Pedestrian Malls

What do you think of streets closed to traffic (pedestrian malls)? Do you like to visit places with pedestrian malls? Would you like to live in a town or city with a pedestrian mall? They have a time and a place, yes?

Church Street in Burlington, VT is lined in brick and cars are only on the cross streets.

Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont is an excellent example of a successful pedestrian mall. Restaurants have outdoor seating. There is public art. Retail stores have actual sidewalk sales. Musicians sit on the brick lined street and play. Kids, couples, families stroll up and down the pedestrian mall. It’s beautiful and sunny and ambient. However, Church Street has not always been like this. Just a few decades ago it was a traditional downtown which had gone downhill until 1981 when Burlington began to reinvent itself, including Church Street. (Disclaimer: there is more history to downtown Burlington than that!)

But, pedestrian malls are not always successful. Look at Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, NC, which was converted to a pedestrian mall in 1976 in hopes of revitalizing the city. Instead, it had the opposite effect. In fact, the street was less populated and less popular than ever. Finally, in 2005, the city decided to return the street to vehicle and pedestrian use rather than just pedestrians.  However, the new plan included wider sidewalks, street furniture, plantings, wayfinding signage and a plan for additional development. The current result? Success.

Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, NC with wide sidewalks and street planting and furnishings. Image via Metro Jacksonville. Click for source.

Charlottesville, VA has a pedestrian mall as well that seems successful. And it has the giant chalkboard, if you recall.

Charlottesville, VA pedestrian mall and community chalkboard.

The best examples for pedestrian malls that I can think of lie in cities with a strong population base of college students and/or tourism. Aside from big cities, what about small towns? Could pedestrian malls work and would there be a good justification for creating them? I think of Vermont towns with small main street business districts. Many of our towns have one or two through roads, and converting a street to a pedestrian mall would not seem feasible. A park or a courtyard or a side street; however, could be another story. Additionally, many towns have limited parking and sidewalk space. A large sidewalk to accommodate seating, shopping, walking and street furnishings is just not possible.

What if we consider daily shopping v. tourism shopping? Ideally, our main streets and business districts across the country have restaurants, retail, pharmacies, markets and overall a good combination of – shall we say – those every day sorts of businesses and those fed by tourism and our “expendable” incomes.  In a business district that caters to the town itself rather than tourism and large crowds, a pedestrian mall would seem improbable and inappropriate. One reason is parking. People who need to stop at the pharmacy or the bagel shop or the bank want to be able to park in front of or near the building, and not have to walk from a parking garage or a far away spot in order to run a quick errand or two. Hence, pedestrian malls have a time and place. Small town America may not be the place.

Does anyone know of a town with a small main street business district that has been converted to a pedestrian mall? I’d be interested to know. While pedestrian malls are aesthetically pleasing, they seem ideal in warmer climates or those with large business districts that will attract many people. I’d like to hear a debate on pedestrian malls, one given by planners who have studied such issues and weighed the pros and cons and the factors at play. Are any of you readers skilled in such discourse? Care to give a brief overview of what is important to consider for the creation (or removal) of pedestrian malls?

So, readers, tell me your thoughts on pedestrian malls and parking in front of businesses? What do you think is preferable in theory? In practice?

14 thoughts on “Pedestrian Malls

  1. Jim says:

    I am biased against pedestrian malls. In the 1970s, the main street in my hometown of South Bend, Indiana, was converted into one — and it hastened downtown’s decline. Shopping was moving out to the edges of town anyway, but making it harder to park near the stores downtown only encouraged people to drive to the suburban shopping centers, because parking was so much more convenient.

    • Kaitlin says:

      I was in South Bend, IN in the summer of 2009 and it did look like it needed some help. Is the downturn still a result of the pedestrian mall? How’s it going now?

      • Jim says:

        I could write a dissertation on what’s wrong with Indiana’s cities, but in short, in South Bend, a number of disastrous decisions have been made since the 1970s that have sent most economic development to neighboring Mishawaka. The pedestrian mall was one of those decisions, but was not the linchpin.

  2. George Walter Born says:

    You might look at some European examples, too. Lyon, France, has a long and inviting pedestrian mall, la rue de la Republiique.

    Burlington, Vermont, seems to be one of the better examples among American small cities.

    Key West, Florida, makes portions of Duval Street a de facto pedestrian mall for special events, such as New Year’s, spring break and Fantasy Fest. But a one-tine proposal to make the street permanently a pedestrian mall was shot down under criticism that it would remove parking in front of businesses and eliminate the tradition of “cruising” the street by car.

    Also in Florida, Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road has proven a success.

    I agree that pedestrian malls fare best in tourist and college towns.

    • Kaitlin says:

      George, excellent list. Thanks! I forgot about Miami; I’ve been there and enjoyed it very much.

      I think it’s time for me to go to Europe for site research. =)

  3. bellegroveatportconway says:

    I love them. They have a really nice one in Wincester, Virginia where Pasty Cline was raised. It is so cool. I love the shops and the British Pub that is there! They make some awesome mac and cheese!

  4. kvlandau says:

    In Copan (Honduras) for example, on Fridays and weekends they close one street down to traffic and allow jewelry vendors to set up their stands in the middle of the street. In NYC, they closed parts of Broadway to vehicular traffic and painted the pavement green! That would be an interesting case study with I imagine some real data to consult. I wonder about New Orleans? Personally though, if there are wide sidewalks and outside tables/chairs, whether the street were closed to traffic wouldn’t matter.

    • Kaitlin says:

      Good compromise in Copan. That is something that could probably be implemented in the States, except for the large amount of traffic control we’d need. I don’t think I’ve been to NYC since parts of Broadway have been closed. I don’t know about New Orleans, but we know who to ask!

      Regarding wide sidewalks and outdoor seating – yes, if the space is wide enough then it doesn’t matter. I think the bigger issue is sidewalks that cannot be widened. What do we do in small towns who could benefit from using the sidewalk as an extension of the sitting space, but do not have enough room for sidewalk, pedestrian thoroughfare and then vehicular use of streets? See the conundrum?

  5. Mark says:

    Here’s one in Halifax, NS with, you guessed it, an art college on one end. This spot is lined with historic buildings which lend to the overall aesthetic. Not sure pedestrian streets based solely on retail is the answer…….this one acts as a multi-purpose oasis in what is otherwise a busy business/historic area:

    Granville Mall, Halifax, Nova Scotia

  6. Scott Beyer says:

    Building a pedestrian or transit mall is not always a good idea. To work, one must already be surrounded by a critical mass of pedestrians. But if it’s used to revitalize a declining street, it will only accelerate that street’s decline by further isolating it.

    That said, the most overdue of these potential malls in America is Market Street in San Francisco. It’s the city’s most heavily trafficked one for transit, bikes and pedestrians. But it is now being congested by automobiles, which are mostly driven by people looking for parking—even though there’s none on the street. These autos should be disallowed, so that Market becomes a transit mall. To read about what the city is doing to encourage this visit:

    http://bigcitysparkplug.com/2012/12/10/ch-14-building-a-better-market-street-the-transit-mall-proposal-in-san-francisco-ca/

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