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Slow pedestrianization: how to take cars out of cities

It sounds a bit eco-utopian, but cars are being banned not just from eco-towns like Abu Dhabi’s Masdar or Germany’s Vauban, but from congested downtowns like New York and possibly San Francisco and Melbourne (Australia).

In Cameron Crowe’s 1992 movie “Singles“, one character- a transportation engineer- argues to Seattle’s mayor that he has an idea to transform the city to make it safer and better for people than their cars.

The mayor’s response: “People love their cars.”

That’s been the attitude for much of North America for the past few decades, but now cities as congested as New York are experimenting with making some roadway car-free and city planners say the time is right.

“I think that 21st-century cities are looking at their streets differently,” explained New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan when announcing the city’s proposal to make stretches of Broadway off-limits to cars. “They’re saying, ‘We need a fresh look at how we’re getting people around, and it’s more than just pushing as many cars into a city as possible’.”

Taking cars off Broadway

After losing the battle to implement a congestion tax for Manhattan, New York’s subway-riding mayor Michael Bloomberg is using congestion as an excuse to push through plans to eliminate car traffic from parts of Broadway around Times Square and Herald Square. Arguing that less crosstown traffic will help the flow of traffic going up- and down-town, the city will shut down parts of Broadway to car traffic through the end of 2009 as an experiment, and if successful, it will become permanent.

This experiment will help more than just congestion. As transportation planner Jeffrey Zupan explains it: “traffic is going to move better. That’s one of the positive things that’s going to come out of this. The win-win is that the space that you’re freeing up will be used by pedestrians.”

Since Broadway has been “underperforming” with regard to other Midtown streets- there are many vacant storefronts and rental rates are lower- Sadik-Khan expects the pedestrian-only Broadway will help turn things around by getting “more people out on the street. They will buy more coffee and do more shopping.”

Stores “need people to be able to drop off their grandmothers”

In San Francisco, the push to ban cars from 2 miles of busy downtown Market Street is not a new idea, but it has picked up support over the past decade given the high rate of pedestrian/car accidents in the city- 3 per day on average- and a growing awareness of global warming.

Director of the street’s business league Carolyn Diamond says in the past 23 years she’s seen the idea raised 4, 5 or 6 times, but things are different now. “There has been a change in attitude over the last five years.”

The biggest obstacle to the proposal are those who fear it might harm businesses. Even the city’s famously “green” mayor Gavin Newsom has held back his support until determining the effects on the local economy.

The local business league’s Diamond shares his concern and says local merchants will likely oppose the plan. “The business community believes that they need that option for easy access to shopping. They need the visibility to passengers in cars. They need people to be able to drop off their grandmothers in front.”

Residents seem convinced cars are only an obstacle to shopping. In a comment on the SF Examiner website expressed bike commuter Edwin d’Haens argued, “Since there’s no parking on Market Street anyway, I don’t see what a steady stream of slow-rolling cars going past your store is doing for your business right now.”

What went wrong in Chicago

But Diamond points to Chicago’s experiment as an example to avoid. In 1979, city planners converted 9 blocks of State Street into a pedestrian-only mall, attempting to turn their downtown into something similar to a suburban mall. But the move simply isolated the area from the rest of the city and businesses closed and the streets became dirtier and emptier. Things improved when it was reopened to traffic again in 1996.

In the sixties and seventies when about 200 American cities created pedestrian zones, but most- like Chicago’s- were reopened to cars as suburban malls grew in popularity. Advocates of car-free zones argue that times have changed and point to successful conversions like those in Denver, Minneapolis, Ithaca (New York), Burlington (Vermont) and Boulder (Colorado).

Many argue it’s not the idea, but the implementation that’s at fault. Business writer for Boulder’s Daily Camera Matt Branaugh attempted to outline the factors that help make the town’s Pearl Street Mall and other similar American car-free zones successful:

  • Traffic flow to the area: something city planners can create.
  • The right mix of retailers: elements like outdoor seating are helpful.
  • A certain amount of office space to assure assure employees will frequent the area.
  • Earmarked annual funding for maintenance and management of the mall. “The money keeps the streets clean and organizes the many monthly events needed to draw people into the shopping districts.”

According to the advocacy group Culture Change, change needs to happen methodically, not in one bold move. They point to analysis of 32 German cities with relatively new pedestrian zones. “They implemented their respective plans step-by-step. The common pattern was to shut down a congested area, then as public support grew and financial resources became available, individual foot-streets were connected to form a traffic-free zone. City planners learned a great deal from these initial street closures.”

Closing a street via “an extended holiday closing”

Copenhagen’s transformation from a traffic-choked, provincial city half a decade ago to what is now considered one of the world’s most livable cities with its many car-free promenades and squares began by capitalizing on holiday closures.

The Strøget- now Europe’s longest pedestrian thoroughfare- was traditionally closed for two days every Christmas, but in reaction to the nearly stalled traffic in much of downtown “in November 1962, half-disguised as an extended holiday closure”- as described by author Chris Turner on the worldchanging blog- “the Strøget went car-free for good”.

It would be easy to see Copenhagen for what it is today- and an example too far ahead of especially North American cities-, but at the time city residents posed many of the same complaints heard today in San Francisco. Turner explains not only did downtown merchants complain they would be destroyed by the plan, but “other critics argued that the measure was simply un-Danish. We are Danes, not Italians, they argued. It’s too cold here and it rains too much. We like cozy meals at home, not outdoor cafes.”

Today outdoor cafés are all over Strøget and city planners used the street’s success to slowly convert surrounding streets and squares to expand their pedestrian network which today covers about 100,000 square metres.

“You don’t shop from a motorcar”

In Melbourne, Australia, the banning of cars from their busiest street began 18 years ago and is still a work-in-progress. In the late seventies, the city’s downtown was a no-go zone and described by its newspaper as “an empty, useless city centre“.

In the eighties, city planners began steps to take back their downtown- wider sidewalks, an expanded tram network, denser housing-, but what tipped things for this city Down Under was the daytime pedestrianization of Swanston Street, the city’s main artery, in 1991.

While the street reopens to traffic during the evenings, during the day trams and people dominated the street, improving business for the local merchants who had been sure the change would ruin them.

“The retailers were up in arms, we were going to kill them”, explains one of the plan’s consultants Rob Adams, “Well, we’ve doubled the number of pedestrians walking past their doors. You know, you don’t shop from a motorcar – not at 60 kilometres an hour, you don’t.”

Today, the city is considering banning cars from Swanston completely– nearly 2 decades after beginning to pedestrianize the street- and most merchants and residents are in favor (according to one online poll by the Herald Sun newspaper, 63.5% of voters were in favor of a ban.)

It’s this unhurried approach to transformation, according to Adams, that has made the changes so successful here. “The secret to our strategy has been incrementalism. We’ve got about 200 things running at once. You know, improving the footpaths [sidewalks], planting trees, signage, furniture, widening the footpaths, bringing pedestrians back in – it’s a sort of broad strategy of slow improvement.”

Slow Pedestrianization

Planners in North America seem to be following the slow approach. While environmental advocates in New York City had initially pushed for full closure of all of Broadway below 59th street, Bloomberg and city planners opted to start with just a temporary closure of 7 blocks.

And in San Francisco, the city council has agreed to a comprehensive study on the impacts of banning traffic on one of their busiest streets. Not only are city planners and merchants eager to take things slowly, but so are advocates of car alternatives. SF Bicycle Coalition’s Andy Thornley says the issue is not just about removing cars, but about adding improved amenities like street furniture, better lighting and new bus stops and bike lanes.

As the proposal’s author SF Supervisor Chris Daly explains: “If we’re going to take cars off of Market Street, we’re going to have to find a way to remake Market Street to make it more inviting.”

Pedestrian zones, if done right, can prove to be a win-win-win for traffic, pedestrians and businesses.