Tag Archives: retail health

Permanently Pedestrianize Pearl?

By Dom Nozzi

Boulder City Council is currently considering permanently closing Pearl Street west of the Mall.

One response to the pandemic on Pearl Street has been to allow retailers to expand into public streets and sidewalks. In the case of Pearl Street west of the Mall, this has included closing the street to cars.

While I largely support these reforms, I would urge caution. Yes, the idea of reallocating space on Pearl Street to move away from exclusive car use is long overdue and would achieve important benefits. But there are a few likely negative outcomes.

A lot of us “put people before cars” folks will see the idea of closing Pearl to cars beyond Pearl St Mall as irresistibly seductive.

I’m not so sure.

Urban designers know that prohibiting cars on more than a few blocks is almost always fatal to retail UNLESS there is sufficiently compact mixed-use development along the street. Pearl is far less compact than is needed to support more closure.

Another worry: one suggestion is to reallocate space from cars is to make Pearl a one-way street. One-way conversion was popular in the 60s and 70s, but we now know they are terrible for a town center – particularly for retail. A growing number of one-ways are therefore being converted back to two-way.

Even with a pandemic crisis, it is politically difficult 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 fire truck access, and enhance public health (from both added social distancing space and boosting the amount of walking and bicycling) is a “woonerf.”

I believe the woonerf is a “Third Way” design. It creates a low-speed street design on Pearl – a “living street” safely shared by cars, pedestrians and cyclists (Google “woonerf,” or go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woonerf). Woonerfs can be installed quickly, relatively cheaply, and temporarily if they do not work out.

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 safe and happy to sit in the street or walk or bicycle in the street.

I recommend the woonerf treatment for Pearl west of the Mall to 9th Street and east of the Mall to, say, 19th Street.

How is a low-speed two-way street created? On Pearl, it would mean we would remove the awful design decision of a continuous left-turn (suicide) lane in the middle of the street. That alone allows ample space reallocation.

Second, shrink the width of the travel lanes to, say, 9 feet each. Also shrink the height of signs and street lights to create a “low-speed ambiance.” Add street furniture, and plenty of new green tree, shrub and flower landscaping in elevated “planter” boxes to the street (exactly the way it was done on Pearl St Mall, by the way).

Woonerfs typically eliminate curbs and elevated sidewalks to signal that the street is slow-speed and shared between cars, cyclists, 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, and the much slower speeds by motorists (who, because they are driving more slowly, are more likely to stop and be customers).

The new street design would lead to a jump in the number of pedestrians and cyclists on Pearl Street 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 compactness 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.

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Can Local Government Control Which Businesses Locate on a Street?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

A very common misconception about city government is that it can have a lot of control over what sorts of retail occur in various locations. In nearly all cases (in a capitalist economy such as ours), it is the private sector (business owners and property owners) who decide what sorts of businesses go in. City government plays the reactive role of having regulations in place to control how those businesses are built and operate, but really doesn’t have any say as to what businesses locate along a street. Yes, it would be wonderful if we had more interesting shops, cafes, etc. along certain streets. But government has no real ability to pick and choose what sorts of shops emerge on a street.

That being said, let me hasten to add that government DOES have a VERY powerful tool  — albeit an indirect one — with regard to what occurs along a street. As I say over and over again in my speeches and books, transportation drives land use. When countless cities widened their main street in their town center, they locked those streets into having a great many low-value, auto-oriented places and a lot of vacancies.

Why?

vacant-lots-chris-wass-derek-welteBecause big, high-speed roads are hostile for pedestrians and shoppers. Add to that the fact that it is relatively inconvenient to drive and park along town center streets compared to, say, a shopping center parking lot. What happens is completely predictable: EVERYONE shops at the shopping center and no one shops in the town center. Instead, downtown gets vacancies, low property values, pawn shops, gas stations, deadening offices, fringe activities, tattoo parlors, etc.

There is a way to turn this around, nearly overnight: If the town center builds on its strengths, it can successfully compete with the shopping center. Its strengths are a walkable, romantic ambience, sociability, and human scale. The shopping center cannot compete with such attributes, and there is a surprisingly large segment of our communities that is quite willing to patronize such walkable places — even if they are more expensive and less convenient.

The historical push by so many American cities to widen main street, and to build a bunch of town center parking lots, killed town centers because town centers were trying to compete on the auto-oriented terms of the shopping center. The shopping center will ALWAYS win such competitions with the town center on those terms – the terms that are the strength of the shopping center.

No, town center must build on its unique strengths. That is why I am completely convinced that when/if a community engages in a main street road diet (by removing ill-advised travel lanes), government will INDIRECTLY be bringing in those shops and places meatmarketwe desire. A walkable, human-scaled town center main street will inevitably deliver small, interesting, vibrant, sociable shops, cafes, etc. Businesspeople and property owners will suddenly see a healthy market that will encourage them to build such things on their property. As it is on the widened main streets, the high-speed car sewers chase such shops and experiences away. Car sewers create a very poor market for the kinds of businesses we desire.

Cities need to leverage their strength and the strength of their town center by returning their main streets to their former walkable glory.

 

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Using a Car Level of Service Standard is Counterproductive

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 3, 2010

The conventional car level of service standard nearly all communities have used for several decades is almost entirely designed to measure the ease of car travel.

But when we take actions to ease car travel, there is no win-win. Providing for cars is a zero-sum game. That is, each time we make car travel easier, we make travel more difficult for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. Providing for cars is also a recipe for downwardly spiraling quality of life for the community.

Using a car level of service (LOS) standard as our measure of transportation “success” implicitly assumes that congestion is an accurate assessment of quality of life (and quality transportation).

However, using a conventional car LOS standard, which nearly all communities have done for decades, perpetuates a ruinous assumption that free-flowing traffic and quality of life are one in the same.

In fact, when one observes which cities have the worst congestion, it would seem that the reverse is the case. That higher congestion levels commonly means a more impressive, attractive community.

co-boulder-pearlst-01We need to ask other, more appropriate questions to measure quality of life (and transportation): How healthy is the retail? The downtown? Are large numbers of tourists interested in visiting? Are there lots of bicyclists? Transit users? Pedestrians? How expensive is downtown housing compared to similarly-sized cities? Are residents proud and protective of their city?

In my view, asking about LOS is nearly irrelevant to the question of healthy transportation and quality of life. Indeed, a good argument can be made that there is a negative correlation between using LOS as a measure and the quality of the transportation and community.monstor hwy

An unintended consequence of using LOS is, as I mention above, perpetuating the asking of the wrong question. Asking about LOS distracts us from asking better questions along the lines of those questions I suggest above.

Asking the right question is often the crucial first step in taking beneficial actions (or, in science, solving puzzles in the field of research). Long ago, for example, we didn’t reduce the cholera epidemic by measuring how many prayers were said.

We asked how we could reduce contamination by bacteria.

 

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