This weekend the Pope came to Philly and the city shut down virtually every bus, train, and street for three days -- the bridge between New Jersey and Philadelphia was closed, concrete barricades went up at major intersections, "Walking Dead" jokes abounded on the news media and the city got a chance to see what a life without cars might be like. Runners and cyclists spilled out onto the streets, joyfully running and biking in places that are normally both unsafe and illegal.
Running across the bridge to New Jersey.
When the Pope's visit was announced, Philadelphians were on the whole very happy about the idea. But as plans progressed and the city announced seemingly more and more bizarre security measures people got either outraged or incredulous, depending on the makeup of your Facebook feed. One of the most baffling was the plan to shut down the Benjamin Franklin bridge and have pilgrims park in Camden and walk three miles in to see the Pope and then three miles back. Early plans were to install TSA style screening on the bridge which the city said would be performing more security checks than the airport during that time. The Pope's official biographer called the security measures (which included confiscating apples) "pathological".
Clever people mocked the city's planning producing things like this map:
Certainly if terrorists had been able to shut down every street in the city, block traffic, and cut it off from New Jersey for three days they'd be pleased with themselves. We got our car free experience at a significant cost to businesses who lost untold amounts of money, some closed because workers couldn't get in to the city and others who did open found that nobody was shopping.
I'd been initially planning on locking myself into my house and watching Netflix for three days, but when initial reports started to come in from runners about the multi-million dollar limited time playground open in center city, I jumped into my shoes with the West Philadelphia Runners and we ran an amazed route through the city, proverbially slack jawed with disbelief at the pedestrian wonderland which had opened up.
No wait at the Genius Bar.
Employees at the completely empty Apple store
stand at the window and wave to people.
The city's newly formed Indego Bike Share shined during this time, setting up permanently open kiosks with people to check in bikes even if all the racks were full. The able bodied rejoiced while the most Catholic people I know stayed home, scared off by the thought of trying to push a wheelchair for six miles, navigate closed streets and go through unknown TSA security checkpoints.
Route 76, the normally jam-packed beltway around the city was shut down.
It was a runner's paradise in many ways, one of which was the installation of thousands of portable toilets all throughout the city as well as massive icebergs of free bottled water at strategic locations. These are things that runners want often, people walking miles want eventually and homeless people want constantly. By providing public amenities in vast quantities our eyes were open to how much we were missing constantly. Runners map water fountains and plan their runs around them -- access to public water is a sadly rare thing.
The race course everybody wants.
We saw for the first time how long it actually takes to get places on foot without traffic lights. I'd recently just experienced this in Wyoming, where you can point to a spot three miles away and know pretty much exactly how long it will take you to get there. I discovered that things were much closer to my house than I'd realized, that the density of the city and, especially the impact of cars, stretches miles. That much of our time moving in a city is actually spent standing still in an incredibly inefficient way. Our run to the bridge, which I think of as "There be Dragons" far from me took much less time than I'd expected.
The shutdown brought things closer together, it brought us together, even if as gawkers, to meet one another, we got to see a city as it could be, and as a lot of people have envisioned a city as being -- truly walkable, truly bikeable, uncongested.
You may have seen this photo from the Australia Cycling Promotion Fund showing the amount of space taken up by pedestrians, busses, bicycles, and cars:
This is the world we live in and for a moment, we got the chance to see other options. Years ago, playing Sim City, I designed a city with only public transportation, cars were parked in a ring outside. My city had extremely low pollution levels but the rents skyrocketed and eventually I was hung in effigy, but I do imagine this type of world where streets are limited to mass transit, delivery and emergency vehicles. I've never known though if it would work -- and I still don't. If this persisted would the Mayor become a hero or would the city just die? I don't know.
All traffic in and out of the city, shut down.
There's a huge down side to this as well. I don't know if anybody will ever be able to accurately figure out how much this experiment cost the city. I've read that among the hidden costs, 75% of the babies born that weekend weren't able to be born in the hospital of their parents choice because of transportation difficulties.
The West Philly Runners on the Ben Franklin Bridge.
Philadelphia's expanding its bike and pedestrian trails, we have miles and miles of them along the Schuylkill river, though for the most part, they go to nothing -- they're recreational rather than functional paths. What would it be like to be able to easily and safely bike to center city? Having seen free and open streets, can we now be satisfied without at least protected bicycle lanes? Is it the job of a city to encourage people to adopt healthy lifestyles? There are obvious financial benefits in terms of healthcare costs to encourage walking and biking, but should we do a thing just because it's good for us? How difficult would it be to pry us away from our cars?
This thing wasn't the thing that the Mayor thought he was giving us. But having seen it, we want it, I want it anyway. I know that the thing we have now isn't the thing that I want.
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