“Open Streets” Comes to Knoxville in October!

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Clearly, there were many of us who were taken with the idea of Gil Penalosa’s Ciclovia: The City of Knoxville and Bike Walk Knoxville have spearheaded an effort that will bring an “Open Streets” event to Knoxville in October. A great share of the thanks goes to Mayor Rogero for her commitment to what is not an easy event to stage. Without her support it would not be happening.

In short, the Open Streets idea is modeled off Gil Penalosa’s Ciclovia, which I discussed yesterday. From the Open Streets website, its simplist definition is to, “temporarily close streets to automobile traffic so that people may use them for walking, bicycling, dancing, playing and socializing.” There are about 100 similar initiatives underway in North America.

Most of those are in the U.S. and a surprising number are in the south. Atlanta Streets Alive has one scheduled for September, but they are in their fifth  year and they’ve seen the events grow from 5,000 participants at the first event to 100,000.

My hometown of Mobile, Alabama, hardly a place known for progressive practices, had their first Open Streets event last year and have another planned for this October. They reported the kind of variety of activities which can make such an event a success, “Supporting activities were located on side streets throughout the loop and included: basketball, dancing, street games, kids’ zone (bike decorating, bike safety rodeo, and more), boot camp classes, yoga, food vendors, live music, kids’ bike derby, fencing demonstration, barre classes, hula hoop area, wiffle ball, and climbing wall.”

Surprisingly, southern states are well represented in the movement, with Jackson, Mississippi, for example, hosting their first event over two years ago. Their list of activities for their closed streets include even more ideas for our own event: “Bicycle skills, rodeo kickball relay races, skateboarding, bike polo, hula hoops, dancing, interactive games, free classes all day in yoga, pilates, zumba and more.”

Bikes and Blooms, Outdoor Knoxfest, TN Valley Bikes and Dogwood Arts, Knoxville, April 2015
Bikes and Blooms, Outdoor Knoxfest, TN Valley Bikes and Dogwood Arts, Knoxville, April 2015

So what will our event look like? Well, it’s still being shaped, but some things are determined: The inaugural (of many, hopefully) event will be held Sunday, October 25 from 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM. The route will follow Central Street with one end being at the intersection of Willow and Central in the Old City and the other at Central Street and Oklahoma – including along the way Emory Place and Happy Holler.

Sundays are the typical day chosen for such events, as they are often low traffic days. The distance and choice of route included is sometimes a tricky proposition. The longer the route, the more expensive and the more difficult to fill. More police/traffic control is required and the disruption, such as there might be, increases. State and federal highways also add a layer of complication.

Kelly Segars, of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, explained that all these variables in addition to the desire to plan and pull off an event by this fall made the choice of route and hours the best options for a first event. I’ll be hoping that by spring the event is regularly scheduled and much larger and much longer in duration. To a large extent that will be determined by the response of the businesses located along this initial route and by the the response of the citizens of our city.

Regarding the businesses, an interesting phenomenon has been observed in locations with these events. Some react with concern that cars can’t reach them if they are on the route. As it turns out, the impact is far more beneficial than harmful. According to statistics gathered by Open Streets, “In similar events, 68% of participants became aware of a business they didn’t know existed before. Businesses that are open during these events can see a 10% increase in revenue compared to regular business days. Greater increases, up to 57%, have been seen when businesses actively engage with participants.”

In fact, only secondary to the health and social benefits, promoting business is a goal of the event. It stands to reason that when people pass your business walking at 4 miles-per-hour or biking at 10 miles-per-hour, they are more likely to notice your business than when passing inside a car at 40 miles-per-hour. Which, of course, is true whether an event is being staged or not and which underscores that promoting a culture of biking and walking is not only more healthy, it is good for business.

This is not a festival like others where we’ve closed various streets. For the others, while there is a theme, the street is simply a spot to host it. In this case, the point is for people to take back the streets while engaging in healthy activities. It is also a way to connect all sorts of people in situations where personal interactions are more likely.

Mayor Rogero put it very nicely, “A great city street is more than just a way to get somewhere – it is a destination in itself. Bike Walk Knoxville’s Open Streets event will give everybody a chance to appreciate and enjoy our urban environment in a new way. Meet your neighbors, make new connections, and get some exercise all at the same time! I’ll see you on the street.”

So what needs to happen next? Mark your calendar for October 25 from 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM. Plan to be there and be active. The event also needs sponsors to help with the expenses, which primarily involve traffic control via the KPD. Merchants need to participate. Groups or individuals need to offer activities along the route. Have a zumba/yoga/martial arts/dance or other studio and want some great exposure? Here’s your  chance. Love to hoop and lead others in same? Offer a hooping station. Have a crazy game in mind that gets people moving? Pitch it. You do not have to be a business along the route to become involved. This is a city-wide event.

Also tell everyone you know. Bring it from all parts of the city. Make it too crowded to see your feet and watch this event grow rapidly. We have a very good city. This kind of event can push it up a notch by making us focus on health, take a different look at streets and transportation, meet people we wouldn’t normally encounter, finding local businesses to support and engaging in a purposeful, healthy community pursuit.

Will any aspect of the event be perfect? Probably not. But rather than accentuating the negative, this is a chance to celebrate nothing more than our city – its’ people, streetscape and businesses. Let’s celebrate, Knoxville!

For more information and to become involved, social media will be up soon, but for now, email Kelley Segars at kelley.segars@knoxtrans.org or call her at (865)215-3815.