Closing Streets Can Be A Bad Idea

In my second post on BYU’s upcoming campus redesign, I mentioned almost as an after thought that closing streets leads to more driving.

To understand this idea, imagine trying to get from the southeast side of campus to the northwest side — say, from J Dawgs to the Marriott Center. Right now, you can drive through campus:

According to Google Maps, this route is 0.9 miles long and takes three minutes.

According to Google Maps, this route is 0.9 miles long and takes three minutes.

After Campus Drive closes, however, drivers will be forced to chose from other, longer options.

This route is 1.3 miles long and takes 5 minutes.

This route is 1.3 miles long and takes 5 minutes.

This one — which will probably be the most commonly used alternative — is 1.4 miles and also takes 5 minutes.

This one — which will probably be the most commonly used alternative — is 1.4 miles and also takes 5 minutes.

Though the start and end points will vary, this problem will arise for anyone traveling from these regions of the city. Even if I’m going from, say, Memorial Park to somewhere on the northwest side of campus, the redesign offers fewer options that require slightly more driving.

In other words, closing this street produces a net increase in the number of car miles traveled. That wouldn’t be the case if demand for car routes was significantly declining; the longer distances would be offset by fewer car trips. But I haven’t seen any evidence that car traffic is actually decreasing on Campus Drive, nor has BYU suggested that that was a factor in its plans.

Campus Drive. This area is slated to become a pedestrian only space. That may be nice for this one spot, but cars will be forced to drive longer distances to circumnavigate it.

Campus Drive. This area is slated to become a pedestrian only space. That may be nice for this one spot, but cars will be forced to drive longer distances to circumnavigate it.

Closing streets might also make sense if demand for pedestrian space increased beyond supply to the point that cars and people were in immediate conflict. Times Square comes to mind as an example of that scenario, as do a number of European plazas. But as I argued last week, supply for pedestrian space on BYU campus is likely oversupplied right now.

In any case, the point is that diverting constant levels of traffic onto fewer streets doesn’t really improve overall pedestrian conditions because it produces more driving. Sure, one little slice of BYU campus might be prettier or easier to walk on, but 9th East, 8th North and other streets will likely be less pedestrian-friendly. I call that an overall failure.

In the past, I’ve argued that we need small blocks with a lot of little routes. It’s an idea championed by people going all the way back to Jane Jacobs and others. I’ve mostly focused on pedestrian routes in these posts because it’s easier to cut a pathway through a block than it is to carve an actual street.

But if we’re going to have cars — and be pragmatists — we need something similar for drivers. After all, forcing more cars onto bigger, faster stroads is what makes so much of our cities awful in the first place. This idea apparently is obvious to some people, as I’ve seen a fair amount of complaining online about potential increases in traffic on streets surrounding BYU.

So what should we do instead of closing streets?

Rather than completely close this road, why not just make it narrower?

Rather than completely close this road, why not just make it narrower?

The best option I can think of — short of simply outlawing cars — is to reduce the size and speed of streets while still keeping them open. So, rather than plant grass over Campus Drive, cut it down from five lanes to two (one in each direction). That keeps it available to cars, while also freeing up land for development. It also would slow down cars and be inherently more pedestrian friendly. And as I’ve expressed before, narrower streets are really fantastic.

In this case it’s probably too late to suggest changes. But the idea that closing streets to cars can actually make a place less pedestrian friendly is an important one to remember; many people in Provo and elsewhere, after all, favor making all of downtown pedestrian-only. Though that idea seems wonderful, the supply and demand conditions are even less favorable for it than they are for BYU’s new pedestrian project.

Campus Drive is destined for closure.

Campus Drive is destined for closure.

Ultimately, I look forward to the day when we have no more cars. I wish every street was a pedestrian-only zone. And we definitely need to make our cities easier for people to experience on foot.

But as long as we have some cars driving, the best practical solution I can think of is to try to reduce the miles they travel, slow them down, and keep their concentrations relatively low. Permanently shutting down streets accomplishes the opposite.

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Filed under BYU, commuting, driving

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