Pedestrian Experience, Peninsula, Public Spaces / Parks

The Pedestrianization Fever Moves South

University & Bryant, in downtown Palo Alto.
Courtesy of Flickr user ikkoskinen.

Has the new 17th Street pedestrian plaza in San Francisco’s Castro District set off a spark? San Francisco is not the only Bay Area city that dreams of creating bustling new pedestrian open spaces, nor is it the only one that isn’t quite satisfied with the current state of its main street.  But of all places, Palo Alto, which has of late gained more of a reputation for NIMBYism than for embracing progressive city planning? Well, sort of. Not surprisingly, this latest push for pedestrianization is of local collegiate origin, coming from students in a class at Stanford University’s design institute, but the idea seems to be catching on fast; the Facebook group created just this week has added on average more than 100 new members each day.  Right now, it is basically a brainstorm to close off several blocks of University Avenue, Palo Alto’s main drag, to cars — specifically, the blocks between High and Cowper streets, accounting for most of the downtown commercial strip. The plan, which is of course only a sketch at this point, suggests initially allowing cross traffic through the pedestrian zone, but then later transitioning to a bona fide car-free zone in which motorists navigate a counterclockwise loop around the zone using side streets.

Similar car-free experiments have been tried repeatedly in cities large and small throughout the United States and beyond — sometimes successfully, and other times not, although success does not necessarily turn on whether the pedestrian mall is in a suburban or urban area. Still, there are reasons to believe that pedestrian space, even if it did not extend the full length of downtown, could become a valuable civic amenity. University Avenue is not a major transit street (Palo Alto’s primary transit corridor is the pedestrian-unfriendly El Camino Real), but it is a relatively narrow, traditional main street that has active retail uses at the street level, with ample off-street parking tucked behind the storefronts that could absorb an estimated 120 displaced on-street spots. The street connects to the Palo Alto Caltrain station — a regional bus hub, and the second busiest station on the line — and it leads straight into the Stanford campus. So University Avenue generally enjoys a healthy level of pedestrian activity, but it is also subjected to considerable vehicular congestion, particularly at rush hour, when a long line of cars waiting to merge onto Highway 101 sometimes protrudes westward into the street grid. Merchants on Market Street in San Francisco have been slow to realize that closing off car access could actually increase traffic to their businesses, but even they are finally coming around. What will the learning curve be in Palo Alto? It just so happens that the students have already approached some Palo Alto city officials, merchants, and their customers. The response: “most of the merchants are especially enthusiastic.” You don’t say.



12 thoughts on “The Pedestrianization Fever Moves South

  1. I probably should have mentioned this in the post, but for those who didn’t click through any of the above links, the pedestrian mall website has a petition that supporters can electronically sign:

    Posted by Eric | 21 May 2009, 8:38 am
  2. Except the 17th street plaza and the squares in NYC that inspired it are explicitly NOT pedestrian malls. The objective has not been to ban cars from an area, it has been to reallocate wasted space from cars to pedestrians, while generally streamlining the flow of traffic. It hasn’t been about completely eliminating cars from an area, or even from a block. It’s much less ambitious than the Palo Alto plan (or the failed pedestrian malls of the 70s), which might be what makes it successful. But if the Palo Alto pedestrian mall works out, that would be awesome.

    Posted by anonymouse | 21 May 2009, 9:59 am
  3. anonymouse: Quite obviously the Palo Alto plan is of different scale and purpose from the 17th Street Plaza (you’ll note I also linked to my older post, and a Chron article, on the remaking of Market Street, which is more closely analogous). The main reason that I mentioned 17th Street in the first sentence is that I never had time to post about it, so I at least wanted to provide a link.

    Also, if you read the post carefully, you’ll see that nowhere does it say that 17th Street is a pedestrian mall. Indeed, it certainly isn’t one. Nor do I really spend any time at all comparing Palo Alto to 17th Street, and there’s no reason to, because the Palo Alto proposal is vastly different. That’s self-evident upon a two-second cursory examination of the plan, so let’s not make too much about that. What they share is the fundamental goal of taking away space for cars and reallocating it to pedestrians.

    Posted by Eric | 21 May 2009, 10:13 am
  4. University Ave definitely needs traffic calming, but I continue to think that these big pedestrianization projects done to entire street are the quickest, most efficient way to murder a street. I’m guessing they’ll come to their sense before they do anything rash.

    There’s a bigger problem, though. It’s almost impossible to get from the University side of El Camino Real to the downtown/cool side of University Ave on foot or bike. People do it, but it’s hellacious, dangerous, uncomfortable, scary, frightening, impossible, terrifying, whatever words you like. That’s the real problem, not University. The students should do some planning to figure out how to get people to and from the University and downtown, first. After that’s solved, then a pedestrianized downtown/University Ave might stand a chance.

    I would also like to see some new approved designs for bike lanes, on streets like University, which would have a tremendous calming impact, and would really increase the vitality of the street instead of murdering it. Right now, we just don’t have enough tools in the toolbox — it’s either full bike lanes or nothing, and that’s just not working.

    Posted by Peter Smith | 21 May 2009, 10:48 am
  5. checking out the palo alto pedestrian mall site a bit more, i stumbled onto this page:

    notice the pedestrian mall in charlottesville (UVA) is completely devoid of human life, while University Ave in Palo Alto actually has cars and people on it.

    Freudian slip?

    Posted by Peter Smith | 21 May 2009, 10:57 am
  6. One thing that can be a bit frustrating about these car-free discussions is that they turn into an all-or-nothing argument: either the entire street becomes completely restricted to cars, or nothing at all happens. It’s clear enough why this happens– plans get whittled down at the bargaining table. But the best solution in any particular case might be somewhere between those two extremes. The SFCTA study, for instance, has suggested managing traffic on Market rather than outright banning it, by forcing a turn off Market at 8th, in order to substantially reduce the number of cars in lower blocks and still speed up transit.

    The great thing about this sort of project is that ambitious visions like Palo Alto’s are divisible into smaller experiments. Perhaps in the case of Palo Alto, a 1-2 block mall would be enough to create a bustling space, while still reducing through traffic on University, and encouraging motorists to use Embarcadero or another route to 101. These projects are also relatively easy to pilot, to test out different versions.

    Posted by Eric | 21 May 2009, 11:26 am
  7. Anyone concerned about whether a pedestrian mall can work should check out Boulder, CO’s Pearl Street Mall. It is configured almost identically to the proposed University Ave one, and has been very successful and popular with merchants and citizens for 20 years or so.

    Posted by Robert | 21 May 2009, 5:17 pm
  8. I think success depends on what was already in place before the removal of cars. When Buffalo was putting in its light-rail system in the late 70s/early 80s they decided to create a pedestrian mall on over a mile section of downtown’s Main St. that contained the surface level portion of the subway. This was the commercial core of the city. Grandiose plans abound, but the project failed. Even before the first shovel hit the soil downtown Buffalo was in a perpetual state of decline. The pedestrian mall only sealed its fate. I watched local retailers disappear one by one, vacant storefronts become vacant blocks and the mall empty by 6pm. The city has tried its damndest to turn this around, but the fact of the matter is that people and businesses had interests elsewhere…in the growing communities north and east of the city.

    Today, the city is in the process of bringing back cars to this stretch of Main St. with the hopes of returning vitality in an area that has been discarded. Unlike the case of Buffalo, Palo Alto has a thriving commercial district. Let’s hope the pedestrian mall project only enriches the experience.

    Posted by Mark | 21 May 2009, 5:33 pm
  9. It was a similar sort of situation for State Street. There is a misconception that the pedestrian mall was the direct cause of the decline, when really, the decline had started well before the street was closed to cars.

    The lesson there does seem to be that while well-planned car-free spaces can be successful, using a pedestrian mall to attempt the “rescue” of an already flailing area probably won’t be successful.

    Posted by Eric | 21 May 2009, 5:46 pm
  10. All in all, it sounds like a good proposal. There’s also an article in Palo Alto Weekly:

    While I disagree with Peter Smith on almost everything (even the bike lanes, which I don’t think are appropriate in this scenario), he has a point with the El Camino and Caltrain crossings. Upgrading these crossings would be a costly endeavor, but until Palo Alto can make biking from Stanford and walking from the Caltrain station safer and more attractive, this proposal would lose a key demographic.

    Palo Alto merchants would also have to tackle the whole issue of affordability, since most college students cant afford $15+ meals.

    Posted by Daniel | 22 May 2009, 11:08 am
  11. It’s no great pleasure to cross El Camino Real and burrow under the Caltrain tracks, but that’s not what’s keeping Stanford students from Palo Alto. It’s the fact that the gate to Stanford campus is right at the edge of El Camino… and there is a mile of open space along Palm Dr (University Ave) going from the gate to the end of the “oval,” where the real campus begins. There’s nothing that Palo Alto can do about that, this one is Stanford’s fault.

    (This is how inhospitable the area is towards pedestrians. On the mile long walk from campus to Palo Alto, there’s a stop light at every intersection — and the walk signals won’t go on unless you hit a button. By default, that is, pedestrians can’t walk on a green light. Crossing El Camino in Palo Alto things actually get worse, where pedestrians by default can’t walk across funny intersections where stop lights prevent any car from possibly getting in your path.)

    Posted by Alex F | 25 May 2009, 2:20 am
  12. Closing a thriving downtown street is yesterday’s idea. Santa Row in San Jose has been a great success for the very reason that it is a replica of a thriving downtown that you can drive through. Eugene, Oregon tried this experiment long ago and has since reverted to traditional downtown. A class project should not be the lead actor in an important planning decision.

    Clark Akatiff

    Posted by Clark Akatiff | 26 May 2009, 9:54 am

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