The Siren Song of the Pedestrian Mall

Yesterday I posted several pictures created by Rick Kinateder depicting a beautiful vision of downtown’s future. One of the most prominent features in those pictures was a pedestrian walkway that apparently replaced a street. The idea behind this type of walkway, also called a pedestrian mall, is that a street would close down to cars, but remain open to walkers. And based on conversations I had with people at the opening reception of Downtown Provo Inc., I think the pedestrian mall in the pictures depicts 400 East between Center Street and 100 North.

My sense is that pedestrian malls enjoy a degree of popular support. They look beautiful in pictures and harken back to a time without cars, which is an implicit desire of many people who think about cities, including me.

But The Atlantic Cities recently pointed out that pedestrian malls are not uniformly successful. Indeed, in many cities, they’ve been abandoned after years of experimentation. That goes to support what Brent Wilde told me a couple of months ago, when he said that places like Boulder, Colorado, are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to successfully implementing pedestrian malls.

This is obviously a complicated issue because some cities’ pedestrian malls succeed while other fail. And though many people in Provo have expressed to me interest in a pedestrian-only section of downtown, how can we know if it’ll actually increase vibrancy and economic vitality in the area?

One way for the city to hedge its bets would be to create a pedestrian mall without closing down any streets. That could be done by utilizing Provo’s massive blocks and the wasted space they often create. In this post, I pointed out how the big blocks in downtown neighborhoods created wasted space that’s good for nothing but parking. The same could be said for the more commercial blocks on either side of Center Street.

Downtown Provo, between 500 West and 400 West. The arrow points to the big parking lots, which are pretty much the only thing the middle of the block can be used for.

If yesterday’s pictures became a reality, my understanding is that the road on the right side of the picture above would become a pedestrian-only passageway. Maybe that would work, economically speaking, and maybe it wouldn’t. I don’t know. I hope it would and I’d certainly love to see the day when cars aren’t needed for intra-city travel.

But in the meantime, why not put all that paved space in the middle of the block to better use? As the picture below attempts to show, there’s already room for a pedestrian mall in the middle of the block.

Using the center of blocks to create pedestrian malls would economize previously wasted space without cutting down on vehicle access. The green represents potential pedestrian streets.

The actual design of the foot paths through the block would obviously vary, but some version of this plan would give the area the benefits of a small pedestrian mall without losing any vehicle access. In other words, it would be more accessible to everyone. It would also open up the middle of the block to new development; new retail could go in along the new pedestrian “streets.”

The practical obstacles to implementing this idea are many, but as Rick’s images show, pedestrian malls can really be fantastic. And though some cities looking to revitalize their downtowns are forced to choose between cars and pedestrians, Provo has the unique opportunity to have it both ways.



Filed under Development, Downtown, driving

6 responses to “The Siren Song of the Pedestrian Mall

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