Thousands petition for occasional bliss of a car-free Center City

 The ease of getting around Center City on foot and bicycle has inspired a push for more car-free weekends in the heart of Philadelphia. (AP photo/Julio Cortez)

The ease of getting around Center City on foot and bicycle has inspired a push for more car-free weekends in the heart of Philadelphia. (AP photo/Julio Cortez)

While some thought Philadelphia’s papal security plan went too far, thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for more car-free weekends in Center City.

Jake Liefer is the Point Breeze resident behind the “Open Streets PHL” campaign and corresponding Twitter account. The IT consultant said he gets stressed out when he rides his bike through the city streets. 

“I try to stop at all stop signs and wait for lights, but, oftentimes when I do that, I have drivers that will rev their engines at me or honk their horns,” he said.

But not on “pope weekend,” when nearly 5 square miles of Center City were off limits to cars.

“I felt this sense of peace and calm I didn’t even know that I was missing out on,” said Leifer, who took his 1-year-old daughter to last Saturday’s “kiddical mass” bike ride geared toward parents and children and also participated in the “pope ride.”

Since launching “Open Streets PHL” Sunday night, the petition has gotten nearly 3,000 signatures as of Wednesday evening. It has also gotten support from two of the city’s mayoral candidates, Jim Kenney and Melissa Murray Bailey.

However, these kinds of events cost big money, something the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia knows all too well.

From 2007 to 2011, the group hosted an annual “Bike Philly” fundraiser that included closing off 10 miles of Center City and Fairmount roadways to vehicles. However, the coalition eventually found it could no longer afford the $50,000 tab to pay police officers to close streets — and that’s for just six hours one Sunday morning each year.  

But that shouldn’t stop the city from giving it a try – after all, New York City and Los Angeles already have done so, said Sarah Clark Stuart, coalition policy director.

“Philadelphia can do it, too,” said Stuart. “It just has to prioritize it … and help raise the funds to cover the costs.”

Leifer’s campaign is specifically urging Kenney, a Democrat and the likely winner of November’s mayoral race, to seek sponsorship for several “open streets” weekends next summer. 

But outgoing Mayor Michael Nutter is considering ways to host such an event this year. Spokesman Mark McDonald said the mayor “has already asked his senior team to gather data and conduct the detailed analysis necessary.”

McDonald said Nutter envisions creating an “Urban Commons,” smaller than the Francis Festival grounds, that would be open for biking, walking, skatebording and other non-car recreation.

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