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The Trouble with Pedestrian Malls

Once popular, these car-free zones are slowly disappearing from the urban landscape.

La Citta Vita/Flickr CC
Buffalo’s 25-year-old pedestrian and transit-only mall has a problem: As in so many similar spaces across the country, there just aren’t enough pedestrians. So the city in upstate New York has applied for a federal grant to turn the mall back into a road. Exit people. Enter cars.

Buffalo isn’t the only city to toss in the towel on car-free streets. Sacramento, Calif., which has a shared pedestrian and transit mall that dates back more than 40 years, has recently let cars back onto K Street. In recent years, many mid-sized cities like Eugene, Ore., and Raleigh, N.C., have turned away from pedestrian malls, as have big cities, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C.

America’s first downtown pedestrian mall appeared in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1959. At their height, more than 200 cities blocked off traffic in prime downtown business districts in hopes that by removing cars and trucks, people would flock to the city and bring life to retail and business districts facing decline.

But many of the pedestrian malls were ill-planned and had little purpose. Because so few people lived downtown, the malls became lifeless after work, attracting crime and loiterers, rather than large crowds. According to some estimates, of all the pedestrian malls that have dotted American cities in past years, fewer than 15 percent remain today.

Not all malls have failed. Denver has a thriving pedestrian mall, as do the smaller cities of Charlottesville, Va., and Burlington, Vt. New York City’s pedestrian mall in Times Square was initially viewed as temporary, but became permanent after it proved popular with pedestrians and successful at cutting Midtown car congestion. Overseas, European cities like Barcelona have had great success with car-free zones.

“I don’t think the idea of separating people from cars in cities is a failed concept,” says Yonah Freemark, who has written extensively about pedestrian malls for various publications. Cities that have growing residential populations in downtown areas as well as hubs of activities can generate the kind of traffic that makes a mall thrive. Cities that lack downtown populations have also found that creating temporary pedestrian places can bring a buzz and excitement that people expect to find when they visit a city. Malls can work, if done the right way, explains Freemark. Just don’t take the cookie-cutter approach to building malls as so many cities have -- with disappointing results.

“Cities that are taking out malls now will rethink their decision 30 years from now,” predicts Freemark. “We have to learn that having cars on all streets is not the right idea for cities.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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