Streets in the United States are ubiquitous with car use, but the idea of car-free zones is making a resurgence. Governments around Greater Washington are proposing to increase the number of car-restricted areas around the region, including certain hours on 18th Street Northwest in Adams Morgan, 18th Street North in Rosslyn, 7th Street Southeast near Eastern Market, and The Wharf in Southwest DC. As the region considers more car-free zones, we should consider what other urban areas have done.
American pedestrian malls: A history of mixed success
A number of American cities have incorporated pedestrian-oriented streets into their central business districts. These “pedestrian malls” are closed to car traffic, but they have a variety of storefronts and housing that are reachable on foot, as well as by bike or sometimes transit. Many cities with pedestrian malls integrated them into their historic downtowns. In most car-dominated cities, street access and parking is often available surrounding the malls, allowing automobile users to park and continue to the malls on foot.
Pedestrian malls in America are controversial. Dozens of cities tried to incorporate them into their central business district during the middle of the 20th Century to revitalize downtown areas, but most failed. Accordingly, many cities returned cars to downtown streets, and the idea is not nearly as popular as it used to be.
Regardless, many advocates maintain that the chief problem with failed pedestrian malls is mainly due to poor design, zoning restrictions, and the larger trend of 20th Century urban decay. Following this logic, pedestrian malls should be able to work under the right circumstances. Here are some examples of where they have worked:
College towns have had success
Of the approximately 15 remaining pedestrian malls, a number are in college towns.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, the city’s downtown has been positively shaped by the presence of an eight-block car-free zone. Lawrence Halprin & Associates designed the retrofitted Main Street to revitalize the downtown area. Opened in 1976, the street is sixty feet wide and laid with brick, extending to storefronts, trees, and groups of inviting seating. The pedestrian-friendly Charlottesville Mall has been a vital anchor for uniting the community.
One year later on the other side of the country, Boulder, Colorado opened its own four-block long pedestrian mall on Pearl Street. As in Charlottesville, downtown Boulder faced great economic distress during the 1970’s. Luckily, in 1970, the state of Colorado passed the “Public Mall Act,” allowing cities such as Boulder to close off streets to automobile traffic. Today Pearl Street serves as the cultural and commercial center of the city.
Pedestrian Malls can work in large cities, too
Other Colorado cities, such as Denver, also took advantage of the state’s Public Mall Act. Denver opened its own 16th Street Mall downtown in 1982. Renowned modern architect I.M. Pei designed the mall, which also includes a number of trees and outdoor cafes. The 16th Street Mall is built for pedestrians, but it also incorporates transit with a free bus which runs up and down the street every few minutes. Although the route is primarily aimed at transporting people within the mall rather than to or from it, it demonstrates how non-car modes of transit can be integrated into a pedestrian street.
Austin, Texas – both a college town, and a large city – has also had a great success with Sixth Street downtown. Unlike the previous examples, Sixth Street is open to car traffic most of the time, and only functions as a pedestrian zone during the weekends. Sometimes called ‘Dirty Sixth,’ the downtown street is known for its nightlife and (to the dismay of some locals) reputation for college student debauchery. Nonetheless, Sixth Street has gained an international reputation for nightlife, and its integration of pedestrian-only traffic during the weekend is certainly one reason why. Sixth Street’s college student character has some parallels to 18th Street Northwest in Adams Morgan, where the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission is considering various options to partially close the street off to cars during certain hours.
Seattle also recently concluded its 2017 “People Street” program for the Pike-Pine area. Following a series of pilot runs in 2015 and 2016, the city decided to close a six-block area to car traffic for 10 Saturdays this summer. Notably, Seattle is continuing to look for feedback in order to decide how to plan the future of People Street.
A final example is New York’s Times Square, which created a large, permanent pedestrian zone in 2014 after it temporarily removed cars from part of the intersection due to safety concerns in 2009. As is happening now in Adams Morgan, transportation officials looked at reducing the use of cars in the area following a number of traffic accidents in the area. Although the measure was meant to be temporary, the popularity the pedestrian zone led Manhattan to create a new design for the square. Echoing Sixteenth Street in Denver, a world class modern architectural firm – Oslo-based Snøhetta in this case – created the design, which added over 100,000 square feet of pedestrian space.
Since a majority of American pedestrian malls failed, it is important to consider why before promoting them in our own area. Public space advocate Adam Greenfield points out that planners did not tailor the designs of these pedestrian zones to accommodate the areas they served, leading to their eventual demise. Greenfield likewise notes that businesses affected by the street design changes must be involved in the dialogue in order to make the idea work. In practice, pedestrian malls must incorporate business-friendly design elements such as allowing early morning delivery trucks to park on the mall.
Flexibility was also key in the cities listed above where pedestrian zones were successful. In many of these cases, streets were only closed to automobile traffic during certain times. New York and Seattle also tested the pedestrian zones as trials before making them permanent.
Not every place is ideal for a pedestrian zone. Areas that are pre-existing gathering places are more likely to succeed than single-use commercial districts. Higher population density is also a major asset, since people are already likely to naturally gather in these areas.
Another consideration is equitable access. Pedestrian malls that are isolated from transit are not as accessible to lower-income individuals, or to those without a car.
In successful cases, creating pedestrian zones has been a boon for local businesses and the community. These examples show that car-free streets – perhaps even 18th Street Northwest, 18th Street North, or 7th Street Southeast – can be even more appealing to cities than they were before.