I was in Madison over the weekend for its downtown version of Ride the Drive. This fun community building event is based on a simple premise: create a temporary linear park for a city’s residents and visitors by closing a loop of streets to motor vehicle traffic for a few hours.
The linear park Madison created from 10-3 on Sunday was 5-miles long and included almost 2 miles of John Nolen Drive along Lake Monona and under the Monona Terrace Convention Center. There were 4 “villages” along the route with a variety of attractions such as kids activity areas, food carts, community organization booths, music and entertainment stages, and bicycle maintenance stations. In addition, the route went past a large number of storefronts where businesses offered the passing crowd opportunities to stop and browse.
People like parks in whatever shape they take, even when they are 5-miles long and the width of a roadway. So it is no surprise that children and adults ranging from under 8 to over 80 were out in large numbers enjoying the day on bicycles, on foot, in wheelchairs, on rollerblades, and on skateboards.
In most cities, its streets form the largest piece of public shared space. Although these are typically used for transportation, a city can decide to use this network for other community purposes. Indeed, this already happens regularly for events such as holiday parades and marathon races. Closing a loop of streets to motor vehicles simply to prioritize people for a few hours is another way cities can build community using already available resources.
The great advantage of creating a linear park out of city streets is that this public space is already built. It merely needs to be temporarily repurposed in order to create park space for citizens to enjoy.
The origins of events such as Ride the Drive trace back over 30 years ago to Bogota, Columbia, where they are called Ciclovias, a Spanish term that roughly translates as ‘bicycle ways’. In recent years there has been a blossoming of such events in the US, generically termed Open Streets events. Here is a sampling of US cities and the number of Open Streets events they are planning for 2013: New York City – 3 Summer Streets; Los Angeles – 3 CicLAvias; Minneapolis – 4 Open Streets; Portland, OR – 5 Sunday Parkways. Madison plans to have another Ride the Drive in August.
Stevens Point held its first Ciclovia WI event last year and plans another one this fall on September 29. It will take a few years for our local Open Streets event to match the success of Ride the Drive. But once the word about it spreads, Ciclovia WI will become a great event for showcasing our city and promoting the vibrancy of Stevens Point.
Something magical happens when streets are repurposed for human interaction instead of vehicle transportation. It is generally hard to pick out specific highlights of an Open Streets event, as the day simply becomes a blur of interaction with whomever is around at the time.
That being said, I do want to mention a couple of notable items from my Ride the Drive experience.
I got my first chance to see Madison’s bike share system, B-Cycle, in action. Bike share systems are a form of public transportation where kiosks of bicycles are make available on a membership basis. A bicycle can be checked out from one kiosk, ridden for free for 30 minutes, and checked into another kiosk near your destination. The B-Cycle bicycles are sturdy 3-speeds with a front basket, fenders, lights, and an easily adjustable seat. Madison currently has over 30 B-Cycle kiosks, each of which can hold up to 10 bicycles, and the network of kiosks expands each year. For Ride the Drive, B-Cycle made its fleet of bicycles free for the day by waving the daily membership fee. As a result, there were lots of smiling people riding B-Cycle bicycles all around the loop on Sunday.
Sunday also provided my first opportunity to see a performance of The Greasy Gears, Madison’s all-woman mini-bike dance troupe. I first learned about them about a year ago and featured them in a blog post. If you’ve never seen a bike-dance troupe, then you’ve been missing some great Bike Fun.
For Ride the Drive, the Greasy Gears were joined by their Chicago counterparts, The Racketeers. Each put on two performances during the day and drew enthusiastic crowds.
At 3 PM Sunday, Ride the Drive ended. I felt a twinge of sadness as the linear park vanished and motor vehicle traffic returned to the streets. But the memory of hours of Bike Fun continues to linger, and I look forward to another chance to experience another Open Streets event on another day.
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