Closing a major thoroughfare in order to create an open space for alternative forms of transportation and celebrate a community sounds like a cool idea. After all, Bogotá, Colombia does it every Sunday with an event called Ciclovía, and it's a massive success in that city. What started with closing two city streets in 1974 has grown to over 76 miles of roadways being closed, and an average of 1.7 million people going out 7am to 2pm to ride their bikes, skate, run, walk and otherwise get out of the house and engage.
The idea sounds so cool that other cities are now doing it. Paris, New York, Atlanta, Ottawa and many others. DC's mayor and transportation department seem to think maybe it's time DC jumps on the bandwagon.
The concern is how DC is doing it.
The DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) has decided, on Mayor Bowser's urging and consent, to close down three miles of Georgia Avenue NW on Saturday, October 5th, and is banning cars on the avenue from 7am to 5pm. Only bicycles and non-motorized vehicles can be on the street, along with pedestrians, (electric scooters are allowed, small mopeds and motorcycles are not).
The street closures are called a "hard closure," meaning from Barry Place in the south up to Missouri Avenue in the north, no cars will be allowed to cross Georgia Avenue. Police cars will be positioned on every block along the stretch, closing side streets from accessing Georgia Avenue. If you live on the east side of Georgia and want to drive across town, you'll have to drive down to Florida Avenue or up to Military Road to get across the city. There will be traffic control officers along the route to direct drivers away from Georgia and onto detours to get around.
But if this is a celebration of the outdoors and of the community, it’s a rough start by DDOT. All along the three-mile stretch of Georgia Avenue there are hundreds of small businesses and organizations — but they won't be allowed to come out onto the sidewalk or the street to set up tables, vend their products or promote themselves to the supposed 30,000 people that DDOT believes will come out for this day-long event.
DDOT does hope to have some programming and to activate areas along the route. They have the Department of Parks and Recreation bringing out their rock wall, and they're hoping to have yoga sessions, crossfit classes, biking clinics and other health-focused events available. There will be no food trucks, no arts and crafts, no family-focused activities — only a four-lane avenue for exercise, biking, walking and getting out on the empty street. They plan to publish a map with activation areas shortly before the event.
Toward that end, DDOT awarded a $65,000 grant to District Bridges to manage the day's events and activate spaces along Georgia Avenue after an RFP bidding process. In fact, DDOT’s Request for Proposals that ended up with District Bridges winning the contract to manage programming for the day came out in March 2019. It was briefly written about by Curbed DC at the time, but didn't get a lot of other play in the media — and DDOT didn't come to the ANCs, the Council or the press to get the word out.
District Bridges has a well-earned reputation of working to benefit the local communities in Columbia Heights and Petworth. They provide guidance for small businesses, host community events like Columbia Heights Day (and soon are taking over Celebrate Petworth Festival). Petworth News has worked with them directly, and knows the non-profit to be very transparent and communicative. Just not in this event.
According to a source at DDOT, speaking to the media about this event is still not allowed.
So why Georgia Avenue and not Wisconsin Avenue, M Street in Georgetown, Connecticut Avenue or K Street being closed and turned into a “open street”?
A source in DDOT says Georgia Avenue was picked at Mayor Muriel Bowser's insistence. Other locations, including 14th Street, 7th Street and a few others were floated, but Bowser made the decision on Georgia Avenue. The three-mile length is a "go big or go home" idea — if DC is going to be serious about open streets (closing streets to cars), then a small area of a few blocks isn't as good as a longer stretch. This event is meant to make a statement. “Roads are for people, not just for cars,” said a source at DDOT who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not easy to repurpose a major street.”
The event is a real-world proof-of-concept that DDOT hopes to spread across the city in the coming years. (Beach Drive has been closed to cars on the weekends for many years, allowing cyclists and others to use the paved roadway. However, that seems to have been done by the city in a more thoughtful way and not impacting residents’ ability to get around the city.)
Since Georgia Avenue already has the experience of closing for the Caribbean Carnival and Georgia Avenue Day in the past, the thought at DDOT and the Mayor's office was it was a good choice for testing out this new open streets event. However, it was never discussed with the communities and businesses who are going to be impacted, their concerns addressed, or any excitement created. The optics of closing a major street that used to host a long-loved and now canceled Caribbean Carnival for a bicycle and yoga day seem to have been overlooked by DDOT and the Mayor’s office.
Local businesses and organizations along the route are not being engaged and set up for success by allowing them to extend their reach. According to a source, Howard University hasn’t been contacted as yet — and their homecoming week starts on October 5th.
WMATA buses will have to be re-routed, with notices going out to riders in September, and signs hung up at every bus stop one week before the event. No-parking signs will have to go up on residential streets 72-hours before the event (24-hours ahead of time for metered, commercial spaces). And the towing... how much money will DC make on towing cars parked on Georgia Avenue the Friday night before the closure? We’re told that towing is to start at 3am on October 5th, so preplanning a parking spot is imperative.
Open streets are a great idea… but the questionable location, clouded transparency and lack of community input are not.
An open streets project in DC does sound cool, and the health benefits and ability to get out into the community without fear of being run over is a great one. This particular event feels a bit more like a pet project dropped on the community rather than a project designed to benefit the community. If DDOT is planning on doing these events in the future, they need to reach out and engage the community.
A website and press release are coming soon from DDOT, so hopefully some of these questions get answered and better communication happens. We have two months to find out.