The Emerging Appeal of Banning Most Cars on Some Streets

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New York and San Francisco have imposed strict limits on vehicles in certain corridors. Will car-free zones catch on elsewhere?

New York City and San Francisco offer two high profile examples of cities that recently restricted cars on certain streets in order to prioritize bus transit and pedestrian travel.

In October, New York began a pilot project to impose strict daytime limits on most car traffic on Manhattan’s 14th Street, aiming to speed up bus service along the busy corridor. San Francisco launched a similar program late last month, banning private vehicles on Market Street—a hotspot in recent years for vehicles hitting—and injuring— cyclists and pedestrians.

Closing streets to cars is by no means a roaring trend in cities and towns across the U.S. But a new report from the National League of Cities suggests that there is growing interest in the idea. 

The report also makes clear how “pedestrian zone” programs can take on different forms depending on a city’s size, resources and priorities. And it outlines ways that restricting cars in some parts of cities can potentially have benefits for the environment and public health.

“As more people are in the cities, they’re thinking about ways that they are and aren't enjoying those places,” NLC’s Brooks Rainwater, one of the authors of the report, told Route Fifty. “And, frankly, congestion in cities is not something most people get excited about.” 

“Rather than thinking about futuristic ways to move beyond that, people are just going back to what’s worked for centuries, which is to create space for people to congregate,” he added. “To create space where people can walk through the city without fear of being run over.”

Some American cities have had pedestrian corridors for decades.

For instance, the report notes that Burlington, Vermont opened a car-free pedestrian mall in 1981 on Church Street, between the University of Vermont and Lake Champlain. It now draws over three million visitors each year and has over 100 shops and restaurants.

State Street, near the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, is another thriving car-free zone in a medium-sized city that the report points to. But the report also notes that the area’s popularity has helped fuel increases in rent prices for apartments and commercial space.

Creating streets that favor pedestrians and transit over private vehicles can be done in a variety of ways and doesn’t necessarily mean banning all cars at all times.

With the 14th Street program in New York, cars can still travel on the street overnight, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Passenger vehicles can also make pick-ups and drop-offs, and access garages, at other times without risking a ticket, as long as they follow certain rules. And trucks are allowed at all times in the corridor, which stretches between 3rd Avenue and 9th Avenue.

Looking outside the U.S., the NLC report explains how Bogota, Colombia closes 76 miles of streets to traffic between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays and holidays. The practice dates back to the 1970s and has been copied to some extent in over 400 cities worldwide, the report says.

One frequently raised concern with proposals for car-free streets is that they will hurt businesses. But Rainwater said that data from foreign cities shows the opposite, that retail sales actually pick up when people are traveling on foot or by bike.

The prospect of reducing bus delays by thinning out car traffic is a key reason that a city might find a car-free street program attractive. 

In New York, there are early signs that buses are moving faster on 14th Street. The city reported in December that crosstown bus commutes along the street were as much as nine minutes faster under the pilot, while other trips on most adjacent streets were less than a minute slower.

Pedestrian safety is also a concern. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has said that the Market Street area, since 2014, averaged over 100 vehicle collisions annually that resulted in injuries, with 75% of the incidents involving people who were walking or biking.

Some local commentators in San Francisco have questioned how big a step it was to ban private vehicles on Market Street, pointing out that many Bay Area drivers have tried to avoid driving along the corridor for years, given the crowds, congestion and turn restrictions.

But at least one transportation official in San Francisco, Malcolm Heinicke, who chairs the SFMTA board of directors, has indicated that he would like to see the car-free policy expanded to other streets, pointing specifically to Valencia Street in the Mission District as a possibility.

“I’m not very patient here. I want the next one,” Heinicke told the San Francisco Chronicle in late January.

Rainwater said that the pedestrian zone and car-free street projects that cities are taking up these days are happening as more people are opting to travel in cities using relatively new modes of transportation—like bicycles or electric scooters rented using cell phone apps.

“People are excited about being able to get around in new ways,” Rainwater said.

“I think that we’re going to continue to see this trend grow as city leaders are looking to respond to the wants and needs of constituents that really want to have these spaces,” he added.

A full copy of the NLC report on pedestrian zones can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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