(Accidental) Success for OpenStreets PHL

Open Streets, the national effort to open up streets to pedestrians, is gaining steam.  Millennials love it; it makes children happy, and it even seems to give old folks an extra spring in their step.  But what about entrepreneurs and mom+pop retailers trying to make a buck? Might such restriction of vehicular traffic and parking dissuade their customers, squeeze their margins, and be more of a headache than it's worth? We got a chance to find out, and the results were really exciting.

18th Street near Rittenhouse Square, sans cars Back in September, we got a taste of Open Streets when Pope Francis visited the Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. On the one hand, it was pretty wonderful... with all of Center City closed to traffic, people fully occupied out streets, folks of all ages and abilities felt safe and comfortable bicycling, the usual noise of horns and combustion engines was gone, and we even witnessed a steep decline in atmospheric particulates that lead to asthma and other maladies. Then hopeful and now sitting mayor, Jim Kenney, expressed an interest in closing streets to traffic more often, and an Open Streets campaign organized itself to help make this happen in the future.

On the other hand, unfortunately, because of the flight from the city inspired by the security state imposed by the Secret Service and complete shutdown of local bus service (not to mention the false expectation of a surge in business during a religious pilgrimage), the weekend was deemed a catastrophe for many local businesses and restaurants.  If the Mayor and Open Streets PHL are to succeed in building a city focused on people instead of their cars, we're going to have to get a lot of the details right, and give businesses confidence that Open Streets needn't be a burden to business (and maybe remember that they won't be an overwhelming boon, either).

This past weekend, and completely by accident, we got a chance to test the waters. (Spoiler Alert: the retailers enjoyed it)

Tactical Urbanism... Unintentionally

That truck was there for 8 hours!

Saturday, January 30th, a truck broke down at 20th and Spruce Streets, blocking all northbound traffic onto 20th, which is wonderful neighborhood "main street," home to a bakery, nail salon, bagel shop, restaurants, barber shop, hardware store and more.  For reasons totally unknown, the disabled truck remained for much of the day (between at least the hours of 10am and 5pm), providing a perfectly accidental test-run for closing the street to traffic. Knowing full-well how sensitive retail can be to changes in the urban environment, we thought we'd take the opportunity to ask a handful of 20th Street shops if a Saturday with no vehicular traffic helped or hindered sales. Here's how it went.

Bake Shop On 20th Street

Lisa Cosgrove's bakery is a small shop that bakes on site and churns out some really delicious cookies, sticky buns, babkas, and other delights.  She tells us that vast majority of her customers arrive by foot from around the neighborhood, and that if anything, business was actually a bit better when the street shut down.  Lisa enjoyed the quiet of the closed down street and thinks her customers appreciated the more peaceful atmosphere.  

Would she support a more deliberate Open Streets initiative for 20th Street: "Absolutely."

Here's the full interview:

Food and Friends

Half bottle shop and half high-end grocery, these are the types of stores that make neighborhoods eminently more livable. Kyle Sisson, manning the shop when 20th Street was accidentally closed to traffic all day, tells us that sales weren't impacted at all, and noted how many people were commenting how nice it was for there to be no cars. Food and Friends relies principally on foot traffic (so successfully that they don't even bother have a website or a twitter to advertise), and Kyle tells us that business, even during the notorious Pope weekend, was "fantastic." Perhaps most interesting was his observation that people actually seemed happier than normal in the car-free environment. 

Would he support a more deliberate Open Streets initiative for 20th Street? "Definitely."

Here's the full interview:

Nic Grooming

David Waldman is a men's hair and beard designer at Nic Grooming, a barbershop that's been on 20th Street for as long as most can remember. They cater mostly to neighborhood neighborhood residents, but also some folks who've moved away, but just feel compelled to come back to Philly to get their hair cut and beards shaped. Being busy behind the chair for most of the day, he says that he didn't even notice that the street was closed until somebody told him late in the day... so apparently it didn't diminish business. His customers almost all walk to the shop... "as William Penn intended." 

Would he support Open Streets? That's when David waxes urbanist with us, invoking Louis Kahn and Francis (er, Edumnd) Bacon and some bold visions of the past to make much more of Center City pedestrian focused.  He remembers Pope weekend being very liberating and social, and thinks that people coming downtown are looking relaxing relax, not be battling traffic and noise pollution.  He knowingly touches on the obstacles to full-time pedestrianization created by residents who "have to" drive and unload groceries, but as somebody who walks and bikes everywhere, Open Streets "would be great."

Here's the full interview (and listen for Spread Bagelry's bluegrass band in the background):


20th: A Center City "main street" ripe for OpenStreets

The responses we got from our interviewees were overwhelmingly positive (and thank you all so much for participating!).  Not only did this accidental Open Streets event not harm their business, but all three were enthusiastic about making it happen for real in the future. At two more shops, Maxx's produce and Lee's Hardware, staff declined a video interview but quickly responded to our initial questions to say that Saturday's vehicular shutdown didn't do anything to harm their business (Lee's Hardware: "I'm still trying to figure it... but people figured out where to park.")

Too often, we hear that closing streets to traffic "won't work" because businesses depend on customers driving and parking.  At least in this case, that just didn't turn out to be true.  Here are some things to consider (with two NEW additions following some discussion with the Center City District on 12 February) in trying to make Open Streets a success:

  • NEW: Start your efforts on the weekends, when cranky, influential, and suburban upper-echelon commuters (like it or not, they still exist, despite the vast majority of Center City office workers arriving by foot, bike, or transit) aren't around to complain about the fun and undermine it in the future... after weekends demonstrate success, that's when you think about weekday expansions.
  • NEW: This one's really important, almost obvious, but you know what they say about assumptions... hold Open Streets events in neighborhoods with dense nearby residential development, relatively low car ownership, where most customers arrive by foot, bike, or transit anyway.
  • Don't scare people away like the Secret Service did when the Pope was in town;
  • Promote the events, but don't try and turn them into overwhelming festivals to gin up huge sales; Open Streets is about a better version of daily life, not necessarily a special event;
  • Keep transit running to deliver customers, and if you're planning Open Streets for a street with buses, consider how to keep them running when you're keeping cars out;
  • Account for how and when any deliveries need to be made... after all, people can arrive in a number of car-free ways; goods and inventory are limited to trucks;
  • But most importantly... DON'T OVERTHINK IT! 20th Street had an Open Streets event completely by accident, and business didn't miss a beat.  With just a little bit of foresight, it could be a huge success, and we could do it even more often than we think.