Maybe you’re longing to see the streets of your city free of cars, but you’re waiting for the mayor to declare a car-free day. Or maybe you’ve thought about eliminating the car traffic from your favorite intersection by having a “Reclaim the Streets” party.
But maybe you, like me, live in a place where automobile right-of-way is so sacred that any unauthorized blocking of traffic is likely to result in arrest. You don’t necessarily have to risk getting arrested or be the mayor of your city to liberate the streets from motor vehicles. If you’re willing to jump through a few hoops to get a permit, chances are you can transform your streets into car-free zones, at least for a day.
The details of the permit process are bound to vary from city to city, but in the essentials are pretty similar. For a block party — a street closure on a residential street — you will need to get signed permission from all adjacent property owners.
1. Pick a date and time for the carfree event
Closures on high-volume streets are “community events.” They require greater community and political support, as well as a bit more paperwork and advance planning. A large city like New York City, New York, might require applications for community events to be submitted a year in advance. In Portland, Oregon, applications are accepted up to a month in advance for community events and two weeks in advance for block parties. The general rule seems to be, the bigger the street closure, the more advance notice is needed.
2. Apply for a permit
Get a permit application from your city’s transportation department. Some cities will have a website with the permit process, including an online application and a phone number you can call with any questions.
Permit fees for street closures may be nominal, like they are in Portland, but rates vary widely. Don’t be discouraged by expenses. Chances are you will be able to find some organization or individual willing to sponsor your car-free event. Often the transportation department will even waive fees if your event promotes alternative transportation.
For a community event, you’ll probably need a letter of support from the neighborhood association that presides over the area. It is best to write a letter for them to sign, so they don’t have to do too much work. It would also be helpful to clearly describe to them how the event will operate and how the local community will benefit from it.
3. Create a petition
Create a petition for a representative from each adjacent property to sign, stating something like this: “We, the undersigned, are in favor of closing the street adjacent to our property to car traffic on the day/evening of _____ between the hours of _____ .” Make columns on the petition for (printed) name, signature, address, and date. Then go out and drum up those signatures.
4. Obtain liability insurance from the neighborhood or district association
Insurance is generally required to be able to host an event on a city property. Check with your city about their coverage requirements and get the special event liability policy needed. Oftentimes you will need to list the city as additionally insured.
5. Draw up a traffic diversion plan
Basically, this is a diagram of things like how many barricades will be needed to close the street, and where the traffic will be redirected. For a block party, they will accept any scribbled diagram. For a community event, you’ll need to enlist the help of a traffic engineer, or pay a firm to draw this up.
6. Submit your application
It is best to obtain a street closure permit application early, so you can get an idea of what you will need to do and what some of your expenses will be. Think big. Consider applying for a huge street closure permit to transform your city’s central arterial street into a pedestrian plaza for the day. By applying for a big street closure, you will become very familiar with the permit process and you will then be poised to close streets to car traffic throughout the year.
Fill out the rest of the application and attach your petitions, the letter from the neighborhood association, the insurance document, and the traffic diversion plan. Submit it all to the permit office far enough in advance of the car-free event.
7. Set up 48 hours in advance
Obtain barricades and no-parking signs from the department of transportation. These may cost a minimal amount of money. Ask if these can be donated for free if you promote alternative transportation at your event. Put up no-parking signs 48 hours in advance of the car-free event, unless you have agreed to have parked cars at your party.
8. Set up on the day of the event
Set up your barricades on the day or evening of your car-free event, and enjoy. Be sure to document people’s experiences, so they can be used for future events. You’ll want to document how many people attended, what activities were held, and what guests got out of it, to tell the story of why creating a car-free street is important.
This article was originally published in 2009 on Carbusters and Shareable. It was updated in 2018. This article is part of a series of action-oriented guides that align with Post Carbon Institute’s Think Resilience online course. The Think Resilience course prepares participants with the systems-level knowledge needed to take meaningful actions as suggested in this and other “How to Share” guides in the series.