It's hard to walk down State Street in Madison, Wis., without realizing that it is one of the great streets in America. Just over half a mile long, a 12-minute walk from end to end, it links two great landmarks: the University of Wisconsin and the state Capitol. Its sidewalks are lined with stores, art displays, restaurants and bars that make it feel like a longer piece of territory than it really is. The street took a serious blow last year from the coronavirus and the disturbances that accompanied the death of George Floyd. Still, the fundamentals remain intact.
For most of its history, State Street was a more or less conventional thoroughfare with cars rolling along in both directions. Then, in the 1970s, it was reconfigured as a car-free pedestrian mall, a playground for students and Capitol staffers to stroll along and enjoy themselves. But State Street didn't exactly become a pedestrian-only corridor; it played host to increasing numbers of buses as well as people on foot. So it has been for more than 40 years. Now, however, some of the city leaders want to change it again, into a full-dress street for pedestrians, with the buses shunted off to other routes.
Is that a good idea? Well, maybe. While State Street has remained physically about the same, its business functions have changed. Not too long ago, its main commercial attraction was retail shopping. But retail business has declined, starting before the pandemic and losing further ground over the past year. Now the future of State Street — and it clearly has one — may be as an avenue of food, drink and entertainment, with casual strollers wandering up and down without having to worry about buses in the middle of the road.
State Street signifies something broader than the changing attractions of an iconic commercial corridor. It signifies the complex and often unpredictable history of pedestrian malls in the United States over the past 60 years.
THIS KIND OF URBAN ENTITY was entirely new in America when the first one was installed in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1959 by the Viennese architect Victor Gruen. No cars, no trucks, no buses — just people walking around and socializing, as Gruen recalled them doing along the legendary Ringstrasse in central Vienna. The Kalamazoo Mall was so different that it became a national news story unto itself. More than 50,000 people came to celebrate its opening. And it was relatively successful in its early years on the basis of novelty alone. Within a few years, it was doubled in length. Kalamazoo began to call itself "Mall City."
But novelty doesn't last forever, and by the 1980s the mall's weaknesses began to overwhelm its strengths. Gruen had envisioned a circular parking structure along the edge of the pedestrian thoroughfare; Kalamazoo Mall had scarcely any parking at all. It was a bit of a chore getting there. It was also vulnerable to the chilly winters of central Michigan. And it gradually became a haven for vagrants as much as for shoppers. In 1998, two of its blocks were opened to traffic, and residents competed to be the first to drive down the newly opened street. Parts of the original design remain intact, but it's fair to say that Kalamazoo Mall didn't turn out to be anything like the social and commercial magnet Victor Gruen imagined in the 1950s.
Basically, neither did the vast majority of pedestrian malls created anywhere in the country in the couple of decades following Kalamazoo. The most thorough studies of the mall phenomenon have concluded that of the more than 200 of these creatures brought into existence, nearly 90 percent had failed and been shut down by the early 21st century. Of the 10 percent or so that survived, most were in cities with populations under 100,000.
Probably the most spectacular failure was the State Street Mall in Chicago, created in 1979 by Mayor Jane Byrne. The pre-eminent shopping street in Chicago for decades, State Street by the '70s had lost many of its department stores and had gone unmistakably downscale, playing host to fast-food outlets, wig shops and theaters showing sleazy C-grade movies.
State Street was losing badly to the suburbs. So the city decided to create an all-pedestrian experience that would lend some middle-class life to the State Street corridor and entice shoppers to come in from the enclosed malls outside the city. Nine downtown blocks were covered with newly planted trees and modernistic subway entrances. They were reserved for walkers only, and the remaining two lanes of motorized traffic handled only buses. The formal opening of the mall featured a polka band, unicyclists and dancing Dalmatians.
Just about everything went wrong. The 15 bus routes that still ran down State Street created a perpetual atmosphere of engine noise and exhaust fumes. The hugely wide sidewalks meant to be pedestrian-friendly ended up mostly empty and desolate, and there was hardly any place to park nearby — a guaranteed turn-off for curious suburbanites. Retail didn't improve or get an upscale transfusion.
In 1996, cars finally returned to State Street. The sidewalks were narrowed from 40 feet to a more reasonable 22 feet. The modernistic subway entrances were replaced by Chicago Prairie School architectural touches. It mostly worked. Retail commerce revived and a more affluent cohort of shoppers began to rediscover downtown.
WHEN IT COMES TO MOST BIG URBAN PLANNING DECISIONS, it can be difficult to pin down why some succeed and others fail. That's not true in the case of pedestrian malls. They have been studied in minute detail, and we have a pretty good idea about when they work and when they (much more frequently) don't work.
Pedestrian malls have succeeded in college towns like Boulder, Colo., and Charlottesville, Va. They have succeeded in cities with substantial numbers of tourists, such as Denver and Miami Beach, or in towns with a significant downtown residential population. They work where there is an attractive body of water nearby. Perhaps most of all, they work if they are easy to get into and out of, either by car or by an appealing transit system that visitors are willing to use. It isn't mandatory to have all these positive features, but it's hard to make the concept work if you don't have some of them.
The pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colo. Considered a success for its college town location, the mall, nevertheless, has taken a hit during the pandemic.
Even then, there are no easy successes. Charlottesville's mall, located a little far from the University of Virginia campus, struggled for a couple of decades. It was ultimately saved by a skating rink, high-end restaurants and multiplex theaters.
Nearly all the successful pedestrian malls have had to change and adapt to survive. Santa Monica, Calif., moved boldly in 1965 to create a downtown with open-air plazas featuring trees, planters and fountains. It hung on by a thread for two decades. In 1987, The Los Angeles Times called it "both Santa Monica's heart and one of its eyesores." But it had a secret ingredient: the Pacific Ocean on its doorstep. In the 1990s, it caught on as a tourist attraction, and in the 2000s Third Street Promenade became a magnet for national chain retail stores, to the point where locals began to describe it as too successful for its own good. But it's still there and still full of life.
THE RECORD OF PEDESTRIAN MALLS is, in general, dismal, and the chance of designing a new one today and making it thrive may not be much better. But the idea of building downtowns for pedestrians has never died, and in the past few years there have been signs that it is ready for still another incarnation.
The newest era of pedestrian malls was launched in 2009, with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's conversion of five blocks of Broadway north of Times Square into a car-free zone. It was a temporary experiment, but it worked well enough that it soon became permanent, and the pedestrian area was beefed up with new chairs, benches and granite pavers. Those blocks of Broadway have been pedestrian zones ever since, and have remained generally popular despite complaints from Manhattanites and some city officials about the panhandlers, topless women and clusters of garishly costumed characters who frequent the carless area.
It's fair to call car-free Broadway a qualified success. It certainly has cut down on pedestrian injuries. But I don't think it proves very much. Times Square is the single most visited spot on the planet, and the walkable streets are dominated by tourists. There is no comparable place in the United States. The conversion of Broadway offers nothing in the way of lessons for public officials trying to create lively main streets in Kalamazoo or even Chicago. Still, the next few years are likely to see a fresh round of experiments. The explosion in sidewalk dining brought about by the pandemic seems certain to reclaim some urban streets for walkers even after the pandemic is over.
There might be better ways to accomplish the same goals on a lasting basis. One candidate is Complete Streets — the reworking of auto-dominated corridors to make them safe and attractive for motorized vehicles, bicycles and walkers all at the same time, all moving at legally regulated slower and safer speeds. Complete Streets has worked in many European cities. A version of the idea has been tried here in places as diverse as Orlando, Charlotte, and Marin County, Calif.
One thing we have learned for certain is that we can't just take cars out of downtowns and expect suburbanites to come flocking back. But another thing we have learned is that the desire for urban walkability has never gone away. There is reason to hope that we might eventually get it right.