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Community Voices: Central Avenue to go car-free this Halloween

Bryan Casañas-Scarsella

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Photo; Car-Free St. Pete Committee

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Is it a taste of things to come?

From the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis, to Las Ramblas in Barcelona, to Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, to the 16th Street Mall in Denver, there are great examples all around the world of pedestrian-priority roads. Known for their relaxing, leisurely stroll-ability and the sense of safety and freedom they provide to walkers and cyclists, these car-free streets are a way for the public to reclaim parts of the civic realm once relegated mainly to vehicles.

And for one day. on Oct. 31, St. Pete will get to experience what a car-free Central Avenue will feel like over 22 whole blocks, from MLK Jr. St. all the way to 31st St.

This free event, hosted by Car-Free St. Pete, and its partners at the City of St. Petersburg, the Grand Central District, the Edge District and Open Streets, will be open to residents of all ages, whether they are moving around by foot or riding a bike, skateboard, skates, one-wheel, hoverboard or e-scooter, and will include Halloween-themed entertainment all along St. Pete’s most bustling corridor. From Come Out’s GhoulFest, to appearances by drag queens at Cocktail, to trick-or-treating, to street performances, to various costume contests to St. Pete Pride’s FrankenPride, there is sure to be something for everyone at St. Pete’s first ever Halloween on Central event.

The idea for this event was in part inspired by St. Pete’s 2050 Visioning process, in which the community expressed an interest in exploring more car-free options for parts of Central Avenue, as well as the need for safer streets and the efficient movement of people throughout the city, and finally the integration of multiple modes of transportation in building a more dynamic community.

“This event is also another testament to how instrumental the Main Street programs that have worked so hard to build and revitalize the Edge and Grand Central Districts have been and are to keeping our districts vibrant. Especially following the separation we have all experienced over these last few years, all organizations are looking forward to bringing the community together at this safe, outdoor event,” said Barbara Volgewede, Executive Director for the Edge District.

In other words, the Halloween on Central event is symbolic of the progress made by St. Pete’s iconic and beloved Central Avenue and of the future that many residents would like to see for it, and it begs the question: could parts of Central be shut down to vehicles more frequently? Could this become a regular occurrence or tradition in our city? Some might argue that this is already being done once monthly with the famous, or infamous (depending on whom you ask), First Friday.

However, unlike First Friday, which typically only shuts down one block to vehicular traffic, Halloween on Central will span almost two whole miles of Central Avenue. Furthermore, as a daytime event it will be sure to attract a larger variety of people – from children, to families and the elderly – and encourage a wider array of daytime activities.

Cities around the world are regularly opening up major arteries to foot traffic and two wheels. During the pandemic, in an effort to keep people safer outdoors, this trend has been further explored by cities around the world. In 1974, Bogotá, Colombia, became a worldwide pioneer of Ciclovía, where they open up about 76 miles of what are normally car-centric streets to pedestrians, cyclists, walkers and runners for seven hours every Sunday. The event is wildly popular, attracting 2 million people regularly, or about one quarter of the city’s population.

Bogotá has its fair share of traffic, pollution and congestion challenges, yet numerous studies have shown the positive health impacts of the Ciclovía, and the program is considered a great equalizer for the city, which has a fair amount of economic stratification. After all, open streets are an opportunity for everyone to come together regardless of the usual economic or social divides.

This concept became a movement that has spread across the world, and is referred to in primarily English-speaking countries as Open Streets. Though most cities may not be able to replicate the scale of what Bogotá has done, many cities such as Philadelphia, Ottawa, Paris, Mexico City, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Portland, and even St. Petersburg, are trying by embracing Open Streets events, in some cases regularly and in other cases as one-offs. Clearly, the largest advantages to the environment, public health and quality of life are when these events occur more frequently, and after this event gives the public a taste of a car-free Central, perhaps it will leave them wanting more.  

The other thing that the Halloween on Central event is likely to help to point out is how refreshing it can be to have public spaces that are reserved not just for moving us from A to B but for enjoying our city, perusing its many storefronts, and having the time to really appreciate it and take it all in. Let’s be honest, we live in one of the most dynamic and active downtowns in Florida and most of us realize how fortunate we are, but instead of zipping by most of it in our cars, how often do we actually take the time to lounge around and just be in our own city?

After all, “streets are not just for movement; they should also accommodate just being … sitting, gathering, lounging and playing,” said Michael Huston, local architect who specializes in urban design and planning, and Car-Free St. Pete Committee member.

Central Avenue, known for its unique small businesses and boutiques, is a huge draw for locals and visitors alike, and is sure to be bustling with pedestrians eager to browse and shop on Halloween. Business owners across the corridor seem to be sharing in the excitement of the event and are busy preparing for an influx of activity.

“As the owner of two businesses in the Grand Central District of Central Avenue, I am looking forward to St. Pete’s biggest car-free event ever,” said Jeff Schorr, owner of Craftsman House Gallery and Truffula Eco Boutique. “It’s exciting to bring the community together and show them how easy and enjoyable it is to travel St. Petersburg’s ‘Main Street’ by foot, bike, scooter, and the Central Avenue Trolley.” 

Studies have shown that one of the many advantages of car-free streets is that they can be a boon to small businesses and restaurants. Naturally though, having ample parking and transit solutions becomes a necessary part of the equation for this to be a success.

The event is also sure to highlight the usefulness and convenience of the micromobility options available to us in our city, whether it’s electric bikes, e-scooters or one-wheels; the possibilities are almost endless with today’s improvements in technology. Along with this comes the awareness the event is likely to raise regarding much needed improvements to our local transit. Car-free living, or at the very least the option to go without a car even occasionally, is considered the ideal for a lot of locals.

However, for many this remains aspirational outside of the downtown core due to lack of frequency by Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), which unfortunately remains one of the most severely underfunded transit systems compared to other metro areas of our size nationwide. Despite its lack of tax funding, PSTA is constantly going above and beyond and innovating, from electric buses to the new SunRunner Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

For Halloween on Central, PSTA will be increasing service on the Central Avenue Trolley and redirecting it to the 1st Avenues North and South, servicing the bus stops on those roads every 15 minutes and giving riders a preview of the frequency and convenience the SunRunner will bring. Those dressed in Halloween costume will ride for free during the event.

Hopefully Halloween on Central will be a great success for small businesses and the community alike. So, while you’re strolling around a car-free Central Avenue in your most frightful costume this Halloween, maybe ask yourself, “Could this be what the future looks like?”

Bryan Casañas-Scarsella is a legislative Aide, Office of City Council, and a member of the Car-Free St. Pete Committee.

 

 

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    David Schrader

    November 6, 2021at4:08 pm

    I attended the event with 3 others. We all had a great time. Definitely should do it again next year. How about opening with a costume parade as many came in costume. Thanks for a great day.

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