For five hours Sunday, two miles of busy Atlanta roadways will be mostly closed to cars and reopened for people.
Atlanta Streets Alive isn't a festival, exactly, nor a parade, street race or block party. It will be skating, biking, kung fu, zumba, basketball, breakdancing, kiddie fitness, sidewalk painting, capoeira and hockey, all in the street, where cars usually zip past at 30 miles per hour.
It's modeled after events like Walk + Roll in Cleveland and Sunday Streets in San Francisco. They're all similar to Bogota, Colombia's Ciclovia, which means “bike path” in Spanish, and began in the 1970s. By the late 1990s, it had expanded to non-cyclists and longer routes. Bogota’s event now includes 70 miles of streets closed for seven hours every Sunday. About 1.5 million people participate each week.
“I could have walked outside my apartment at 7 a.m. and jogged, walked, taken a dance lesson,” said Rebecca Serna, a Streets Alive organizer and executive director of the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, who spent a year in Colombia on a Fulbright fellowship. “On a normal day, [Bogota] does not feel like a safe place for walking or biking. Every Sunday, it felt like a different city, like they took city streets and made it park land.”
The plan for an Atlanta event began about six months ago, as a tie-in to the Congress for the New Urbanism in Atlanta this weekend. But the idea languished in car-centric Atlanta, as organizers proposed route after route, looking for a map that neighbors and business owners would support closing to cars on a Sunday afternoon.
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Neighbors worried about being able to come and go. Businesses worried that customers in cars couldn't reach them. But others, like Matt Ruppert, owner and chef at Noni's bar and deli, planned to use the event to reach out to cyclists that often rely on Edgewood's bike lanes. Ruppert said they would add a bike rack in time for the event, and offer an all-you-can-eat pasta bowl special.
Still, organizers had to change the route about a week ago, when the police costs for a five-mile event between downtown and North Avenue became too high. A new route extends from Woodruff Park down Edgewood and Auburn avenues, about two miles.
Organizers eventually want to make Streets Alive a regular event, but for now, they plan to organize a new one every few months, moving it to different neighborhoods. It takes time for a city to understand an open streets event, said Lois Moss, organizer of Walk + Roll Cleveland. In five years, she's learned to get neighbors excited early, to pray for sunshine and try closing streets in commercial areas, where it feels especially weird to walk around without car traffic. On rainy days, her events might draw 50 people; when it's sunny, 5,000 will square dance, take karate or learn to ride a bike. Once, a full gospel choir showed up to perform.
“It’s way cheaper than spending all kinds of money to build something,” Moss said.
Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall said the relative low cost and free neighborhood activities got him interested in Atlanta's event, but he got more involved after he visited a car-free day in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“It was unbelievable," said Hall, who started traveling more on a bike in Atlanta after his experience in Mexico. "Rich and poor together, all walks of life, exercising, doing salsa. That experience -- I’m sold. I didn’t know I loved the concept as much as I actually do."
Hall said he worked to help find a route for Atlanta's first event, and his office will pay the police costs. Next up? Trying it on more Sundays, on more Atlanta streets.
"This will open people’s eyes up to all the things you can do outside a car,” Hall said. “It’s the whole concept of freedom. You don’t know what it feels like till you do it.”
Atlanta Streets Alive. 1-6 p.m. May 23. Free. Kickoff at Woodruff Park at 1 p.m., event extends down Edgewood and Auburn avenues. www.atlantastreetsalive.com .