Sep 8, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

Returning Streets to People

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Who knew that yoga (an other car-free activities) in Times Square could actually help alleviate traffic in one of New York’s most congested areas?


  1. Pedestrians are already there – If people aren’t already using the area for shopping, recreation or other needs, they aren’t going to start just because it’s free of exhaust. Cities can’t rely on “car-free” kitsch to be the draw.  In China’s Gubei district there are 937 persons per hectare – making it ideal for a project like Gubei Pedestrian Promenade, a large-scale pedestrian-only throughway. Three blocks were closed to vehicular traffic to create three distinct zones that attracted recreation, socializing, shopping, and dining for the surrounding residents.  While density can help drive a need, it is important to look at whether there is a lack of surrounding open space for people to gather, as was also the case in Gubei.
  2. The street is not currently essential to the city’s street grid – Diverting cars from formerly congested areas can actually improve the traffic flow in the surrounding areas.  New York’s Times Square, was one of the most congested places in the world when it went car-free, successfully, in 2010. Planners found that the surrounding streets absorbed the flow and people made different decisions about how they got to Times Square whether it be walking, biking or public transit.
  3. Community Input to programming the site –Local residents, businesses, employees, and the surrounding community members are instrumental to any successful car-free event or development. Street food vendors, kiosks, street performers, artists and more are needed to bring the spaces to life. Temporary closures are no different. The one-day CicLAvia events have food trucks, a Korean BBQ cook offs, film screenings, and other activities along the route. 
  4. A unique regional presence/destination – The place itself needs to be a destination, whether it’s a throughway in a major city park or a desirable retail development in a unique environment. Lewis Avenue Corridor in Las Vegas, Nevada transformed an underutilized alley and parking lot into a linear urban park.  The design is derived from the natural pattern that desert washes create in the landscape after years of seasonal rainfall.  It connects the new Regional Justice Center and U.S. Federal Courthouse in the downtown core and gives a continuous canopy of shade, welcome in the hot climate.  For those who work and live north of the Las Vegas Strip, the corridor acts as a hub for gathering and events and has carved out an identity based on pedestrian sensibilities. 
  5. Scale matters –In the 1970’s, Chicago turned nine downtown blocks of State Street into a pedestrian and bus-only zone. While being highly trafficked, the wide street left pedestrians feeling isolated and vulnerable. The negative effects of these poor proportions were compounded by a downturn in the economy and exhaust from the buses. In 1996, Mayor Daley reintroduced vehicular traffic. This retrenchment shows that the volume of pedestrian traffic needs to be in line with how the space interacts with the surrounding context, when supported by adjusted sidewalk widths, the addition of benches or plantings to tighten the space. The right proportion puts the pedestrian at ease, and it allows the place to buzz with activity.

As cities continue to evolve, we are seeing how car-free spaces can help provide economic, social, and health benefits alongside traditional street infrastructure.  Learning from past and present examples, we can successfully use these five tips to reorient our neighborhoods towards people as opposed to their cars. 



Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, is the president of SWA, Design Critic in Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and co-author of the award-winning book, Landscape Infrastructure: Case Studies by SWA. Through his project work and research, Gerdo explores opportunities to redefine infrastructure as multi-performative systems capable of improving cities through programming, alternative transit strategies and design. He blogs about his findings at SWA’s Ideas blog.

Sep 10, 2013 10:25 am
 Posted by  Chicago Streetcar Renaissance

What about a pedestrian street with a streetcar/tram? It's a powerful combination that expands the number of streets that can be pedestrianized. It allows people to combine commuting and shopping. It brings tens of thousands of commuters through a commercial street twice a day, and dramatically boosts the foot traffic that drives local business.

All over the world streetcars mix well with pedestrians because they follow a predictable path that's clearly marked by the rails in the street. It also clears the way for safe cycling. It brings rapid transit into the heart of the neighborhood, where the shopping and the jobs and the schools and other institutions are.

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