Monday, March 2, 2009

Walking Broadway

As I'm struggling through the end of the Lent Term, I've become increasingly focused on the idea of how we can create a synergy between environmentalism and human welfare. How do we build cities that are both sustainable, and that also make life better for people?

One of the things that I noticed in Copenhagen, besides its plethora of bikes, was that the city center shopping area was entirely devoid of cars. Instead, the area was simply filled with bikers and walkers.

This is an example of what is known as the "pedestrian-mall" concept, wherein a central downtown area is closed to vehicular traffic. These pedestrian malls were a fairly popular urban-planning technique for years, but their track record isn't particularly good, and city after city has given up on them and re-opened up their downtowns to auto traffic.

This doesn't mean that they are doomed to fail; but that pedestrian-malls need to be built carefully. In Copenhagen, it seems that the concept works very well because such a large portion of the population commutes via bicycle. Additionally, the area around the pedestrian-mall is very well linked to the rest of the city by bus and metro.

In areas which are well serviced by public transport, and have heavy pedestrian traffic, pedestrian malls can greatly enhance the quality of city life. They can allow for more sidewalk cafes, street performers, food carts, etc.

The key, then, is to ensure that pedestrian-malls are easily accessible by non-vehicular transport. Which is why I believe that New York City's plan to close Broadway between 42nd and 47th street and 35th and 33rd streets, and create a pedestrian mall in Times Square and Heralds Square is a great idea.

Proponents of Mayor Bloomberg's plan believe that the plan will encourage pedestrians, improve the quality of life in New York City, and have minimal impact on vehicle traffic given that Broadway is not an incredibly efficient road for drivers in New York City.

Detractors of the plan cite failed pedestrian malls in places like Kalamazoo, and ask how people will get to Times Square without cars. Uh ... the same way people ALREADY get to Times Square? You know ... by that thing they call the subway?

I guess we'll all see what happens when the road closes down this spring, but my bet is that Bloomberg's experiment will prove successful. And if it is successful, it will demonstrate that human welfare and environmental sustainability need not be in conflict with each other, but that we can actually increase quality of life and sustainability at the same time.

For more views on the closing Broadway project, read this article in the New York Times.


Anonymous said...

I've been doing a lot of thinking about sustainability myself; I'm not convinced in the slightest that the Western way of life is sustainable. It's not just about cars; square foot per person needed to have appropriate space, furnishing that square footage, filling that square footage with appliances, and supporting that square footage on an appropriate amount of land. I wish it were easier to simplify.

ruchi said...

Academic, you're right, there are a lot of things involved in calculating sustainability. I'm not entirely convinced every aspect of the "Western" way of life is sustainable either, but I do believe that the human welfare component: people having universal health care, universal pre-school-12 education, etc IS sustainable. I just think it has to be.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

I don't know how anyone ever drove through Times Square. It's always packed with pedestrians anyway.

In Raleigh, they're doing the opposite right now - turning a street that was made into a city plaza back into a street. The street will still be closed off for special events and such, but open to traffic the rest of the time. To be honest, it seemed weird to have a plaza dividing a major street. You get used to it if you live here, but it was very confusing when we first moved here and I think would be especially confusing for tourists.

In Silver Spring, MD, there were a couple streets near downtown shopping and restaurants that were closed off on Friday nights and the weekends to allow for pedestrians. They were side streets, not major streets, and it worked very well.

Interesting concept, and I'm interested in seeing how it works in other places.

Electronic Goose said...

Jaime Lerner did this in Curitiba, Brazil and it worked wonders. He also closed certain lanes of traffic to only public transit.

ruchi said...

Erin, yes, the "pedestrian-mall" concept has its problems and if it is not implemented properly can fail. In fact, my hero Jane Jacobs was somewhat critical of pedestrian malls in her book "Death and Life of American Cities" but it depends, again on the context. Given the specific context of Times Square and Herald Square, I think it will work well.

Anonymous said...

I think your tactic of making parking more difficult is better than just making one pedestrian street. It has to include curtailing growth in other areas, too.

The pedestrian (and taxi-and-bus) mall in Minneapolis (Nicollet Mall) isn't particularly pedestrian friendly, but it's packed whenever the temp is above freezing - because driving in downtown generally is such a pain, lots of people walked or bussed or biked to the area in the first place. I imagine in places like Kalamazoo the pedestrian-only area is surrounded by really car-friendly areas, so it's easy for people to just drive around the plaza.