifically aimed at providing public space where little is available.

"In Chicago you have the lakefront and you have Lincoln Park, but that only serves a specific geography," says Margo O'Hara with the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, one of a handful of community groups that is organizing the two Sunday events on October 5th and 26th. The street closures they've set up will take place several miles from the city's major park areas. "These are communities with the least amount of parkspace and the highest rates of asthma and obesity."

Unlike other cities, Chicago's events are not organized by the city. The independent "grassroots" organizers are counting on the city to take notice this month and take the lead in the future.

"We'd hope that the city would recognize the importance of an event like this, in particular in the neighborhoods that we're targeting," says Sunday Parkways organizer Adolfo Hernandez.

Connecting underserved communities was also the impetus for San Francisco's recent "Sunday Streets", which ran for 4.5 miles in the city, across town from its major open space, Golden Gate Park.

"It really did help bring people out and connect those communities and give those communities opportunities to have open space in their front yard, rather than having to pile on an hour-and-a-half long train ride or get in a car to go to Golden Gate Park," says organizer Susan King.

Each of the "Sunday Streets" events drew around 15,000 people, according to King. New York's recent 8-mile closure saw more than 50,000 people on the streets, and Portland's 6.5-mile event brought more than 17,000. Stacked up against weekly participation figures that top a million in Bogota, 500,000 in Guadalajara and 70,000 in Mexico City, the burgeoning U.S. events have some catching up to do. But organizers in Chicago and San Francisco say that this year's events are just the start.

"These are very much pilots where we're testing to see what works, where is there a potential for growth, and where our limits are," says Hernandez. "But we're definitely looking to make this part of the Chicago landscape."

Joining the list of cities experimenting with street closures is Pasadena, California, which recently closed off a loop of road around the city's iconic Rose Bowl stadium. The area is heavy with pedestrians as well as amateur cyclists, who regularly swarm out in groups of more than 150 riders to train. The loop's unique oval shape and subtle incline are well known in the cycling community, but this popularity has also caused some problems. With so many cyclists and pedestrians using the area and little organization, accidents have been known to happen.

 Cyclists ride in Pasadena

Cyclists ride around Pasadena's Rose Bowl during the city's recent temporary car ban. Hundreds of people showed up for the two-hour event.

Cyclists who ride the 3.3-mile loop every week were excited about the closure, which took place on a warm Thursday evening at the end of September.

"This is the first time we've had the whole enclosure blocked off to vehicular traffic, which will be very, very nice," cyclist Mark Rich says. "Hopefully this will be the start of something good for the city of Pasadena."

The city seems keen to address the congestion issues at the Rose Bowl, but closing the road is just one idea up for consideration. With police and traffic control costing the city about $4,000 for 2 hours of street closure, economics may prohibit a repeat.

"It's not inexpensive to do this. That's one of the downsides," says Bernard Melekian, Pasadena's chief of police and interim city manager. "Clearly it's not something that we're necessarily going to be able to sustain over a long period of time."

Another option is to remove one lane of car traffic to accommodate the area's non-motorized users. But with more people coming out to walk, bike and recreate at the Rose Bowl loop, Melekian says something's going to have to be done.

"I think that is the future. Clearly people are finding different ways to recreate, different ways to work out, and they're drawn to an area like this one. We have to figure out how to manage it."

Though it's unclear whether Pasadena will be able to continue its road, event organizers in Chicago hope to host about five similar events next year, and King says she's already planning one or two events per month from April to October 2009.

These events are slow to pick up steam, but organizers seem confident that they'll take hold. It may be a long while before American cities go as far as cities like Bogota and kick their cars out every week. But as more of these events take place and more people come out for them, there may come a drastic change in the way people think about their cities and the public spaces that surround them.

Nate Berg is assistant editor of Planetizen.



Do this more often! And, in more places!

I think that the idea is great. Though there are possibilites for reducing the overhead for the events.

Maybe Pasadena could install electronic bollards, the kind that you turn a key and they pop up to block the road. One person on duty goes out and closes the road for the whole day. European cities use them in front of government buildings and for "mostly" pedestrian streets. My university had gates that would close main campus off to through traffic every night at midnight. Only two manned gates where you could go in or out.

The other idea is that when, in any city, it becomes a weekly closure, people will get used to it over time and will plan their routes accordingly.

Mike Lydon's picture


Here in Miami, I have been working with the City and our Bicycle Action Committee to plan and implement BikeMiami. It will be held on Sunday, November 9th along some of the primary streets in downtown Miami.

As they say in DC...Transportation without Toxicification!

Small towns can do it to

At least one college town in PA does this one night every month. The street becomes a virtual festival. People dine at the restaurants and have a blast.

The feeling of lightness and openness that a streetscape unburdened by cars offers is valuable to any community.

Street Parties

Montreal has long had a culture of closing streets for all sorts of reasons: public events, festivals, and holidays, or just street parties, both large and small! For Quebec's national holiday neighbourhoods all around the city close their streets and have block parties, some of which are widely attended. I read somewhere that there were over 10,000 street closures annually in Montreal, although I have no idea what that number refers to. Anyone can ask for a permit, and more often than not they will get it - we got one to close our back alley for our son's birthday party!

Here is a blog entry about Dancing in the Streets in Montreal:

Seattle holds car-free days

Mr. Berg,

Seattle is also a major city that held car free days this summer. In the planning world its unfortunate that many significant and innovative things are happening in Seattle that are missed because the world is so focused on Portland, OR. There is more than one livable, sustainable city in the NW.


Seattle car-free days

Seattle did indeed host car-free days this summer...too bad they were on secluded residential streets where hardly any cars drive anyway.

SF Street "closures"

Pasadena's closure of the streets surrounding the Rose Bowl is a nice event: everyone enjoys streets with the cars removed, but centering a car-free day on a street or streets in the business district would earn money for the city rather than costing the city money for street partols and such. These events are magnets for pedestrians and cyclists who shop and eat in far greater numbers than normal, thus increasing the city's tax revenue. It's GOOD fiscal planning, for a change.

San Francisco's very successful "Sunday Streets" brought tens of thousands of happy pedestrians and cyclists to the Embarcadero for what really makes San Francisco a popular destination: car-free living, shopping and playing. While the 2 events were an unequivocal success, the mayor has said that he has no plans for a repeat, at least this year. Meanwhile, he had no qualms about closing off busy Howard Street for 10 days so that Oracle could erect a huge party tent at Moscone Convention Center, something that offered no benefit San Franciscans (well, hopefully, we gained some dollars for the general fund, not just campaign contributions to the mayor) and greatly inconvenienced drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists, as well as nearby businesses who were isolated by the gridlock of traffic on surrounding blocks.

My main issue, though, is labeling these events as street "closures" when they are really "openings" for people to use and enjoy the public space as it is meant to be used.

rob bregoff

So, how do people get to the

So, how do people get to the areas of street closures? In their cars?


You sound a little bitter. Perhaps you're pedestrially-challenged. Perhaps you're jealous because your city is so much more auto-oriented than Portland, San Fransisco, Bogota, and NYC. Perhaps you live in one of these cities and you couldn't get your Sunday latte because you didn't know how to get there without your car. Perhaps you're just a sour-puss contrarian who likes to make smart-alec comments on all the blogs you visit. In any case, please take it somewhere else, because there is quite obviously no legitimate argument against the car-free streets movement.

This is such a great idea.

This is such a great idea. Sometimes I can't walk on the sidewalk because there are cars parked all over. I have to go on the street while the drivers of the cars that pass by give me a nasty look. We've let cars to overwhelm us...

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