Viva CalleSJ: A Place Where Open Streets and Community Meet

Miles of streets will be closed off to traffic and open to bicyclists, non-motorized vehicles, pedestrians, and even Pokémon Go fans on September 23, 2018 for Viva CalleSJ. Photo Credit: San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services.

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

Picture picnicking down a large stretch of one of the busiest roads in San Jose. Now picture all the traffic, every single vehicle, gone from sight.

This is a reality at least once every year in San Jose, and even more instances in other parts of the world.

In Latin America they are known as “Ciclovia”, or simply “bikeway”. In cities such as Guadalajara, Mexico and Bogota, Colombia, thousands of bike riders, picnickers, and pedestrians gather in the open streets to walk, ride, or simply enjoy the day buying from vendors and being surrounded by like-minded individuals. 

Ed Solis is a Recreational Superintendent for the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services and has had been a crucial part in bringing the open streets program to the region.

He says that the original idea for bringing an open streets program to San Jose began with an observation trip to Guadalajara in 2014, where they have 52 Ciclovia’s a year, not even

“Our director of the department came by my office and she asked me if I was interested in attending a trip to Guadalajara to hear a gentleman by the name of Gil Penalosa about a program. The Knight Foundation was funding Gil’s nonprofit organization 8 80 Cities and they basically wanted someone that had a recreation background to kind of observe the training and then report back. Like a secret shopper.”

The 8 80 Cities nonprofit is centered on creating enhanced open spaces and community gatherings, which was exactly what was happening in the Ciclovia in Guadalajara.

“Hearing Gil speak about open streets and the way it changes communities and how it transforms people’s ability to access recreational opportunities particularly for the young and the old, was very interesting to me. I felt at the time that it would be hard to do in the US because Americans love their cars, we drive a block to 7-11 to get a Gatorade,” says Solis.

After spending a weekend in classrooms learning on how these programs affect and transform communities, and then on Sunday actually attending the 300,000 attendee Ciclovia, Solis was in awe.

“When we went out and got our bikes we were kind of in a neighborhood park and as we made ourselves to the route I noticed that there were children on their bikes. When we got to the route we were on a crest and I just remember as far as I could see I could see people on bikes, running, young and old. It was really amazing to me that they do this every Sunday.”

On this trip they also spoke to the community members out and about, getting reactions on how the programs affect the lives of both the attendees and businesses on the routes.

“I spoke with an older lady there and asked her ‘how was your business señora, how does this affect it?’ She said, ‘I’m 80 years old, and I’ve always worked every day and Sunday I would take off to go to church. Now I only work on Sunday after church. I sell all my fruit in four hours. I only have to work once a week because 300,000 people come by this corner on bicycles.’”

Coming back to the US Solis sought to talk about potentially doing something on a smaller scale in San Jose.

“It took some time to get things in place especially around public safety, and to figure out where we were going to do it. We figured out we wanted to connect certain socio-economic things. The Viva Calle is connecting people through social integration.”

With a lot of help from Department of Transportation, the City of San Jose, and Gil Penalosa’s connections to other Ciclovia’s in the US, Solis was on track for the first Viva CalleSJ in 2015.

Connecting Communities

Solis says that by connecting different neighborhoods of different cultural and economic makeups you get people going to areas of the city they might have never been in on their own.

“People often say that the city is made up of small communities that aren’t always connected so when we did our first route we went from East San Jose at Emma Prusch Park and we came all the way down Story Road and went on Market to St James Park. So, you connected a very monolingual Latino community in East San Jose to one of the most expensive places to live in the Bay Area at downtown.”

The first Viva CalleSJ route took place in 2015 and brought in 35,000 people over the 6-mile space. The second year soared to 100,000 over 6 ½ miles. Last September saw 130,000 attendees and Solis and the city hope to garner more this year.

“And so, as Viva Calle continues, as it picks up speed, it picks up in popularity. Before it was kind of hard to get people to partner, now people call us a year ahead. And everything from faith-based organizations to small businesses to large health serving agencies like the Health Trust and County Office of Public Health are partners in what we do,” says Solis.

Cities in the US like New Brunswick, New Jersey, Austin, Texas and even Santa Cruz have begun to activate open streets programs in their respective cities. Solis says that clever hubs during the program and word of mouth have a lot to do with its rapid growth and spread into other cities.

“It’s just gotten better and better every year and people are starting to love the different communities that they get to visit within San Jose, in areas they’ve never been. This year on September 23rd we’re gonna go from downtown all the way down Monterey highway to South San Jose. so, this is another new route for us and we’re excited,” says Solis.

What to Do on the Avenue

For this year, among the new route change, the Viva CalleSJ will have a 5k run earlier in the day.

Other activations include events at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, a SoFa street fair partnership, and Martial Cottle Park in the South San Jose region. One of the most popular hubs from last year is also returning. Pokémon Go, the popular mobile game that essentially requires one to roam around outside in search of digital creatures, brought in 35,000 players to the special event during Viva CalleSJ last year and will again be part of the programming.

Solis adds, “Last year we learned some valuable lessons so this year we’re going to have a call to action, we’re gonna ask folks that are coming to play the Pokémon game to bring things to help support our homeless population. The end of September is leading into wintertime so we’re asking them to bring things to folks that are living on the street. We’re going to utilize Pokémon Go to help support our homeless population this year.”

And if you don’t have a bike or don’t want to catch Pokémon you are more than welcome to come however and do what you would do at your local park. “It’s not a biking program. It’s a lot easier but if you don’t have a bike we encourage people to walk. You can use a skateboard, you can have rollerblades, you can have roller skates. Anything but a motorized vehicle is allowed on the route. You can have your dog out to walk. Bring your little two year out so they can ride their training wheels on the street. When would you ever tell your two-year-old to go ride in the street? This is a good opportunity for people to get out and see what’s down the road, so you don’t need a bike to do it.”

The Business of Open Streets

Besides the benefits of health and the environmental factors of people being out of their cars for a few hours, the Viva CalleSJ is an important factor in fostering positive business relationships on the routes.

“We also want to impact business districts because people who are on the route, any business, will see a 56% increase in business the day of, if they engage in open streets. Last year there was a big concern over the Alum Rock business district because they had the BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] project and it impacted their business. We went out and talked with folks and showed them how to engage. The shrimp place ran out of shrimp. The churro place ran out of churros. It is an economic juggernaut, people will come and see businesses they’ve never seen and they’re going to frequent it.”

Solis adds that an internal Japan town data showed that although any given Sunday will have customers in the area which are 70% returning customers. On the Sunday of Viva CalleSJ, it was 70% new customers. Solis adds, “70% of the customers were new and they had never been to Japan town or didn’t know, that out of the three Japan towns in America, we have one in San Jose. So, these are the kinds of impacts to businesses that open streets programs bring.”

Now after three years growing the San Jose open streets events other cities have begun reaching out, observing, and going to San Jose for help in starting their own versions of Viva CalleSJ.

“San Jose is a great test case for a city to see if they can do it, if they can get everything firing on all cylinders if they can operate within their own city infrastructure. I’ve worked closely with Gilroy, Mountain View and Palo Alto. They’re in the works in getting an open streets program going. We act as a local incubator, so folks can come and see how it’s done. Over the last few years we’ve had a number of people come observe the way we do things,” says Solis.

By transforming these miles of streets into parks, playgrounds, and bikepaths for different communities in San Jose Solis and the many departments that make this day happen have given people from disassociated areas of the city a reason to congregate.

Solis adds, “It’ll change your life.”

The Viva CalleSJ “SoFa to the Street” open streets program will take place Sunday September 23rd. More info can be found at