Despite big crowds, first Philly Free Streets falls short of city’s stated goals

On Saturday, thousands of Philadelphians on bike and foot crowded South Street, attracted by the road’s closure to automobiles for Philly Free Streets. Children skipped, couples strolled, and bicyclists noted the irony of being slowed more by the throngs of people in the streets than the usual bustle of cars. It was peak Philadelphia: This is great, everyone seemed to be saying, but you know what would make it better….

Too many people is a problem most event planners dream of having; you want to be a victim of your own success. The eastern stretch of the 10-mile route along South Street buzzed cheerfully Saturday morning. If you wanted to grade Philly Free Streets on how many residents partook and what those participants thought, you’d have to give them an A, maybe an A- if you’re a stickler.

But against the rubric for success the city gave itself, the grade would have to be lower.

Deputy Managing Director for Transportation and Infrastructure Clarena Tolson said the city had three main goals for Philly Free Streets: Helping residents explore the communities and businesses along the route, encouraging residents to get more active, and ensuring that Saturday’s crowd reflected the city as a whole.

“My hope and desire [is that] people will move from one end of the route to another, not stay where they are comfortable, from Front Street to Strawberry Mansion,” said Tolson. “I hope that people who have not jumped rope before will jump rope.”

On the first standard, the event seemed to do well. Foot traffic keep a steady stream into bars and restaurants along the route, even though the event was decidedly not a food and drink festival like the popular Night Markets or Blocktoberfest. “We really enjoyed it, it brought in a lot of new faces for us,” said Michelle Thompson, a supervisor at Ants Pants Cafe. Business was “way up” over a regular Saturday at busy BYOB brunch spot.

Nearby on South Street West, Neighborhood Books also said the day was stronger than usual, said owner Curtis Kise. Sales were up over a regular Saturday, and way up over days when food-centric festivals close the streets nearby. More than that, “hundreds” more checked out the used bookshop without making a purchase, and “thousands” walked by as Kise carnival barked dollar book deals. “I’d love to see this happen fall and spring, every year,” he said.

Not every business along the route reported improved numbers. For Repo Records, the event was a wash, with sales typical for a Saturday, said owner Dan Matherson. But he added that most other retail stores nearby did not seem fare as well as his.

That was Faysal Elsaaby’s experience. The owner of Image on South said that Philly Free Streets, like other street festivals, hurt business at his sneaker and accessories shop. “When you close a street, maybe a store that sells bongs, or condoms or crazy underwear stuff, these stores might benefit,” said Elsaaby. “But stores like us that sell high end clothing, we don’t sell nothing.”

“When people go to festivals, they want to have fun without spending money,” he added.

On the city’s other two questions—of helping inactive city residents get moving via a morning-long street closure, and ensuring that the participants were diverse—Philly Free Streets has room for improvement.

This reporter traveled the entirety of South Street, but not further along the route, which extended to the Falls Bridge by way of the Schuylkill River Trail and Martin Luther King Drive. Crowds may have looked different elsewhere. But that still would mean Tolson’s own hopes of a diverse crowd exploring a cross-section of the city were not met.

The crowds along South Street looked a lot like the crowds other South Street events: White, middle class, relatively well off and fairly fit. Attracting a diverse crowd to any event can be difficult. Distance and cultural perceptions about who an event “is for” only add to the difficulty. The city said it spent $16,300 advertising the event on WURD, on bus shelters, and in area newspapers including the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philadelphia Tribune. Those ads deliberately avoided the term “festival”, and Tolson pointedly and repeatedly said Philly Free Streets “was not a festival”. The term can conjure up images of white millennials cavorting under tents and waiting in line for $9 Korean tacos from a food truck.

By a similar token, singular outdoor athletic events tend to attract the already active. Philadelphia has the highest rates of diabetes and hypertension among large U.S. cities. The city hoped that by offering a chance to walk, run, or ride along a car-free 10-mile route—the kind of opportunity usually only available to already fit runners who signed up for a race—might lower the barriers to physical activity that Saturday. The city also lined the route with dozens of exercise classes and boot camps—chances for people to try yoga or zumba for the first time. But from watching the zumba dancers expertly reenact Michael Jackson’s iconic moves from “Thriller” and the yogis demonstrating moves far more complicated than downward dog, it appeared that the those drawn to these exercise classes were already comfortable public displays of physical fitness.

The city conducted surveys of both businesses and participants, aided by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which put out traffic counters along the route. Open Streets PHL* conducted its own surveys as well. Those surveys may show a wider, more diverse group of participants than PlanPhilly spoke with or encountered along the length of South Street. The surveys may be better able to show whether a single event successfully prompted less active residents to exercise, or to convince shoppers to visit a neighborhood’s businesses that they’ve never been to before.

That the city seemed to fall short of its stated goals around public health and connectivity didn’t seem to bother the walkers and cyclists who partook on Saturday: To a person, they offered high praise for the Philly Free Streets and the city.

“It’s great, because it feels like community,” said Diane Gibfried, who biked down with her husband from Belmont Hills in Montgomery County. They loved the event, and said they couldn’t wait for the next one.  Still, there were some things she would change. “I do find it difficult to navigate around the little people,” said Gibfried, meaning the numerous children. And: “I just wish it lasted longer.”

Gibfried wasn’t alone in wanting longer hours. The event’s short duration — just from 8 am to 1 pm — was nearly universally panned by the participants, who just seemed to want more of it: longer hours, more streets, and just more Free Streets days.

Tolson said that the city was already looking to do another one next year. Open Streets PHL, which advocated for the event after the Pope’s visit shut down a wide swath of Center City to traffic last fall, say they want multiple road closures next year.

Disclosure: PlanPhilly’s former engagement editor, Jon Geeting, serves on the Open Streets PHL team as a communications officer.

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