Monday, February 23, 2009

Walk It Out

"As soon as the increase of population created a demand for wheeled traffic in Rome, the congestion became intolerable. One of Julius Caeser's first acts on seizing power was to ban wheeled traffic from the center of Rome during the day."
The City in History, p. 216

The pedestrian-only area is like the triple lutz of city planning. Even Manhattan, a place where pedestrians often outnumber drivers 100 to 1, has only recently been experimenting with congestion pricing to keep cars out of its central areas.

My feelings towards pedestrian-only zones have evolved over time. At first I liked the idea, because I figured that fewer cars and more pedestrians = good. Then I became more skeptical, wondering if they weren't often pie-in-the-sky fantasies. According to the world's most accurate encyclopedia, most pedestrian zones in the US have been failures. It also doesn't help, from my perspective, that this process is sometimes called "malling" a place, not exactly an inspiring term. But a book I read pointed out that many streets in Europe have banned traffic in recent decades. These streets, which were built on a pedestrian scale originally (as in centuries ago), have flourished since banning traffic.

My friend Joe told me that downtown Martinez had started blocking traffic from its downtown a few years ago. The way he described it, it sounded like heaven on earth. So I went out there to check it out.
I don't know what he was talking about. There were no pedestrian-only zones, only a cutesy little area with lots of antique stores and no street life whatsoever. So thanks a lot, Joe.
The streets themselves are cool, at least.

Closer to home, the Bay Street Mall in Emeryville is an approximation of a pedestrian-only zone. From the pictures, you can almost get fooled into thinking that it's a Main Street somewhere in urban America. They even have apartments above the storefronts.

But this place has a sterile, Disneyland-esque feel to it. There are several factors contributing to this. Perhaps most determinative is the fact that the entire mall, including the actual streets, is privately owned and operated. So it's literally not a free public space, but rather a tightly controlled imitation of a streetscape. It shows.
The stores are the kind of generic mall stores you can find anywhere in America--no local independent boutiques allowed. Also, it's not like you can just mosey on over to the mall from your neighborhood. Like much of the new Emeryville, this is a place built for drivers.

The main street at this mall is open to vehicular traffic during slow times and closed to it on busy days, a good example of flexibility. Still, this kind of pedestrian zone just isn't the real thing.

When Cody's on Telegraph closed a couple years ago, there was lots of hand-wringing about what went wrong, and what radical changes Telegraph needed to restore its once-proud image. Two of the most common prescriptions I heard were "we need an Apple store!" and "we should mall the place!"
End of an era.

I actually think that blocking traffic on Telegraph would be a great idea. Telegraph often feels like it's bursting at the seams, especially on the weekends, and I think it's ready for the next level.

It's already pretty much pointless to try driving down Telegraph. There's no parking anyway, there's tons of traffic, and even turning is difficult, because of all the pedestrians crossing the street. So they might as well make it a pedestrian-only zone, at least during certain times. I wouldn't count on it turning Telegraph into a bougie little playground like some people hope, but it's a common-sense way to ratchet down the tension on the street.

So what makes a street pedestrian-zone worthy? I would distinguish between "naturally occurring" pedestrian zones and "artificial" pedestrian zones. A naturally occuring pedestrian zone is one where lots of pedestrians go anyway, with or without blocked traffic. It's a place that's too noisy, crowded, and crazy with traffic and needs calming down. An artificial pedestrian zone is one where the blocking of traffic is used as a hopeful way to induce people to visit.

Oakland has a few pedestrian-only zones. We've got the City Center, at 12th street. There's also Jack London Square and the Fruitvale Bart station, although those are both more like plazas than streets. Out of these, the Oakland City Center is the most successful, in the sense that it's nice and people actually use it on a regular basis. I noted in a previous post that Broadway is only a so-so street to walk down. City Center is a good, relaxing alternative.

There are a lot of businesses nearby, and it's a nice place to eat lunch on a sunny day. This place pretty much shuts down on nights and weekends, but it's good for what it is.

Jack London, on the other hand is usually kinda lame. It seems perpetually underused, except for big events like the 4th of July fireworks. I would say it's a function of the overall area around Jack London Square, rather than something wrong with the Square itself. No BART access, cut off from the rest of downtown by the freeway, and lower-density uses in the area make for a pretty but empty plaza.

I think they should limit themselves to one fountain for every 3 visitors.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Jack London would be better off allowing greater vehicular traffic. It's not like that's what's holding people back from going there. Still, it's places like this that give the pedestrian zone a bad reputation.
I can't help but wonder why Oakland seems to often heap attention and money on redeveloping areas that get relatively little use, such as Jack London Square, while neglecting improvements to its densest areas. I'm thinking of Chinatown.
Chinatown definitely qualifies as a naturally-occuring pedestrian zone. It's partly this way because of segregation. (After reading my post on segregation, a friend informed me that Chinese Oaklanders were historically not allowed to own property past Broadway, thus creating a dense, ghettoized neighborhood.)

Chinatown already has taken some steps to favor pedestrians, such as the diagonal crosswalk signs. It seems logical to me that it should start experimenting with the next step, perhaps blocking traffic for non-commercial vehicles during business hours. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Traffic is blocked off during the Old Oakland Farmer's Market times, and it seems to work quite well.
There's no denying we're ruled by the wheel, but we can at least pretend to assert some Caeser-esque authority by banning it now and then. Let's just be realistic about when and where we do it, and what we expect to get out of it.


Unknown said...

Denver,CO created a car-free zone that is the width of downtown or about 22 blocks long. Only free shuttle buses and police cars vehicles are allowed on 16th Street. During the day and on pleasant evenings it is a lively place with all kinds of people gathered to eat, drink, shop and hang out. It's been around for at least 20 years.

Brian said...

Hi. Reminds of this article from '96 about the Kalamazoo, Michigan pedestrian mall.

Crimson said...

That was a good article about Kalamazoo.

It seems like people expected pedestrian malls to magically fix problems they weren't designed to fix. Not many people are going to drive downtown just to take a walk in a pedestrian mall, unless it has something really great to offer.

It's like when a nightclub that was formerly free starts charging a cover. You can't do that when the club was half-empty in the first place. Wait until the club is overcrowded and there's a line out the door.

Matt said...

There's a handful of cities around with pedestrian zones (Memphis and St. Louis come to mind) but it's nothing like the zones pietons in Europe, where whole cores of cities are foot-only. The urban morphology dictates whether this can be done effectively. One also has to remember access for service / delivery vehicles needs to be planned in and disabled access accounted for as well.

ON a completely different note: does anybody know what happened to the "Goodnight Moon" set in Cody's?

Crimson said...

Goodnight Moon set? You lost me there.

Anonymous said...

Your observations of Bay Street in Emeryville mirror my own. Might the cyclovia/ ciclovia be the next step in the pedestrian street? (Georgia -

Fight Blight said...

The organic success of pedestrian only areas is, in my mind, largely related to density. All of the areas people typically point to in Europe have a dense urban fabric with high density residential structures located over commercial storefronts on narrow streets. Seville Spain is a great example. Except in the largest US cities such as New York, we don't typically see the density in the US cities that generate successful pedestrian only areas in Europe. We are a relatively young country and we have a lot of catching up to do.

I find it interesting, though, that people often rail on Emeryville as an example of poor planning. There is this guttural and almost snobbish reaction to the modern architecture and the city's attempt to densify. Yet, in the last 10-15 years Emeryville has taken an industrial wasteland and retooled it into high density residential neighborhoods with an enviable amount of retail. Brownfield redevelopment at its best. Remember EmeryBay used to be a derelict steel plant. On most weekends, EmeryBay attracts far more pedestrians and serves as a gathering point for far more people than you would ever see in a concentrated area of downtown Oakland or Berkeley. Why is that? Perhaps because it is privately controlled and has the appearance of being safe, clean and regulated unlike downtown Oakland or Berkeley. Sounds like all of the Disneylandish elements that the author seems to dismiss is perhaps what makes this space successful. Could it be that image of Walnut Creek has wiped out some of the grit and grime of the East Bay. Perhaps the author should take off his/her culturally fogged glasses and objectively evaluate whether the space is successful by how much use it gets rather than their own cultural biases. By the way, there are lots of aged hippies who think that Telegraph Avenue could use a few bougie uses to clean up the area. They're the ones living in Rockridge and shopping at Market Hall and eating at Olivetos.

Raymond Johnson said...

[...some illuminating insight into the mechanics of Bay Street/Emeryville (which should give pause to those who think there is much there for Oakland to emulate), Crimson called for a more experimental approach...]

Raymond Johnson said...

Fight Blight,

The problem with Emeryville isn't the modern architecture or that it is densifying, just that it does both badly. The architecture is, for the most part, cliche and cheap, when it isn't dreadful (have you seen the new condos on 40th & San Pablo - egad!).

And the densification is almost completely auto-centric, which Crimson rightly points out. That isn't brownfield redevelopment "at it's best", it isn't even good - and unfortunately a hugely wasted opportunity.

You are right that we have a lot of catching up to do. But I find it odd your sole metric for a successful space seems to be "how much use it gets", and not by any broader criteria. If popularity is all we endeavor, we'll end up with very poor cities indeed, no matter how many bougie shops there are.

Crimson said...

Whoa, seems like things have gotten a little out of hand. I wasn't trying to start a culture war or diss Emeryville in my post. Although some of it isn't to my taste, I have a grudging respect for the way Emeryville has transformed itself. I would also agree that pedestrianism is largely (but not totally) a result of density. Emeryville has done a good job of increasing density. It's still an auto-based density, but maybe that was the only realistic way of moving forward in today's world. Perhaps at some point it will graduate to a pedestrian-based density.

The Bay Street Mall is within walking distance of Trader Joe's, hotels, apartments, etc. It would be nice to see more pedestrian-friendly connections between all of these places, rather than have a single area that is the specified "pedestrian" area. That was my point.

Btw, I'm originally from Anaheim, home of Disneyland, so I have an allergic reaction to all things Disney.

Lorin said...

a) I think you do Jack London Square a disservice. Ever been there during the Farmer's Market? Yes, its underused (and I don't get the fountains either) but its not always as empty as your photos suggest.

b) I have lived in towns with very successful pedestrian-only streets including Charlottesville, VA and Copenhagen, Denmark.

Crimson said...

Yes, I know Jack London gets busier sometimes, but I went during lunchtime on a Friday, a time when one would expect at least some foot traffic. Maybe the photos were not totally representative, but I didn't have to try very hard to take them. I've been to the Farmer's Market, and I'd say it's only so-so. My favorite FM is the one at Lake Merritt (by the 580) on Saturdays. That one is basically my platonic ideal of what Oakland can be.

Michael Caton said...

While the likes of Emeryville and Santana Row do have a plastic Disneyland feel to them, forget about the esthetic objections. How about recognizing that we just have too damn much retail space in the US, most of it in malls - like 20 sq. ft. per person! There's more to an economy than selling retail to consumers using their credit cards, as we've recently found out. While it has excellent potential, Oakland's downtown still doesn't have the nightlife density that would really get it to critical mass, but I think that's changing. Zennie argues taht the best way to develop Oakland is to use the skill sets of people FROM Oakland, instead of trying to build tech and biotech, and because this would also continue improving the nightlife (and denser independent retail = safer) I increasingly agree.

East of Alameda said...

Awesome post. I strongly agree that planning needs to take an organic approach and work with what's there rather than create what you think should be there and expect people to materialize in and around it (*cough*Fruitvale Transit Village!*cough*)
And I agree that the Emeryville booster backlash is a little over the top. Yes, they created some very successful retial space out of brownfields, but it's that much more of a wasted opportunity that Emeryville didn't bother to make those developments walkable environments. What's especially disheartening is trying to get between each retail cluster; it's almost impossible unless you have a car. These are retial clusters literally a few hundred feet from each other and it's easier to get between each by car than by foot. That's a major missed opportunity. What's more, most of Emeryville's new housing is on the other side of the train tracks, and there definitely is not a strongly ped-friendly way to get from one side to the other. Just wide open 4-6 lane roadways with small sidewalks.

Crimson said...

Well said.

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