On our first weekend here in NYC we participated in the annual Summer Streets event. It is a street celebration where nearly seven miles of streets in Manhattan, mainly Park Avenue are closed from motorized traffic and opened to the public to exploit it on foot or on a bicycle. Additionally, a big part of the intersections were closed as well and where there was crossing traffic, crossing supervisors and even police officers helped people get through safely. The event was held this year on the first three Saturdays in August between 7 am and 1 pm.
The idea for the event came from Medellín, Colombia, where they have been arranging temporary street closures on Sundays and public holidays. NYC’s first Summer Streets was arranged in 2008 and after almost a decade of arranging it, it has a long list of partners that provide activities during the event and it seems to attract a large crowd. The idea of regular street closures has also spread to other major cities around the globe, including London and Paris.
The Summer Streets route map and a few views of the event
We started our exploration of the event relatively early, at 9 am and hit the route towards the grand Park Avenue. In the morning hours there were times you couldn’t see that many other cyclist or runners around so the avenue felt really spacious. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise cruises around empty streets of NYC… Somehow it was a little disappointing at first that the streets weren’t packed with people. But actually, it was kind of cool to experience a major city street that way, meaning that as a pedestrian or a cyclist you are so used to the idea that you should stay on the edges of streets and keep out of the way of “real” (read cars) traffic.
At the early hours Park Avenue looked deserted at times…
…but streets started to fill up soon.
Towards the end of the event there was already a pedestrian and bicycle rush hour
Being suddenly able to choose whatever lane you want and set the pace as you prefer was not only empowering and sort of cool, but also it allowed you to see the street in a totally new perspective. It is not often that you have so much time to observe sight-line endings and street side buildings. Usually there is only time for seeing the things on the ground floors of the buildings since you are concentrating on the traffic. The experience must be even more empowering for kids and other people who are not used to cycling amongst heavy traffic.
Summer Streets attracted cyclist from different age groups
The event was of course not only about cycling. There were actually a lot of people running, walking and just lingering back and forth Park Avenue. We ran part of the route and it was great fun as you could imagine yourself taking part on a New York City marathon.
Speeding through Park Avenue on foot
There were lots of other activities offered on five rest stops, including a zip-line, educational and informational stands by co-operators, art performances and fitness classes. Especially the dance-classes offered by a local studio had a nice impact on the crowd as passers-by started to spontaneously join the fun. On our journey we also stopped by at a farmer’s market along the route.
At the last one of our stops it was a full-on street festival with during the public dance classes
Farmer’s market: wow, such nice groceries!
It is no wonder that temporary street closures are listed as one of interim design strategies in NACTO’s Urban Street Design Guide. I’ve been impressed here in NYC about the not-so-polished interim designs to add bike lanes or make lane diets to streets. The street closures add another layer to thinking differently about streets as it lets you imagine in a real setting what it would be like if our streets were not dominated by cars. For example, it was great to have Kurvi Block Party in Helsinki last summer to close part of Hämeentie from motor vehicles. We should really get a regular event like Summer Streets in Helsinki as well. I think that giving us a chance to see a radically different use for streets more often would help us better imagine a streetscape that doesn’t have to be dominated by cars.