Will the Pope’s Visit Lead to Massive Car-Free Days in Philly?

Since Pope Francis’s visit this weekend, #pOpenstreets has become a rallying cry in Philadelphia. The hashtag has turned into a collective record of photos and insights about the surprising amount of fun and freedom that city residents enjoyed when 4.7 square miles of the city center went car-free.

The Pope's visit to Philadelphia closed the streets to cars and opened people's eyes about the city's unrealized potential. Photo: Patrick Miner at Rebuilding the Rust Belt
The pope’s visit to Philadelphia closed the streets to cars and opened people’s eyes about the city’s unrealized potential. Photo: Patrick Miner at Rebuilding the Rust Belt

Impromptu soccer games and bike rides, a lot of relaxed strolling — it’s really easy to see how much people loved this new way of interacting with their streets.

Now a grassroots group inspired by the event is pushing for more. In the past three days, the Open Streets Philly Facebook page has been “liked” 5,000 times. Locals are using that page, the hashtag, and a Change.org petition to try to push for more and bigger open streets events.

What they’re asking for is car-free streets on a scale never seen before in the U.S., but much like what happened in Paris last weekend. About 3,500 people have signed the petition, addressed to the Democratic nominee for mayor, Jim Kenney.

“Everything’s kind of open to negotiation,” said Jon Geeting, one of the organizers, who also writes at Plan Philly. “We’re asking for at least like a quadrant [of the city] — we’re asking for a pretty big thing.”

There’s a lot of momentum, including a barrage of positive press. And in the wake of #pOpenstreets the idea is gaining serious political traction. So much so that the current mayor might beat the next mayor to the punch.

Yesterday, a spokesperson for outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter told Philly Voice that he “is very interested in the concept of a designated vehicle-free section of Center City,” and that he would like to put on an event before he leaves office at the end of the year.

The mayor and advocates haven’t determined the scope of the event yet. But Geeting said Nutter did indicate it “would be smaller than what we’re calling the ‘Francis Festival’ area,” which is basically the entire central city.

What’s not in doubt is that thanks to the pope’s visit, a whole new cohort wants to expand car-free events in Philly, Geeting said.

“Way more people than you would expect to be into this were really into this,” he said.

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