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Open Streets director Julia Kim at last year’s Open Streets on State Street. Photo courtesy of Active Trans.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John's weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Note: I wrote this piece early last week, a few days before Open Streets in the Loop took place on Saturday. As predicted, it was a wonderful event, with even more fun stuff going on than last year. As always, it was thrilling to see a street that’s normally clogged with motor vehicles turned over to positive human interaction. Next Sunday’s Open Streets Wicker Park/Bucktown, on bustling Milwaukee Avenue through bike-crazy neighborhoods, should be even better. It takes place on Milwaukee from Ashland to Western Avenues from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. See Steven’s thoughts on the downtown event below my article.

Last year I wrote a Newcity cover story with the subtitle, “Can Open Streets downtown sell City Hall on future ciclovias?” For this year at least, the answer was no.

Since 2005 I’ve been chronicling the Active Transportation Alliance’s valiant efforts to stage ciclovías, Latin-American-style events that shut down streets to cars traffic, encouraging healthy recreation, community and commerce. It’s hard to believe I still have to report on the relative lack of support from the city, especially since Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) commissioner Gabe Klein have generally been terrific on sustainable transportation issues.

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Four Square at this year’s Open Streets in the Loop (OSITL).

Don’t get me wrong. All the ciclovias Active Trans has organized so far have been fabulous, with thousands of Chicagoans of all stripes coming out to stroll, jog, pedal, play, dance and relax on car-free streets. And I’m confident that this year’s events – Open Streets in the Loop this Saturday and Open Streets Wicker Park/Bucktown on Sunday, September 16 – will be the best ones yet.

But with only two ciclovias being held on roughly 1.5-mile routes, we’ve fallen behind other great cities. This year New York is holding Summer Streets ciclovias on three Saturdays along a roughly seven-mile route. Los Angles is staging CicLAvia on five Sundays along a ten-mile route. Portland, Oregon, is staging five Sunday Parkways events on 7-to-9.5-mile routes in various parts of town. And San Francisco is holding ten Sunday Streets ciclovias on routes of different lengths in a gaggle of different communities.

What’s the difference between these cities and ours? Political will. While they’ve had mayors who have championed their ciclovias and spearhearded planning and funding efforts, Chicago has not. “We’re way behind other cities in the ciclovia movement,” concedes Julia Kim, Active Trans’ Open Streets director. “But I’m confident that once we get Mayor Emanuel’s full backing we can grow to be a leader in the movement.”

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Pop-up lawn at OSITL.

In the mid-2000s Active Trans first proposed staging a Chicago ciclovia. Richard M. Daley supported the idea in theory, but after various city agencies declined to take responsibility for organizing the event, the nonprofit was forced to do all the heavy lifting. This included raising $700,000 to pay for the first three ciclovias held in 2008 and 2009 on routes along the West Side boulevard system, mostly through underserved communities. The bulk of the money paid for the dozens of police officers, traffic control aides and barricades that the city insisted upon. Due to funding problems there was no ciclovía here in 2010.

After Emanuel took office last year, Active Trans decided to wait until 2012 to ask the new administration for help staging Open Streets. But last year the Chicago Loop Alliance, the downtown chamber of commerce, expressed interest in partnering with the advocacy group to stage a ciclovía on State. With only a half-mile route, from Lake Street to Van Buren Street, much less traffic control was required and the event’s price tag dropped to $125,000, with the chamber contributing $50,000 and helping recruit corporate sponsors. Open Streets on State Street was a huge hit, with an estimated 20,000 participants packing the iconic thoroughfare.

This year Active Trans is expanding the downtown ciclovia to include Monroe Street from State to Lake Shore Drive, which will serve as a car-free route to the Lakefront Trail. The Wicker Park happening take places on Milwaukee Avenue from Ashland to Western avenues. Kim estimates each event will cost between $100,000 and $150,000. This year the Loop Alliance is chipping in $60,000, while The Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce is donating $50,000. The Illinois Center for Broadcasting, Walgreens, REI and PNC Bank are providing additional funding.

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Skate park at OSITL.

The two ciclovías promise to be ridiculously fun. Both include free bike rentals and repair; giant building blocks and kids’ games; yoga and Zumba classes; dunking booths, fencing demos and temporary skateboard parks. The Loop event features a rock climbing wall and dance performances inspired by the vividly hued Color Jam installation at State and Adams streets. The Wicker Park ciclovía includes Bollywood–style dancing and slacklining demos.

Since the Loop and Wicker Park are vibrant, retail-dense areas there should be a great turnout. But encouraging physical activity is especially important in underserved communities where obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates are high and there are fewer opportunities for healthy recreation. Kim says Active Trans wants to bring Open Streets back to the people who need it most by extending the current routes to link up with these communities. “To get corporate sponsors we needed to do this in dense neighborhoods that would draw a lot of participants,” she says. “But we see this as something that will expand to eventually connect all the neighborhoods.”

CDOT deputy commissioner Scott Kubly says the city shares the goal of expanding Open Streets to underserved communities. But he confirmed that, once again, the city’s role in putting on the events is limited to permitting and logistical support, plus providing police and traffic aids – which Active Trans pays for. “Next year we’re going to focus on what we can do to make Open Streets more successful,” says Kubly. “We’ll be exploring ways the city and the nonprofit world can partner on this.”

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Yogis and yoginis in “corpse pose” at OSITL.

The problem is, CDOT and Active Trans have been saying much the same thing for years now. “[Open Streets] may be something that we’ll be more involved with in the future,” CDOT spokesman Brian Steele told me on the eve of last year’s ciclovia. “After October 1 we may have a better idea of [what the involvement will be.]”

“We really need to partner with the city to make this a long-term, sustainable program,” Kim told me at the time. “If we can prove the concept with this event, I believe there will be an opportunity to work closer with the city next year.”

This “Wait ‘til next year” rhetoric strikes me as Cubs-style wishful thinking. If last year’s wildly successful ciclovia didn’t convince Emanuel that he should throw his weight behind Open Streets, I don’t know what will.

I know that times are tight and that some free events like the Taste of Chicago have been cut or shrunk in recent years. But equally hard-hit towns are funding and organizing terrific ciclovias, so it’s really a matter of priorities. Chicago still spent $6.8 million on the Taste this year. If City Hall can budget that much cash for a fest that’s largely about barbecue and cheesecake, can’t it spare a few hundred thousand, or at least some manpower, for events that encourage healthy physical activity?

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The climbing wall at OSITL.

Steven’s thoughts on last Saturday’s Open Streets in the Loop:

“I think it’s a shame that this is our fifth try and we still have not reached the positive community impact and high quality, very car-free experience of ciclovia events in other American cities. The Open Streets will definitely improve when it can be 1) longer or 2) a circuit.

“I feel that there was a slight increase in attendees, but not more than 10-15% greater than last year, even though the weather couldn’t have been better. It seems that advertising for the event started late.

“The extension via Monroe to the Lakefront Trail was kind of a drag because no one else was there. The block of State Street between Van Buren and Jackson was very dead for the time I was there. Since the block between Van Buren and Congress was closed, perhaps that could have been used for more cycling opportunities.

“I thought the rock climbing wall was very cool.”

Steven is a member of the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area #33 transportation committee which hired Active Transportation Alliance to run an Open Streets event on Sunday, September 16, 2012. 

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  • AdamHerstein

    Open Streets this past weekend was nice, but one still needed to cross car traffic at every block. Why weren’t the cross streets shut down within a block of State?

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      If you carefully rearrange the letters of “Chicago” you’ll see “car”. Okay, you won’t, but the sentiment remains the same: City Hall has the power to make Open Streets great (which means separating from car traffic). This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all car crossings (Portland and other cities still have traffic crossings), but in a 0.6 mile route, there shouldn’t be any interaction with cars. (Monroe to the Lakefront Trail added half a mile, but still had car crossings at Wabash, Michigan, and Columbus.)

      • AdamHerstein

        ChiCARgo perhaps?

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      There’s no need to close the cross streets themselves, just make them dead end at State. I believe that there were one or two more cross streets open then intended – the traffic aides didn’t get around to closing them.

      • AdamHerstein

        Right, but most of those streets are one-way, so if they dead-end at State, drivers will have to make a U-turn and drive against traffic once they reach the dead-end. Either that or eliminate parking within a block and make that block a temporary two-way. I’m sure people will be upset if they try to get though State, only to find out that it is closed and have to turn around. Maybe put up signs at the intersections within a block of State that say “Road closed at State. Local traffic only”?

        • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

          That’s a good idea.

  • nonya

    If you’re going to compare to NYC, where the vast majority of the route is just closed to traffic/open to cyclists (the true ciclovia activity is limited to a few locations along the route) you should be including Bike the Drive here.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      I disagree. Bike The Drive is an expensive activity ($40 per person) once a year (not multiple times like ciclovias in other American cities) for cycling only.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Bike the Drive is comparable to the 5 Boro Bike Tour, but those events aren’t ciclovias, because they’re basically only open to bikes.

  • Marcus Twain

    Never understood the point of this; I get it…people that live downtown don’t live in a “neighborhood” and want things like Open Streets. People in the neighborhoods have wonderful parks… why not secure the passages to each park with the money spent on OS, rather than wasting it on a one-day event?

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      This Streetfilms video should give you a sense of the unique potential of ciclovias to promote exercise, community, commerce and sustainable transportation: http://www.streetfilms.org/ciclovia/

    • untitledreality

      I agree entirely. I am all for getting people outside and creating active environments that everyone can enjoy… but we have those already, they’re commonly referred to as parks. Because to me, this just seems like another street festival…maybe if it was done on a real street where people actually live and is lined with local businesses… Milwaukee perhaps? Halsted? Lincoln? Archer? 18th? 26th in Little Village?

      • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

        The Milwaukee one is on Sunday. I hope to see you there. I’m hard to miss.

  • http://profiles.google.com/alottes Ash L

    I’d like to see the city sponsor a real ciclovia but that isn’t what has gone on on State St the last two years. Our “open streets” is more of a street festival that you just happen to be able to have a bike on. There are too many activities shoved into a tiny space and it makes riding a bike through it incredibly stressful. The ciclovias in LA are great since they aren’t over programmed. That in and of itself should make funding them cheaper.

    How about one real ciclovia with a couple of miles of street and no booths stuck every 100ft causing bottlenecks and collision risks and then one of the style we’ve seen on State St?

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Having too many cool activities to do on State Street is a good problem to have! But yes, a less crowded, longer event would be more bikeable. The ciclovias held on the West Side oulevards in 2008 and 2009 were more along these lines.

      • http://profiles.google.com/alottes Ash L

        But those went through areas that were too residential. There was no where to stop and eat or shop along the route. I’d like to see an actual open or mostly open corridor on Milwaukee, Lincoln, Clark, etc where people can ride unencumbered by dangers and bring business to the area at the same time.

        • http://profiles.google.com/alottes Ash L

          And if there are to be attractions, they should be concentrated to only one side of the route to leave the other lanes open for actual open space.

          Trying to shove too many stages and activities into a space is a problem, even if it seems like a good problem to have. We need an event that is safe to attend and running the risk of hitting pedestrians or people hitting you on your bike is not going to go over well.

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          That’s exactly how it works in Portland. I went on the Sunday Parkways in July in Southwest Portland, which is far away from the center (separated by a hill). It was about 7 miles long. It went up and down hills, and through two distinct shopping areas, but several more “festival” areas. However, the majority of the route was “unencumbered”, as you say, by booths and activities.

      • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

        They were, but not many people showed up (which could have been due to the poor weather). They had many car passage points as well.

      • ridonrides

        I didn’t think it was crowded at all. Granted I was there from noon to 1, but there weren’t a lot of bikes. Lots of families walking around. Lots of skateboarders. Activities seemed to be spaced two per block. Kids loved it. I was confused about cross traffic as well. So much so I stood at Monroe waiting for the light to change before one of the ATA guys said the street was closed and I could just go through. I agree with Steve about lack of publicity. Whereas events like the Taste get promoted several days/weeks before, I didn’t see anything on the news until the day before.

        • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

          I think the city, à la DCASE (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events), should shoulder some of the responsibility to promote the event.

  • ReptoJane

    I used the Monroe “corridor” to the lake with my bike club kids… but we didn’t hit it until 3:30 pm because there was so much going on on State Street that we didn’t want to leave!

  • Alisa

    I agree with Marcus Twain. And John, were you planning to disclose the fact that your Grid co-publisher, Steven Vance, sits on the Special Service Area #33 committee for Wicker Park Bucktown that helped to pass through $50,000 of taxpayer dollars that were paid to Active Trans to run the 5-hour event this Sunday? Plus, there’s the $20,000 of SSA #33 dollars used on a skateboard park within open streets this Sunday, too, so $70,000 of taxpayer dollars for one 5 hour event. All combined, the 44 SSA districts in our city have a budget of $23 million. Could that money be used to keep teachers employed, and police stations and mental health clinics operating? The concept behind open streets is something many of us support– personally I don’t own a car and think it will be nice to walk quiet streets free of traffic for a few hours– but Open Streets very much seems like a “want” and not a “need.” Why does it have to cost so much? I received an email from the public relations firm hired by the Loop edition of Open Streets (SSA #1/Loop Alliance paid $60,000 to ATA to run their event this past Sunday) asking her about total budget for event and more details and never heard back. – Alisa

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      Special Service Areas do not collect taxpayer money. Property owners in the SSA boundaries are assessed and pay money to the SSA *on top* of their property taxes. The SSA can only spend the money within the SSA boundaries.

      SSAs are not the same as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, which the city administers, and do take away from general revenue funds. The library and school districts have their own authority to raise taxes, so they are less affected than other expenditures (like police and mental health clinics).

      Property owners in the SSA boundaries can petition to have themselves excluded from the boundary. An SSA is an “elective” feature that the business community brings upon itself.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks for bringing up Steven’s role with the SSA. We mentioned that in an earlier piece about Open Streets. I would like to see Open Streets done cheaper, perhaps with less “stuff” but more mileage. Relaxing the city’s requirements for traffic control would help as well. But ciclovias could play a vital role in getting more Chicagoans, especially in underserved communities, more active and more interested in getting around by walking and biking.

      As I wrote in the Newcity cover story, Rob Sadowsky, formerly head of Active Trans and now leading Portland, Oregon’s advocacy group laid out the argument for why it makes sens for city governments to support ciclovias:

      “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.'”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1136058783 Eloise Mason

    So THAT’s what they were putting ramps in State Street for on Saturday! I had no idea. There were rumors of ‘a Bollywood movie’ filming on Clark near there, which we detoured around, and when we crossed State we had cop cars with bullhorns yelling at us to get out of the street and STAY ON THE SIDEWALKS, so I thought it had to do with the movie shoot still.

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  • http://neighbor.ly/ Howdy Neighbor

    Could http://neighbor.ly help solve the funding gap for next year? Events like this are of incalculable importance to the city, but it *is* hard to rely on the already-overtaxed tax base right now.

    • http://www.stevevance.net/ Steven Vance

      That or IndieGogo.

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