|Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena|
My favorite mode of transportation is walking. It is how I prefer to get around. It is no surprise then that my favorite parts of cities are downtowns, which are typically the most walkable areas. Pedestrians are the lifeblood downtowns, and without them they fail. If you don’t make the area comfortable, convenient, and interesting for pedestrians then nothing else you do will matter; walkers are that elemental to the success of any downtown.
It should be no surprise then that too much automobile traffic—and the danger, noise, parking lots, and fumes that go along with it—is one of the things that caused so many downtowns to become unpleasant places by the mid-20th century.
Therefore, it seems logical that banning cars from downtowns, and turning them over entirely to pedestrians,would be a really great thing to do. Sadly, it is not. It is something that works well in Europe, but it hasn’t worked in the US. We tried; you have to give us credit for that. We built about 200 downtown pedestrian malls between the 1960s and 1980s, and more than half of the have now been removed. Some observers estimate that as few as 30 are not in some stage of removal or redesign. In fairness, short stretches of alleys and lanes can be successfully pedestrianized in the US, such as Maiden Lane and Belden Place in San Francisco. A few cities have even made it work on their main streets (Boulder, Colorado and Santa Monica, California, for example) but the success rate is very, very low. When a concept fails 9 times out of 10, despite investments in the billions, it is time to let it go.
|Car-Free in Burano, Venice|
An excellent example of getting that balance just right is University Avenue in Palo Alto, California (pictured below), which is a classic American "Main Street." It has one lane of traffic in each direction, on-street parking, and wide sidewalks. To free up extra pedestrian space, the street trees are planted in the parking lane. The street trees, by the way, are gorgeous, uniformly-spaced London Plane trees that have been limbed up to provide visibility for the retail signage. Despite the presence of a large and successful mall nearby, this is a very successful shopping district, and a wonderful place to stroll, even with the presence of cars.
|University Avenue, Palo Alto|
Why are pedestrian-only precincts successful in Europe, when we can’t seem to pull them off on our side of the pond? The reasons for this contrast are numerous and complex, certainly, but here are some of the primary culprits:
While I now live and work in the San Francisco area, I grew up and started my career in Fresno, a medium sized city (population 509,039) in California. Fulton Street used to be the heart of the city, from its inception in the 1870s until the 1950s. The typical American story of downtown decline followed, with greenfield housing growth served by suburban shopping centers draining its energy. While it may have declined from its 1920s heyday, though, it was still pretty vibrant in the 1950s, as you can see in the photo below.
- Density. European cities have a much denser residential population within walking distance of the pedestrian-only area, and these residents add 24/7 life to the streets and help support the shops.
- Tourism. The overwhelming flood of tourists staying in area hotels helps keep the car-free streets, and their shops, full of life and activity.
- Transit. Europe in general is less reliant on autos due to the presence of good transit systems. Many shoppers arrive by bus and train.
- Attitude. Although they’re catching up, Europeans have less of a cultural obsession with cars, and they expect fewer concessions to be made for the comfort of motorists. They take less offense at things like traffic congestion, parking meters, and closed-off streets.
- Context. European pedestrian-only streets are embedded in districts and cities which are also very walkable, in contrast with the American model of an island of walkability in a sea of pedestrian hostility.
- Design. The streetscapes in these areas are usually richly embellished with great materials and appealing, timeless motifs which match the beautiful historic architecture of the buildings.
- Scale. European pedestrian-only precincts are usually located in the medieval quarters of the city, which feature narrower streets that are sized just right for pedestrian-only situations (often only 15 to 40 feet wide) as opposed to wide American streets (80 to 100 feet or wider) which cannot be as easily filled with enough people to generate the hustle and bustle that makes shopping areas thrive.
|Nothing about the physical form is the same. Why would we expect them to behave the same?|
(Images from Google Earth)
Fresno removed Fulton Street and replaced it with the Fulton Mall, the second pedestrian mall in the nation. It opened in 1964 and was designed by the inventor of the concept himself, Victor Gruen. Gruen’s Fulton Mall was supposed to cure the area’s ills. It was conceived as a pedestrian oasis within an area retrofitted and “modernized” for the convenience of the automobile so as to be appealing to suburbanites. Like many of the pedestrianized downtown streets to follow in other cities, the scheme included one-way streets, high speed traffic loops, and clearance of nearby old urban fabric (which had historically fed customers to Fulton Street retailers in the first place) to make way for surface parking lots.
So, while it is true that we have often allowed our street designs to be far too oriented toward the automobile, the pedestrianized downtown street of the 1960s and 1970s was an overreaction. Streets can be very safe and comfortable for pedestrians, and successful for retailers, while still accommodating cars. The new Burlingame Avenue in Burlingame, California is just one of many excellent examples. You can even make major streets very comfortable for walkers, as Colorado Boulevard in Old Pasadena demonstrates. Streets are our most important public spaces, and they need to be nice, but in pursuit of niceness we can't undermine their economic viability. Balance must be achieved. It can be done, and it must be done, because the success of our downtowns depends on it.