Are You For/Against Closing Street Segments?

Ian Sacs's picture
There's a lot of babbling on in this blog about how streets are public space, that they are for people, and that they should be designed equitably for everyone.  Since cars and their owners have been generously granted most of the space on our streets due to nearly a century of auto-industry propaganda defining the car as the key to a happy life (and a sad simultaneous reorganization of our nation's cities to serve the car industry's bidding), it's no wonder that we encounter such opposition to every step in our efforts in returning the distribution of street space to an equitable balance.

The driving public, after decades of being shown images on television and in print that owning a car makes you better/cooler/[add other socially positive superlatives here] than everyone else, can express outrage at the thought that planners might think of taking away "their streets".  Quite irrational I think, because if you plunk down tens of thousands of dollars for such a fancy machine, you'd think there would be a modicum of satisfaction knowing that roadway congestion equates to more quality time spent with man's most prized material possession, no?  Nonetheless, the pursuit of a rational urban roadway network is worth the struggle, and we must march forward.

The question I put forth here is, essentially, how much is too much?  In pure city-grid fashion Hoboken, we have been regularly encountering development opportunities where closures of street segments have been on the table.  The reasons for these closures vary from underpass clearance issues to the creation of small public spaces/parks/plazas, etc.  The arguments for and against roadway closures are both valid:

For: Eliminates through-traffic in neighborhoods streets/properly redirects through-traffic to arterials; provides opportunities for new public spaces in a dense environment with little available free land; adds more interesting locations throughout the city; increases opportunities for social interactions; more fairly uses limited public space for a broader range of residents.

Against: Disrupts the flexibility (takes away options) and distribution of traffic in the grid; unfairly redistributes traffic volumes onto other neighboring streets; adds to motorist confusion; fear of adding to congestion on other streets (although this is largely disproved time and again in examples worldwide); takes away on-street parking.

Not all of these are true or valid for every situation, but they are the common arguments.  In an entirely philosophical complete streets debate, one might argue that eliminating vehicular use on any street makes that street incomplete.  A counter argument to this could be that, looking at the city as a whole, just as some streets are, where appropriate, designed exclusively for cars (tunnels, highway ramps, etc.), other streets are justified, where appropriate, to be designed exclusive of cars.

For example, in Manhattan, it would make no sense to implement a complete streets policy, inclusive of broad sidewalks, bus stops, and bicycle lanes, to some of the approaches to the  Lincoln Tunnel when the tunnel itself restricts non-motorized vehicles (although I am an advocate of opening at least one tube of either this or the Holland Tunnel to pedestrians and bicyclists), but it makes a lot of sense that the spine of the island, Broadway, be reserved exclusively for non-motorized vehicles since all the other avenues are so heavily trafficked by automobiles.

Professionally, the industry makes the case both ways, and I'm not sure there is consensus on where and when one way or the other applies.  There are clearly camps on both ends of the spectrum that lean heavily towards a steadfast policy, but the rest of us fall somewhere in the middle and the answer, as is often the case, is not so immediately evident.  What say ye?

Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



A couple of thoughts

When I was getting my masters in planning, one of my professors (a youngish Belgian) was strongly of the opinion that a lot of the pedestrian-free zones in historic European city centers had contributed to those areas becoming havens for suburbanites and tourists, because of a proliferation of bars, restaurants, boutiques, chain clothing stores, and the like. He thought that the retail mix had shifted away from a richer, more inclusive one that formerly included more stores that catered to local needs (furniture stores? appliance stores?) as a result of those streets being closed to cars.

I don't have any data to prove or disprove this assertion, nor have I spent enough time in Europe recently to have a personal judgment about it, though I have certainly seen a few examples of the pedestrianized-historic-city-center-as-entertainment-zone phenomenon that my prof was talking about. It is certainly possible that these trends are reflective of overall trends in retail, where smaller stores fulfill the need for impulsive shopping, food and drink, while quotidian needs are met in big box stores, and have nothing to do with pedestrianization. But I think that it is at least worth thinking about in a US context, given that there are some who are pushing for US cities to have large car-free zones.

In US cities, there is also the phenomenon of long streets that have been pedestrianized in a successful way, but which have also caused the surrounding streets to become blighted because of the concentrated adjacent demand for parking (I'm thinking of Boulder and Denver, though they are starting to recover, especially Boulder). This is still a relevant consideration -- for example, in SF there are quite serious proposals to close portions of the main drag, Market Street, to cars altogether. The adjacent blight could possibly be corralled by other supportive policies that ban surface parking lots, for instance, but still, the law of unintended consequences can often reign.

It's worth thinking about the effects of these actions on the uses that front the street, and not just what happens on the street itself.

Jake Wegmann

on pedestrian streets

From the vantage point of working adjacent to what I consider one of the more successful pedestrianized streets in the country, I relate to a lot of the points Jake has raised. There's the function of the street itself to consider, but also the economic implications for the surrounding uses. Our pedestrian street could be characterized as fitting that "entertainment district" niche, but it is starting to diversify. In recent years, a good amount of housing has joined the retail uses above or along the adjacent blocks, meaning that fewer people have to drive in and park to have dinner and see a play. Many small companies and organizations have their offices above. The retail mix is starting to open up a little too, with a new moderately-priced small grocer nearby (to serve residents more so than visitors, I imagine). Somehow there's very few chain stores. You still can't buy a lawnmower or discount pajamas though. I wouldn't call it exclusive, but I wouldn't call it fully inclusive either yet.

It's hard to tell whether the prevalence of higher-end stores and condos are a function of pedestrian mall designs themselves, or whether it's just the scarcity of places like these that maintain the high prices.

But I wonder if the kinds of street closures Ian is talking about wouldn't actually be a different situation. If they are already lower-volume residential streets, maybe the goal would not be to create a regional destination or commercial activity but rather just to build in a nice neighborhood amenity. That would be much less complicated economically than the existing pedestrian malls, and you probably wouldn't be dealing with an influx of visitors. Unless you do the job too well!

Street Closures in Neighborhoods

This is a seemingly perennial topic. I think in a case like Hoboken (as described), the closing of some one-block segments or one-half block segments to create pocket parks and other spaces is an excellent idea if done in context. Examples exist that I've seen in small cities (Boulder) to larger cities (Vancouver). A "modified grid" has actually been found to be the safest based on research recently presented at CNU. I've found in historic cities, topography, water, rail lines, etc. often result in a de facto "modified grid." I think the addition of such green spaces could enhance livability in an old city - cities are great but older cities often lack green spaces, for recreation, air quality, moderating the "heat island," accomodating stormwater ... If streets are to be closed for redevelopment, on the other hand, I think it is generally key that safe comfortable pedestrian pass-through be provided. Probably strategically asesembling two blocks might not be that disruptive, but any more and I think the neighborhood will be disrupted.

I think the caveat is that, yes neighborhood streets should be quiet, but the grid should not be disrupted so much that only a handful of streets can carry any traffic. I don't like some of the "circles" that have been created by multiple intersection closures in the 1970's, directing all traffic to a handful of streets.

And, Thoughts on Street Closures in Retail Areas

If done right, I think town squares and ped malls can create a nice "gathering place" for the community. One example might be Old Town Square in Fort Collins, which is really just one and-one half blocks and serves more as a "square" than a linear, multi-block "mall," leaving business intact along adjacent streets. This project did not require the re-routing of a main street or the creation of one-way streets as projects such as Pearl St. Mall in Boulder and Ithaca Commons in Ithaca did (one way streets being notorious for killing business).

One non-touristy example I saw were "arcades" or covered shopping streets in Amsterdam and in Japan - not touristy but contained small grocers, everyday clothing stores, etc. in a dense environment or near a high-ped environment (like a train station).

One type of closure I am interested in for retail streets is a street designed so that it can be periodically closed and becomes an attractive "ped mall." (Because many full-fledged ped malls have been economic failures in the past.) I think the concept is often called a "festival street" and sometimes it is only closed for festivals, farmers' markets, etc. I would love to hear of examples where this is taken a step further and the street is closed every weekend. Weekends are more ammenable to peopel strolling whereas Mon - Fri the area would perform more as a retail street.

Clear policies matter

If you have a community discussion and come to agreement on a clear policy based on community values and trade-offs, then closing streets might be okay. At least then you can be sure that doing so can achieve community goals in a framework that clearly balances the need of the whole community against the spot/site arguments. It also helps to have criteria for considering street closure, so that it is not just one more thing that all developers or neighborhood groups ask for in any situation.

Without a policy developed for the general case, you close one because the specifics make a convincing case, then you close another because it's similar, and pretty soon you have a street pattern that makes no sense and doesn't work very well.

Closing streets is not generally the best way to deal with any problems that through traffic might generate. The traffic itself is not a problem, the speed or other behavior might be a problem. Just as in criminal justice policy it is really important to deal with behavior and not class of citizen, so in transportation policy, it's important to deal with behavior, not suspect classes such as "through traffic."

After all, those people who are the through traffic are usually part of the community, and there is nothing wrong with using a city street to go 12 blocks instead of 3.

Closing Streets for the Environment

What about the possible indirect effect that closing a street or a street section can have on the environment. If driving becomes more of a hassle, then people should be more likely to live closer to where they work, eat out, shop, etc. As for demand for parking on adjacent streets, that can be restricted or eliminated through zoning, theoretically, at least. Traffic should adjust itself through free market processes, and if it doesn't, then government can aid in that adjustment through encouraging more dense development, rather than cutting down neighborhoods and building roads that lead to the far-reaching suburbs. This would be the more environmentally sustainable approach. My thoughts here are based on David Owen's argument in "Green Metropolis" more so than on any practical experience I have, which I why I say "theoretically" and "should." So I'd be interested in hearing what other people have to say on this point.

Street Openings

The introduction to the question of street closures suggests that pedestrians were given a raw deal in the last hundred years. Cars took over, usurped what was a uniquely pedestrian realm for millennia. Perhaps rephrasing the question could give the discussion another flavour:

Are you for or against re-opening streets to pedestrians?

Pedestrians, which means all of us at one time or another (and particularly kids), should not be made to feel apologetic or defensive about wanting back their pleasurable, risk-free, social playground that was surreptitiously taken away from them.
Existing districts and planned new ones should consider consigning a percentage of their street length for pedestrian use only as a matter of course. The denser the existing or planned street network (e.g. Portland) the higher the percentage.
It can be done, has been done and has a name: “filtered permeability”: preferential filtering of travel modes in favour of unhampered pedestrian movement.

Bad frame!

This very thoughtful consideration of the issues is masked by the notion that restricting cars involves "closing" the street. If you want to counter the perception that you're taking away the street, you should start by not calling it a "closure."

In general I'm in agreement with you about the Lincoln Tunnel, but currently the entire six-block area between 9th and 11th Avenues and 38th and 41st Streets is a big no-go area for pedestrians. There should be some way to get through on foot without feeling endangered or completely marginalized.

Ian Sacs's picture

Reply from Ian Sacs

as usual, you are absolutely correct capntransit. point well taken, and absorbed to my street space vernacular. cheers! ~ian

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