Rightsizing traffic for a people-friendly place

Downtown revitalization is problem solving with a wide variety of variables, and while we share best practices, each community must develop its own strategies and solutions. Take the problematic pedestrian-automobile relationship.

The 1970’s pedestrian mall solution of removing cars altogether worked in a few places but not in most, and it turns out that the  most workable response for most communities lies somewhere in the middle of the people-car spectrum.  (While New York City works out its complicated relationship between pedestrians and Broadway’s swarm of yellow cabs  by replacing traffic lanes with bike lanes, cafe tables, and moveable chairs, Sacramento, California is repopulating the discomfortingly sparse K Street Pedestrian Mall with cars. )

Yonah Freemark covered these shifts in Next American City, pointing to some of the local variables that make or break walkable districts. In addition to population density and use of the area, transit access, surrounding traffic patterns and terrain can all play a part. 

Virginia Main Street communities range in their approaches to creating pedestrian-friendly environments. Winchester’s Loudoun Street Mall –the commonwealth’s first pedestrian mall, dedicated in 1974 — is getting a boost with ongoing converstion of new luxury apartments.  That should help boost population density and mall vibrancy.

In Manassas, 2009’s Battle Street project converted two way streets to narrower one-way streets, lining both sides with wider sidewalks and the tables for the district’s many restaurants, making every summer evening feel a bit like the neighborhood block party.  Cars still pass, but more slowly.

In Martinsville, Uptown’s circular track of multiple lane traffic is being given a second look in consideration of slower two-way traffic that might be friendlier to pedestrians. But the proposal has prompted a variety of opinions. And that’s understandable.  Change is tough–especially when a variety of users experience a place differently. 

Business  owners, shoppers, and drivers trying to get around and through a community are all heavily invested. Engaging these stakeholders is critical in finding the car-people mix. The conversation must involve not only transportation planners but specialists who understand pedestrian safety and comfort. Most importantly, it must be built upon clearly articulated community goals.  While the solution is unique to the community, you really can’t get to it if you haven’t defined the problem.