Beyond Fitness: The Social Benefits of Open Streets Events

Milwaukee's Ciclovia was planned in part to help bring together different groups in a Hispanic neighborhood. Urban MIlwaukee
One goal of Milwaukee’s Ciclovia is to bring neighbors together in public space. Photo: Urban Milwaukee

It’s a beautiful thing to witness just how much neighborhood streets can change when you remove car traffic. As open streets events, modeled after Bogotá’s Ciclovia, have spread across the U.S. in the past several years, they’ve brought not just opportunities for physical activity, but a joyful new way to use streets as public spaces.

In Milwaukee, this year’s Ciclovia overlapped with the city’s Pride parade. Writing at Urban Milwaukee, Dave Schlabowske of the Wisconsin Bike Federation says the combination of the two events underscored how open streets are about so much more than biking:

Our Ciclovía ended at 4 p.m. and I packed up the van with the now empty bike racks and put them back in the basement of our office. Pedaling home from our office after such a successful day, I kept reliving the smiles of all the cute kids, the infectious beat of the Zumba, and generally basking in a day that made me proud to work for the Wisconsin Bike Fed and be part of such a wonderful, healthy, community building event. It was one of those days I couldn’t imagine living anywhere but Milwaukee.

Then I got home and my wife told me the news about the mass shooting in Orlando. I was shocked. I can’t believe our event and the Pridefest Parade overlapped and yet I had no idea of the horrific attack on the LGBT community the night before. It took me awhile to write about this. At first I felt guilty for being so self-absorbed that I missed learning about the biggest mass murder in our nation’s history while busy with a “bike event.”

After some reflection, I now feel like what we did at Ciclovia MKE and Southside Bicycle Day was even more important because it happened in conjunction with the Pridefest Parade. We started Ciclovia MKE to help improve bicycling on our South Side, in a mostly Latino community where our Milwaukee office is now located. We believe that bicycling is part of the solution to our segregated society’s complicated problems. Bicycling improves people’s health, saves money and reduces congestion and pollution.

But perhaps most importantly, bicycling helps build community, strengthens neighborhoods and puts smiles on people’s faces. It allows people to travel down streets while still feeling part of the neighborhood they are riding through. When you ride a bike past someone on their porch, you say hello. When you stop at an intersection and someone walks through the crosswalk in front of you, you can comment on the weather or they might say “nice bike.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space remembers an architect whose work celebrated the role of sidewalks in civic life. Austin on Your Feet suggests three lessons transit agencies should take from the success of Uber. And Prince George’s Urbanist says local governments need to step up and put in some dedicated bus lanes as much-needed repairs knock big sections of the DC Metro out of commission.