SAN JOSE — Downtown looked more like Copenhagen or Amsterdam than San Jose on Sunday as about 100,000 people descended on car-free streets.
The ding ding from bicycle bells replaced the blaring horns and traffic usually choking major downtown streets as part of this year’s Viva Calle open streets fair which drew thousands of people to walk, bike and skate through the city’s most historic neighborhoods.
Though it was forced to cancel last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the open streets fest came back with a bang on Sunday, closing six miles of roads to car traffic and allowing hundreds to stream down the streets in comfort for about five hours. From the Mexican Heritage Plaza in the east to The Alameda in the west, down to SoFa and over to Japantown, the car-free routes beckoned bikes and skaters to enjoy local booths, live music, a drag show — or “drag race” — and extreme bike stunts.
For Raul Rivera, who has lived on the east side his whole life, the Viva Calle has become a family tradition over the years. Riding alongside more about a dozen other relatives decked out in San Francisco Giants gear on Sunday, Rivera said the day took him back to cruising down Story Road with his family and homies just to have a good time. To be surrounded by family — including his recently born granddaughter — was a blessing for him, Rivera said.
“We’re a big city now, but you don’t feel it until events like this come around,” Rivera said. “It still feels like family. Back in the day, you’d cruise and show off your car. People are showing off their bikes here. There wasn’t anything like this before.”
Veronica Rivera said their family has ridden through stormy weather and crazy heat, but today “it’s perfect.”
Coming from Mountain View just for the event, Craig Simpson rode in on his unicycle at Third Street and Santa Clara streets downtown with his partner Lyn Simpson. He said he would’ve gone on two wheels, but it’s not good for his back after years of back and foot problems.
“I started to unicycle a few years ago,” Simpson said. “I thought it would help me with my back and it has a lot. I’ve had problems with my foot and sciatic nerve, so I’ve been in a lot of pain. The unicycle has lessened it greatly because it worked on my core muscles. It’s so fun too.”
Riding a bike down Santa Clara Street or First Street can be a frightening prospect on any other day, but it’s exactly that problem that the Valley Transportation Authority is trying to solve with its Central Bikeway project, a 10-mile bicycle superhighway envisioned to connect San Jose and Santa Clara from the Berryessa BART station through the airport and over to the neighborhoods of the city’s west side.
Proposed as part of the county’s Bike Plan in 2018, the Central Bikeway will also be linked to the network of about 200 miles of dedicated bike trails. On Sunday, the transit agency set up a tiny Central Bikeway to show riders what it will feel like to ride with 7 feet of space between cars and bikes, a buffer that will make riders of any age feel comfortable, said advocate Donny Donohue.
Donohue knows firsthand how difficult it can feel to navigate city streets on a bike, always dreading the worst and staying on your toes. The Central Bikeway — like the Viva CalleSJ event — will allow cyclists to “bring the chill back and make biking a fun way to get around and enjoy their city.”
“The biggest thing I notice is older folks and people riding with their kids, and you don’t typically see those folks gunning down this road on their bike often,” Donohue said. “Biking in the city for me is about the stress; you’re constantly focused. This feels relaxing.”
Ed Solis, Recreation Superintendent for the city of San Jose and planner of Sunday’s roll-out, said he was concerned the turn-out would suffer amid the coronavirus pandemic, but he was pleasantly surprised to see thousands of people participating.
“There were so many families and people of all age groups and abilities out today,” Solis said. “I couldn’t be happier with our team, our city, and our community’s resciliency. Nothing can hold San Jose back from showign what we are all about. The weather was perfect. As I call it, miles of smiles.”