Cities around the world are shutting down streets for pedestrian, cyclist and mass transit thoroughfares and plazas, wrote John Mattson in an article in Scientific American last month. Case in point is New York City’s move to shut down portions of Broadway around Times and Herald Squares. These car-free areas in the heart of Manhattan have become incredibly popular with pedestrians — locals and tourists alike. But the actions described in the article can come in many ways, so exactly how are cities successfully shutting down these car free spaces and creating pedestrian zones? Below we take a shot at describing some different forms.
1. Permanently closing street areas. Copenhagen is a poster child for this, and several cities have followed suit around the world, in places such as Arequipa, Peru and as mentioned, in Times Square in New York City. Copenhagen architect/planner Jan Gehl described the Copenhagen actions as a series of small steps over many years in gaining public support and success.
A word of caution here also. Many U.S. cities created so-called “pedestrian malls” on wide American streets starting in 1959 in Kalamazoo, Mich. and as many as 200 more in the following 20 years. Yet only a select few have been successful. The successful and surviving ones (the Kalamazoo mall was converted back to cars) seem to have been programmed and well-managed (mostly in college towns) in a more updated view of how public space functions. Two others, the 16th Street Mall in Denver and Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis are viewed as successes, but they are actually transit malls — and well managed and programmed.
2. Putting a road diet on streets and creating pedestrian space from freed up areas. Sometimes, a street may be best left open to traffic on some level instead of turned into an all pedestrian area. This could be because the street is too wide, it has insufficient density to have sole pedestrian access or it may be decided that the street is an important thoroughfare for car traffic. Two examples come to mind. First, again in New York, aside Madison Square Park the city narrowed streets to provide a pedestrian plaza with chairs and tables with a stunning and direct view of the famous Flatiron Building. In Seattle, the parks department is building a linear park on a street known as the Bell Street Park while still maintaining limited car flow. This is basically a variation of the Dutch Woonerf or British “Home Zone.”
3. Closing park roads. Countless examples from across the country from Central Park in New York to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Kansas City’s Cliff Driver in between. This is a growing trend, and there remain many roads that are not serving their parks and cities well by being open to cars.
4. Temporary “ciclovia” closures. Around the world, city streets are being shut down to cars on one or more summer weekend days — in the U.S. this includes Portland’s Sunday Parkways, New York’s Sunday Streets and Baltimore’s B-more Streets for People. The concept originated in Bogota and then other Latin America cities such as Mexico City and Guadalajara before going global.
There are more ways this has been done, including one idea in the Scientific American article from Paul Steely White of New York’s Transportation Alternatives on “time-flexible streets,” which might be open to vehicle traffic during part of the day and pedestrian-only at other times. “You’re accommodating peak use—that could be peak deliveries in the morning and peak pedestrian use during lunchtime,” he says. “That’s something I think you’ll see more of, and something we’re pushing for.” Some streets already have this, but not on a regular basis — so we will watch for some examples.
There are more examples or one could use a different typology for closing streets, but in any case, these efforts can help land-starved cities provide great public space to residents by just using land already in public ownership.