Closing a Street, Opening a Community

Photo by Liz Weddon on Unsplash

I live in Columbia, Missouri, and for at least a dozen years now I’ve been telling anyone that will listen that I think a few blocks downtown should be closed to cars to let people roam freely. Ninth Street, in an area known as The District, is an anchor to a thriving downtown that is bordered by the University of Missouri to the south. You can always find university students, office workers,  families, and tourists in the area that is full of restaurants, niche stores, bars, coffee shops—and plenty of cars. Ninth Street is lined with parallel parked vehicles and, at each  intersection of its four main cross streets, you can witness varying levels of conflict between cars and pedestrians or cyclists.

When the pandemic hit, Columbia, like most places, took over parking spaces to allow restaurants and shops to accommodate outdoor space. People flocked to Ninth Street so that they could reconnect with the community and have a bit of “normalcy” in their lives. It helped that The District is ringed by five major parking garages and an abundance of on-street parking that is all less than a half mile from the Ninth Street area. No one is fighting for parking. Now that things are relatively open again, the cars are back and the city missed a golden opportunity to increase walkability and generational well-being, simply by making the elimination of street parking permanent

Across the country, this same scenario has played out. Cities closed streets in 2020 so that people had places to walk and gather in outdoor settings, but few of them made it permanent. At a time when our country needs people to come together—to regain their sense of belonging and community—we’re failing. 

Didn’t we already try that?

Many of us remember pedestrian malls from the past—often brick lined with fixed metal and wooden furniture, some trees ringed with fences and a sculpture or two. It seems like an ideal scenario now, but many ended up in disrepair and surrounded by closed businesses as the rise of the suburbs and strip-malls came into fashion. Bloomberg City Lab dug into what happened to those pedestrian malls and found four factors that had an effect on their success, or lack thereof. The already mentioned suburban sprawl was part of it, but other key factors were the placement and size of the pedestrian mall, and the age of the people that lived around them. 

Now cities are seeing a resurgence in younger people moving into downtowns and a growth in more densely-populated city centers—and those people want connections to their community. Businesses are also recognizing that physical spaces that promote “dwell time” allow meaningful experiences that encourage people to return again and again.

A 2021 study on COVID-19’s effect on mobility that focused on the data collected from the more than 500 cities that closed streets for pedestrian use during the pandemic, showed that people are receptive to new methods and approaches to pedestrian planning and how public space is utilized. 

We left people out of the conversation—again.

The pandemic called for quick-decision solutions as the changing situation played out at breakneck speed, and closing streets seemed like the best way to give people access to outdoor space. What was lost in that conversation was how people that are essential workers, of which are disproportionately low-income people of color, were supposed to get to their jobs or how those forced into the delivery gig-economy would get to the homes they served.

There was also a distinct lack of public conversation about what streets to close, if they were equitable places, and what those street closures meant to the community that surrounded them. 

That same 2021 COVID-19 mobility study pointed out that the transportation profession’s long history of minimizing or completely going without public engagement has been made worse by the pandemic and the ‘emergency planning’ mentality. It stated:

"Top-down decision-making and lack of robust participatory components in the planning and implementation process has given rise to concerns over the equity of these responses, and backlash in many cases has been vigorous."

"In North America, much of the controversy has focused on how access to opportunities for safe active mobility—before and during the pandemic—is shaped by law enforcement, land use, and housing policies that have systematically excluded racial and ethnic minorities."

As we have seen in startling videos and news reports, "being on the street" can mean civil unrest and suspicious behavior to some whites, and Black people face interactions with police that can become deadly for nothing more than being in "the wrong place." 

Using police to enforcement street closure rules that can also lead to conflict and undermine the intentions. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) recognized this based on previous work with their Play Streets program, of which a central tenant is that it be resident-led. Seleta Reynolds, LDOT’s general manager, stated that “If you decide when you're designing a program like this, and you're working across your city with different departments and the decision is, ‘well, we can't have one of these, unless we have police there,’ then you need to go back to the drawing board,” she says. “The presence of law enforcement is one of the reasons why people don’t feel comfortable out in their own neighborhoods.”

For LADOT, engaging community-based organizations and faith leaders in community dialogue has made Play Streets a success and those lessons can carry over to car-free street policies and any plans for a city to permanently convert any streets must begin with community dialogue that includes all members of the community, in particular those that have been excluded in the past. 

Have we finally convinced business that parking is not king?

As the pandemic has shown, businesses need people to visit their establishments safely and feel comfortable doing so. That includes how to get there and where to spend time once there. A study by Yelp showed that car-free zones with outdoor dining saw a boost in share of restaurant consumer activity during Covid-19.

However, retailers still tend to overestimate how many people will arrive by car. A study in Bristol, England found that retailers thought 44 percent of their customers drove to them,  when it was really 22 percent. Multiple studies have also shown pedestrian customers tend to spend more money in shops and restaurants and that people-oriented streets are more economically productive for business than auto-oriented streets. 

The WIN with Business framework for Reliable Transportation states, “ The ability to access a business makes it more attractive to both employees and customers. Thus, it is in a business's best interest to locate near public transportation stops and near other businesses. A business that is only accessible by car and is not near other shops, restaurants, grocery stores, healthcare centers, and schools will face challenges attracting clientele and talent.”

As the United States and the rest of the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, let's hope that the lessons learned from closing streets can now can aide us in making a more equitable recovery. Reducing the number of cars on the road and opening public space—done the right way— can contribute to the wellbeing of a community and help secure the vital conditions that all places and people need to thrive. 

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