April 23, 2006

Peddling car-free, bike-friendly days for Baltimore

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The Cantoris were in the final stage of a rigorous adoption procedure, one that required them to take a figurative test drive with their prospective daughter.

Things couldn’t have gone better. Eleven-year-old Andrea proved to be the girl of their dreams. Surprisingly, Bogota also stole Greg’s heart.

“I felt like I was in Utopia,” he says.

Every Sunday, a 19th-century silence descends upon that mountain city. Some 75 miles of connecting streets are closed to traffic from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. As many as 2 million people pour forth to walk, cycle, Rollerblade, jog and simply socialize in communal peace.

No cars. No pollution. No gridlock. No roar of traffic.

“Ciclovia,” as it’s known, is the world’s biggest block party, an urban transformation that borders on magical.

“It’s like everyone puts on a new suit of clothes,” says Cantori.

A thought quickly ballooned in his brain: Why not export the idea to Maryland?

Cantori, 46, is executive director of the Knott Foundation, a Roman Catholic philanthropic organization in Hampden and a board member of One Less Car, a nonprofit that promotes a more bicycle-friendly culture.

He frequently cycles the 22 miles from home to work. He’s convinced car-crazy America is driving itself into a ditch.

Gas prices creep ever higher. Traffic keeps getting worse. Obesity is on the rise. All of which could argue in favor of trying something akin to Ciclovia in Baltimore.

“My mind’s going overtime right now on this,” says Cantori, who’s writing a pilot-project proposal. “Why can’t we have it here? It’s not that expensive.”

The city Planning Department – mindful of the fact that more than a third of Baltimore households don’t have a car – is developing a master bike plan that should be completed this summer. Among other things, the draft calls for creating 32 miles of new bike lanes.

That’s good news. But, says Cantori, “I don’t think it’s gonna change much in terms of people’s behavior.”

Bogota’s Ciclovia is all about changing behavior on a mass scale. The throwback Sundays began more than 20 years ago, initially involving only about four miles of roads. Over the years more miles were added, plus more activities.

Cantori describes Ciclovia as a weekly carnival. Along the winding route you can stumble upon everything from free outdoor aerobics classes to mini-concerts.

“These are improvements that improve the quality of life,” says Matt Sholler, director of communications and development for the New York-based Institute for Trans-portation and Development Policy, which supports such so-called environmentally sustainable initiatives. “They do require some kind of shaking up of the streetscape … to establish a better balance between auto traffic and pedestrians.”

Enrique Peñalosa – a Duke-educated economist who was mayor of Bogota from 1998 to 2000 (the law forbids serving two consecutive terms) – presided over the greatest expansion of Ciclovia. It became the symbol of a philosophical shift in the use of public spaces, making Peñalosa something of a celebrity in urban-planning circles.

His “politics of happiness” is rooted in a kind of populist ecology. In Peñalosa’s opinion, cities need to better reflect the common good. Therefore, he set about building a world-class bus system, the TransMilenio. During his tenure as mayor, 100,000 trees were planted and some 200 miles of bike paths opened.

In addition, the first Thursday of February became a car-free day in Bogota. A system of odd-even license plate restrictions also was adopted during rush hours, reducing traffic 40 percent.

“The most important thing is the equity aspect of it,” explains Oscar Edmundo Diaz, a former aide to Peñalosa who is now Latin American regional director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “The beauty of the Ciclovia is, it’s a place where everyone meets as equals. You are basically connecting poor neighborhoods with rich neighborhoods.”

Bogota has continued on the environmentally progressive course he and Peñalosa set. Indeed, the long-range goal – currently the subject of legal wrangling – is to ban virtually all cars within city limits during morning and evening peak hours by 2015.

No American city (or mayor) is ready to take that radical a quality-of-life step, but officials in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia reportedly are contemplating Ciclovia-inspired weekend road closures. Chicago, however, may be ready to roll this fall. Mayor Richard M. Daley has signed off on a “Sunday Parkways” program that would block off three to eight miles of city streets from noon to 5 p.m.

“I am feeling very confident that this is going to happen,” says Rob Sadowsky, executive director of Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. “This would be the first project of its kind in North America.”

Cantori would love to have Baltimore be the second. He thinks Druid Hill Park might make a good focal point for a mini-Ciclovia.

If successful, it would be easy to expand the route to the Inner Harbor, then to east and west Baltimore and even Towson: “I can see people coming from Washington and Philadelphia to ride in Baltimore.”

Sandy Sparks, president of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, which sponsors the annual pedestrian festival held on a stretch of the Jones Falls Expressway, thinks Cantori may be on to something.

“It’s a wonderful idea,” she says. “It would make sense because our city is so compact.”

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke likewise is intrigued, suggesting Waverly Market as another potential locus. “It’s a great idea well worth exploring,” she says.

It costs about $1.5 million a year to run Bogota’s Ciclovia, funded in part by corporate sponsors. Sadowsky estimates that every Sunday Parkways event in Chicago will eat up about $100,000 in operating expenses.

At least eight city agencies are involved in Chicago. Cantori expects the machinations would be similar in Baltimore. The departments of Transportation, Planning, Recreation and Parks, and Public Works would need to sign on. Likewise, the City Council. He hopes there’s enough money and political will to give folks a true taste of Ciclovia. He intends to find out.


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