Making Ithaca’s Streets Come Alive — An Interview with Streets Alive! Director Vikki Armstrong

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Tompkins Weekly      9-19-16

By Tom Knipe

Streets Alive! is coming up on Sunday, September 25, on Plain Street in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood. Streets Alive! is this: A stretch of streets is closed to cars for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon where the entire community is invited to walk, bicycle, dance, play and socialize in the street. It’s a simple concept, but one with a powerful mission. It aspires to promote active living, re-envision possibilities for urban space and encourage more walking, cycling and rolling for daily transportation. I caught up with Vikki Armstrong, the director of Streets Alive! and Bike Walk Tompkins Director, for a behind the scenes look.

Tom Knipe:streets-alive-sign-photo-used-sept-2016 What’s your favorite thing about Streets Alive?

Vikki Armstrong: The kids. From the beginning the vision has been to encourage everyone to just come out on a Sunday afternoon and walk and bike and roll along in a safe, supportive atmosphere as a way to encourage more active transportation. And it really does that. Everyone comes, and we’ve got free bike repair, smiling volunteers making the street closures happen, and people pumping up their bike tires trying it out. I love seeing the Zumba dancing, the jump-roping, the chalk art drawings and music, and all of the impromptu happenings, but I have to say that I still have that moment at every Streets Alive! event where my heart surges seeing all the little kids out feeling happy and carefree on their bikes.

TK: We’ve been working together on Streets Alive! since 2012. You were the first event director when you were at the Creating Healthy Places Project at the Human Services Coalition, and now you’ve been hired as the permanent Director of Bike Walk Tompkins and are directing Streets Alive again. What has changed since the first event?

VA: The concept and partners are basically the same, but the May event on Cayuga Street and the September event on Plain Street each have their own beautiful flavor. I would say that it is even more joyful, diverse and inclusive than when we first began. Also, on the day of the first event four years ago, we honestly had no idea if people would come and people didn’t know quite what to expect. But now people know what it is all about and really look forward to joining the fun.

TK: Streets Alive is a project of Bike Walk Tompkins. What else is Bike Walk Tompkins working on right now?

VA: We are trying to make our community better for biking and walking every day. We’ve just completed some strategic planning work and one of the things that we think that the community needs is a clear shared vision for how we can improve bicycling infrastructure in the next several years in Ithaca and countywide, a project that we’ve begun calling a “Blueprint for Better Bicycling”. I expect that you’ll start hearing more about that soon. We’re also working on adult bike safety classes with Cornell’s Office of Transportation, and responding to opportunities for state and local advocacy. We host the Streets Alive! Film Festival in March. There are lots of other great ideas cooking, and we’re working on building the capacity as an organization to take on more projects and programs.

TK: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in Ithaca and Tompkins County to create better conditions for walking and biking for everyone, what would you change?

VA: I would use my magic wand to make it possible for every school-aged kid and older person and everyone in between in greater Ithaca to feel safe and comfortable getting to and from school and work and all over town by bike. To do it, I would look to other cities that have really done it right and apply the best, most innovative infrastructure treatments. The completion of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail and the Black Diamond Trail from Cass Park to Taughannock Falls State Park is tremendous. In the short term, I would love to see us connect the on-street infrastructure in the urban area – the bicycle boulevard network and the bike lanes that we have – to the off-street trail network so that we have a fully connected network of bicycle infrastructure.

TK: You and I have talked with lots of people who are interested in trying out a getting around on a bike for some of their daily transportation needs, but have concerns. How would you recommend someone get started?

VA: Find yourself a bike and get out one of the trails and rediscover how good it feels to get around on a bicycle. For your first trip on streets, pick a beautiful day, a short trip, and plan out a route that you know in advance. Do it with a friend. And come to Streets Alive! on September 25th from 1pm to 5pm on South Plain Street!

TK: How can people get involved?

VA: Write to me at And sign up to volunteer on Sunday at

Tom Knipe is the Principal Planner and Tourism Program Director for Tompkins County.

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