By Dom Nozzi
The 2020 Pandemic has obligated us to engage in “Social Distancing” as a way to reduce the chance of becoming infected. Our best information about the infection indicates that being indoors for a prolonged period of time is by far the most likely way to become infected. That being outdoors reduces the chance of infection significantly.
This has created severe challenges for people holding jobs that require indoor work with others, as well as for businesses that require patrons to be inside a business for retail or dining in a restaurant.
Health officials continue to strongly recommend that even outside, those on the sidewalk should maintain at least a six-foot distance from others on the sidewalk.
Many city town centers have started to respond to this – as a key way to promote public health – by beginning the process of closing streets to give businesses and pedestrians more space for distancing.
While I think this is wise and largely support these reforms, I would strongly urge caution.
Here in Boulder CO where I live, there is currently much talk about reallocating space on Pearl Street. This is wonderful in many ways.
But I am worried about a few scenarios that might emerge.
First, I think a lot of us “put people before cars” folks will see the idea of closing Pearl to cars for several blocks beyond Pearl St Mall as a great idea. I’m not sure about that at all. Urban designers know that closing more than a few blocks of traffic to cars is almost always fatal to retail and vibrancy UNLESS there is sufficiently compact, dense, mixed-use development along the street that is closed to cars. Boulder’s density along Pearl (like the density in nearly all American cities) is far less than the density needed to support several blocks of closure.
Second, I am extremely worried that a “compromise” suggestion will be to reallocate space from cars to people not by closing Pearl to cars, but by making it a one-way street. One-way conversion was hugely popular in the 60s and 70s, but there are an enormous number of reasons they are terrible for a town center and deadly for retail. As a result, a large and growing number of one-ways are being converted back to two-way around the nation and world.
It would be a huge mistake if Boulder opts for a one-way on Pearl.
It must also be acknowledged that even in a severe crisis such as a Pandemic, it is extremely difficult, politically, to close streets to cars
Fortunately, there is a Third Way. A compromise that would offer enormous benefits, be relatively feasible politically, promote retail health, retain emergency access for fire trucks, and enhance public health (from both added social distancing space and boosting the amount of public walking and bicycling).
I believe that this “Third Way” design would be to create a low-speed street design on Pearl along the lines of a Dutch Woonerf (Google “Woonerf” for details about them, or go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woonerf). A Woonerf can be installed quickly, relatively cheaply, and be done temporarily.
Some people call such design “give-way” streets, where the two-way street is so narrow that the motorist must “give-way” to an on-coming car.
Low-speed design would allow two-way car travel to continue on Pearl, but would obligate motorists to drive very slowly (say, 10-15 mph) and very attentively. So much so that even children and seniors would be perfectly safe and happy to sit in the street or walk in the street or bicycle in the street.
How is a low-speed two-way street created? On Pearl, it would mean we would remove the very bad design decision of having a continuous left-turn (suicide) lane in the middle of the street. That alone is a great space reallocation tactic.
Second, we shrink the width of the travel lanes down to, say, 9 feet each. We also need to shrink the height of signs and street lights to create a “low-speed ambiance.” Street furniture, plenty of new green tree and shrub and flower landscaping in elevated “planter” boxes, seating, public art, etc., needs to be inserted in the street (exactly the way it was done on Pearl St Mall, by the way).
In most cases, a Woonerf eliminates curbs and elevated sidewalks as a way to signal that the street is slow-speed and shared between cars, bikes, and walkers. By doing each of these things, we would create an extremely safe, happy, vibrant Pearl Street that prioritizes people (cyclists, peds, seniors, children) over cars without eliminating cars. Cars, as is the case in Dutch Woonerfs, are able to remain but they are obligated by the street design to be very slow speed and safely attentive. Retail and restaurant businesses would flourish with the big increase in space, the much slower speeds by motorists (who, because they are driving more slowly, are more likely to stop and be customers), and we would see a jump in the number of pedestrians and cyclists on Pearl who were previously too worried to walk or bike there due to the pro-car design. By allowing slow-speed cars, a Woonerf allows a city with insufficient density to deliver sufficient customers to businesses along the street.
So yes! Let’s reallocate space on Pearl so that it is pro-people rather than pro-car. But let’s do it right, and avoid the mistakes of the past.