Urban Notebook

How to Design a Pedestrian Mall That Works

Pedestrian malls have a long and complicated history in the U.S. During the 1960s and ’70s, several cities closed parts of their downtown to auto traffic at one time or another. It seemed like a natural placemaking tool, but eventually, many failed. Poorly planned, most pedestrian malls were inaccessible, hid businesses and attracted crime.

That was certainly true of one such pedestrian mall in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va. “You could shoot a gun at five o’clock from one end and not hit anyone on the other,” says Mayor Satyendra Huja. “Because there was nobody there.” READ MORE

The Future of Parking in an Era of Car-Sharing

Could Uber, Lyft and Zipcar, so-called car-sharing services, be the end of parking requirements as we know them?

Parking requirements, of course, are the bane of almost every urban district. These areas want to be lively, walkable and accessible, but regulations requiring huge amounts of parking undermine those goals. The basic problem is that the throngs of people who arrive to a trendy urban district bring their cars. And even though we use cars to take us almost everywhere we go in the U.S., the cars themselves are parked almost all the time, taking up a lot of space. READ MORE

The Dangers of Busting Law-Breaking Businesses

Pretend that you are governing a declining American city. You’ve probably witnessed numerous public service failures, like slow-responding police, unclean streets and polluted waterways. Among these failures, your city may also not be fully regulating its businesses, meaning that some are breaking minor laws or even operating under the table. Should it be, then, your top priority to make them comply?

In Detroit, it certainly seems it is. In 2011, the city launched Operation Compliance, an initiative that was meant to address 1,500 illegal businesses by shuttering hazardous ones and modernizing others. After one year, 535 businesses had agreed to come into compliance and 383 had been closed, often on zoning technicalities. Since then, Detroit has continued charging fines and conducting random searches.  READ MORE

Houston: From Sprawl to City

I live in Houston and I don’t own a car. I know, I know: If there is a more hard-to-believe statement to make about any American city with a straight face, I don’t know what it is. But it’s true.

Last fall, after three decades of living in Southern California, I moved to Houston to take over Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. I had given up my car a few years ago, and now I was moving to the most sprawling, car-centric city in America, a place where well over 90 percent of all residents drive to work in automobiles. Houston is twice the size of New York City, with only a quarter of the population -- and that’s just the central city, not counting the suburbs. READ MORE

San Francisco’s Major Thoroughfare Gets a Makeover

In a world-class city, one might expect that the prime commercial corridor would also be a model public space. But this hasn’t been the case for the downtown stretch of Market Street at the heart of San Francisco. For decades it has doubled both as a traditional main street and an automobile thruway. This combination has harmed aesthetics and produced a dangerous clash of transportation modes. Now, the city’s transportation agency is addressing the problem.

San Francisco, after years of planning, launched this fall the Safer Market Street plan, which designates transit-only lanes, prohibits turns at certain intersections and posts better signage, among other things. The idea is to reduce automobile traffic on a street where 84 percent of the people arrive by foot, bicycle or transit. READ MORE