Envision a city street, each day traversed by more than 21,000 vehicles, suddenly devoid of traffic. The incessant honking of horns and revving of engines quieted. The danger of cars rushing past you instead replaced with a safe space for walking, bicycling and public transit.
Just last year, New York City closed off one of the busiest streets in Manhattan to passenger cars, including taxis and rideshares like Lyft and Uber. Despite the initial disgruntlement, including a few lawsuits, the city has adjusted. Increasingly, cities around the country, like NYC and San Francisco, have been designating streets for restricted vehicle traffic or even closing off entire blocks to cars.
What has replaced the once-endless traffic on these streets? People.
Pedestrian-centered streets, plazas and corridors are focused on people. Individuals and families can engage in a wide variety of activities without worrying about vehicle traffic and the safety hazards of cars zipping by. Folks can socialize, shop, use public transit and bicycles, as well as generally meander and explore areas specialized just for foot traffic.
Just this month, San Francisco closed a bustling two-mile stretch of Market Street to private cars as one of the initial phases of the Better Market Street Project. Locally, San Jose embraces the benefits of pedestrian zones with Paseo San Carlos, El Paseo de César Chávez and Ninth Street Plaza, all of which have become important gathering places for students and the public in recent years.
Cities in Europe have long recognized the potential benefits of creating pedestrian-focused streets. For example, since 1962, Strøget street in Copenhagen, Denmark has been closed to vehicle traffic. By banning vehicle traffic and thus increasing safety and walkability, the street underwent a 30% increase in pedestrian volume in the first year after conversion, undoubtedly leading to a rise in visitors to adjacent businesses. This street also saw an exponential increase in “stopping and staying” activities over the years, meaning people were not only walking by the businesses, but actually pausing to browse and make purchases.
The positive financial impact, however, is only a part of the motivation of restricting vehicle traffic in areas like Strøget.
Those making changes to city streets often do so in the hopes of making the area “easier and safer,” increasing mobility for all. In many cities, including San Jose, “road diets” have been implemented as means to both slow down traffic and encourage alternate means of travel. Road diets in San Jose have included protected bike lanes and whole lane conversions, and a recent MTI study revealed a 60% drop in speeding in areas where road diets limited vehicle traffic in areas of San Jose.
These upheavals to some of the busiest streets in our nation, like Market Street and 14th Street, are not without criticism. Some drivers may take offense at having to find alternate routes or earning a ticket for accidentally entering a restricted roadway. Despite an initial adjustment period, however, pedestrian-focused plazas and roadways make an area safer and more livable while at the same time producing economic and environmental benefits.
As more and more cities around the globe recognize these benefits, we will be seeing more pedestrian-focused paseos in our future — allowing people, pets and plants to flourish.
San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.