Columns, Opinion

MOOK: Whose streets?

For one day, the normally clogged, smog-filled, traffic jammed, steep streets of La Paz, Bolivia were free of cars. They were free of microbuses, free of taxis and mopeds and free of noisy intersections that would otherwise be polluted with the blaring sounds of horns and whistles from traffic cops. But on this one day, there was peace. To go out into the city was glorious, liberating, inviting and safe.

The excuse for a car-free La Paz was because the Bolivians were voting on a new national constitution. As mandated by law, they were all out at the polls. And as is also the law, for 24 hours, from midnight to midnight, all streets in the entire country must be clear of all non-official automobile traffic.

I’ve heard several reasons for this, the most compelling being ‘it’s to prevent election fraud’ ‘-‘- past incidents of bandits on mopeds driving up to polling stations and stealing ballot boxes have marred the processes of this young democracy. But I think the no-traffic rule is designed more to keep people in their neighborhoods, to encourage voter turnout and to keep stores closed on that Sunday.

The new constitution passed 60-40, and the result was that the local economy and neighborhood jubilation boomed! Fairs were set up on empty avenues, impromptu markets filled traffic circles, children raced on skateboards down La Paz’s slopes and everyone, from cholitas to mestizos, joined in the f’uacute;tbol games. Best of all, people were out riding bicycles. Astounding! Biking in crazy ol’ La Paz! It seems like some fantastical dream of urban purity.

Yet this isn’t as implausible as it may seem. Many cities shut down their busy thoroughfares every once in a while and open them up to people, all for the sake of fostering urban solidarity. You might have missed it, but Boston hosts the Hub on Wheels, which allows bikers and pedestrians to legally take over Storrow Drive once a year. Cambridge closes Memorial Drive, from the JFK School to that insane Watertown intersection, every Sunday from April to November. And Jamaica Plain has its various street fairs, led by costumed clowns on stilts and sponsored by Spontaneous Celebrations.

The best example I know is Bogot’aacute;, Columbia, where every Sunday 120 kilometers of major avenues are liberated and volunteers set up sports, aerobic classes, music performances and bicycle races. It’s called Ciclov’igrave;a, and it brings the city out to dance, have fun and exercise together. Due to its popularity, the city has radically changed its transportation infrastructure, giving priority to public spaces, pedestrians, bicycles and mass transit. In Bogot’aacute;, the city’s attitude has progressed from hopeless urban suffocation to pride and unity. Much of the success can be attributed to former Mayor Enrique Pe’ntilde;alosa, who is visiting Boston this week to talk about his work, sponsored by the LivableStreets Alliance.

So now, imagine a car-free Bay State Road. Or a motorless Commonwealth Avenue. How far would that go to transform our isolated, fragmented Boston University community?

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