Strategic design can help car-free streets gain popularity post-coronavirus


Looking forward, some planners think any block could go car-free with just the flip of a switch. Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban innovation offshoot, has pitched a set of design principles that would reimagine streets for a multimodal future, tailoring different streets for different modes.

As cities and states enact stay-at-home orders to stem the COVID-19 outbreak, once-packed urban streets are now empty of cars.

Some mayors have seized that opportunity to open the pavement up to people for exercise. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week he would open a limited number of streets to pedestrians as an alternative to crowded parks, and in Philadelphia, a stretch of MLK Drive has been shut off to traffic in favor of bicyclists.

To some advocates, the street closures are a silver lining to the public health crisis: a chance to see what urban streets can do without cars on them. It could even lend more momentum to the car-free streets movement that has grown since San Francisco officially remade Market Street into a pedestrian promenade in January, inspiring cities like New York and Denver to experiment with the concept.

Pedestrian-focused street design has long been a staple in European cities, but experts say implementing such a change in the U.S. requires factors that don’t always exist in its car-centric cities. Jason Thompson, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, recently analyzed the design of 1,700 cities and found the U.S. tended to have sparser road networks with less transit — conditions that do not lend themselves to car-free streets.

“They also work best in ‘compact’ cities where lots of people live nearby in medium to high-density apartments and are able to make more frequent, smaller purchases for their daily living,” Thompson told Smart Cities Dive in an email. “There are sections … of cities that lend themselves to car-free streets, but they are overwhelmingly in inner-urban areas that make up a tiny proportion of the overall land-mass.”

How can U.S. cities better position themselves for car-free streets? Creating such environments can mean infrastructure changes to physically transform the pavement and implement forward-thinking dynamic designs. But most of all, it means a mindset shift.

“It requires thinking that we’re not just moving vehicles, but moving people,” Elizabeth Deakin, professor emerita of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, told Smart Cities Dive. “It changes the calculus, you start to think more about safety and public health in how policies are done. With changing generations and changing mixes of training, we have more people realizing that these options exist.”