Tuesday, October 24, 2006
The pedestrian street: Is it a boon or a bane for cities? In Beverly Hills, Cal., the city government is considering closing off a block of the famous Rodeo Drive (see left) to ban motor vehicles and making it a pedestrian-only “Rodeo Promenade.”
I applaud the idea of pedestrian ways, at least in theory. In older sections of many cities in Italy, for example, some streets are closed off to motor vehicles, if only because of the lack of space. These streets give the older sections of cities such as Florence (see photo at left) a special charm.
Pedestrian ways have also worked in cities such as Miami Beach (the restaurant-chocked Lincoln Road) and Charlottesville, Virginia, where the old downtown Main Street (see photo below) has been pedestrianized for decades and has successfully made the transition (the only way for downtown streets to survive, and possible only in “cute” downtowns) from a shirts-and-socks retail street to a pleasant strolling route of fancy restaurants, bookstores, and specialty shops.
But pedestrian ways don’t work in places where shoppers won’t make the special effort to walk and don’t see any reason to stroll. Chicago’s ill-fated pedestrianization (with buses) of downtown State Street helped push the great middle-class shopping street (see ca. 1900 photo at left) downhill in the 1970s, and Washington, D.C.’s closing to cars of a stretch of the once-busy E Street led to a lifeless and dirty stretch of city. Both cities have reversed their decisions and have reopened the streets to motor vehicles, which have helped revitalize both streets.
The lesson? Pedestrian ways will work for popular “boutique” retail streets, but not elsewhere. Rodeo Drive seems to fit perfectly in the former category, of course. Build a big parking lot, and let the Californians stroll.