Best Time Ever: Open Streets in Philly

The city was traffic-free for miles! Main streets welcomed bikes, skateboards, pedestrians… Pics & video from our awesome Pope Weekend on a borrowed tandem from East Falls & back. Sign the petition for another “Open Streets Weekend” Summer 2016.

Hands-down, my favorite take-away from the Pope’s visit — besides that Steve looks adorable in a pope hat, ha! — was how super-fantastic-wonderful our city is without traffic. Motorized vehicles aren’t just hazards & obstacles, but wow they spew noise, smells, vibrations…

Eastfallslocal pope ride skinny collage 2

Funny how we’re too acclimated to even notice but then something like over-kill security measures for a global religious figurehead provides a spectacular revelation: Philadelphia is So. Much. More. Fun. without motors.

EastFallsLocal closing streets collage City Hall

It’s a whole different city — entire blocks of spontaneous gatherings, people milling from one to the other. Peaceful, cheerful, calm. Slower, friendlier.  Bigger! When you drive in, you tend to stick to the neighborhood where you parked, but biking makes it easy to hop around, and explore new areas.

And group biking? Only one thing tops riding a bike, in my book, and that’s bike riding with other bikes!

When I lived in DC ten years ago, traffic would pause one Friday a month for Critical Mass rides that were like parties on wheels. So joining a “PopeRide” was a no-brainer after reading Emily Leeman’s announcement about how local cyclists were organizing social rides on our closed bridges & highways.  

Eastfallslocal pope ride collage 3

Two rides went off — we did the Saturday one but Friday night they had a nice, glow-sticked crowd come out for a route that crossed the Ben Franklin bridge. Can’t find any numbers on that ride but estimates for the one we were on hit 3,000 participants!  Clearly, our city’s full of people eager to take back these streets

Eastfallslocal pope ride map RESIZE

Saturday’s Pope Ride was literally a sea of bikes as far as you could see in either direction. The route took us from 30th Street Station down Market, went south then along Penn’s Landing thru Northern Liberties and finally back up Walnut. Technically, the ride ended at Washington Square Park but most bikes kept going to 30th Street, then splintered off into smaller groups heading back, or wherever.

EastFallsLocal conshie trolley car

We’d started out in groups, too. Some Conshohocken cyclists formed a Facebook meetup leaving from IKEA’s parking lot to the Pope Ride — they’d be passing right thru East Falls on Kelly Drive, so of course we let their organizer know Trolley Car Cafe is a Schuylkill River trail-head, and the bathrooms there are open to the public, not just customers (although many took advantage of Jasmine’s grab-n-go table). East Falls, then, became an official meeting point for riders from Manayunk, Roxborough, Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy… we chatted with lots of riders on our way, back & forth.

EastFallsLocal pope hat collage

Steve’s pope hat was like a beacon to other pilgrims. Most people found it hilarious, some seemed to take it as a sign they were headed in the right direction: “Oh good, the Pope! You must know where you’re going!” People cheered the hat, stopped to laugh, snapped selfies with it.  For me behind the camera, it was a constant little friend in my frame of vision.

EastFallsLocal denise selling cardtable

Sunday, we took a different route down to a “Wishwall” event in the Italian Market and who should we run into on Poplar Street? Our resident soapy lady, Denise Hasher, with buddy & business partner Stephanie Gartanutti (and random National Guard dudes), hawking their Pope on a Rope soaps old-school — with a chalkboard & a card table!

EastFallsLocal collage pope soap shibe

How’s this for a miracle? One of their sellers in South Philly had run out of product but Denise & Steph had no way to get it down to him in the store right where we were passing by anyway. Cue alleluia choir!

Eastfallslocal hasher soap colalge

Before pedaling off with our loaded saddlebag, we convinced Denise that wearing our Pope hat would help sales — how couldn’t it? Too cute! And who doesn’t look good with some added height on top? Like a holy beehive hairdo

EastFallsLocal chinatown collage txt

The ride to South Philly was a piece of cake — and a thrill, cruising leisurely into Chinatown right under the Friendship Gate, with what felt like the whole community enjoying the streets. Never noticed that 10th Street has two designated bike lanes (frequently covered with traffic/parked cars).

EastFallsLocal tent italian market collage

Eastfallslocal simonetta collage wishwall

We caught up with Simi (and Ray & Lou!) at 9th & Montrose where she was hosting a live simulcast of the Pope’s mass that afternoon, plus an interactive display called a “wishwall” where people posted their desires & aspirations, for help & support from the WishWall Foundation (Simi is a founder). The event was also presented by Councilman Mark Squilla, and Di Bruno brothers

EastFallsLocal dibruno bros resized with bread collage

Speaking of Di Bruno — I’d never seen their House of Cheese so empty of customers. The guys behind the counter were cheerfully bored & delighted to slice us many cheese samples, sending us off with three favorite hunks and free baguette (that slapped me deliciously in the face the whole ride home).

Eastfallslocal nomad pizza collage

Nomad Pizza on S. 7th wasn’t quite as dead but then again, it was one of the few restaurants down there open for business.

Eastfallslocal empty streets checkpoint collage

Stores, too, were mostly shuttered. Such a shame, with all the potential customers out & about, and the “carnival vibe” in every neighborhood. 

Closing city streets to traffic — also known as OPENING them to bikes & pedestrians — might feel like a new revelation but actually happens in other places on a regular basis. For instance, New York City’s “Summer Streets” celebration clears nearly 7 miles of streets for three days in August, drawing out hundreds of thousands of neighbors (and tourists). Paris recently went car-free for 24 hours, and for more than a decade other cities like Brussels, Jakarta, and Montreal have been opening their streets for weekends of bikes, block parties, yoga classes, flea markets…

EastFallsLocal open streets collage riders

Why not Philly?

Of course, any plans would need to engage business much, much more than the Pope’s visit — but how hard would that be? If French Canadians and Indonesians can make this work, so can Philadelphians.

EastFallsLocal Open Streets collage

For more Car-Free events in Philadelphia, sign the petition and follow the group on Facebook & Twitter. Also, take heart — Mayor Nutter is calling for more car-free days in this year, even. 

Eastfallslocal Tandem RESIZE

PS:  This fantastic weekend could not have been possible without our loaner tandem bike! Which was TERRIFYING — no brakes back there! — but also insanely fun. Very special thanks to Gina Snyder, East Falls local & head of our Development Corporation and her husband David. 



  1. Of course I love this. So glad to see the “movement” for more open streets gaining speed!

    When I spent a semester in Florence during college, they closed the streets of the historic center to motorized traffic one Sunday a month. It was gloriously quiet. The lack of cars and Vespas, combined with the medieval and Renaissance architecture, really made you feel that you were walking back in time! I’m sure we could get a similar vibe going, especially around Society Hill / Independence Mall / Old City.

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