|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.