After becoming accustomed to popular downtown streets being blocked off to allow restaurants and other retailers to expand their operations outdoors, cities across the Bay Area are now making some difficult decisions over where to go from here.
While Pleasanton and Palo Alto recently reopened their main downtown roadways, other cities like Mountain View are looking for ways to turn their popular restaurant and commercial corridors into a permanent pedestrian mall for people to enjoy car-free for decades to come.
Finding new ways to activate public spaces, such as the scattered use of parklets, has been a hot topic for years — even before the COVID-19 pandemic. But the lockdowns, which led to severely diminished vehicle traffic, allowed cities to quickly implement these initiatives.
To learn more about pedestrian malls and what factors might inform city officials’ decisions on whether to keep them around for the long term, we sat down with Gary Black, an urban planner and President of Hexagon Transportation Consultants. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What do you think cities need to weigh before making a decision to permanently close down a street?
A: First, we look at a particular street in terms of how it serves motor vehicle travel.
If that street were to be closed down, then where would the traffic go instead of using that street? In other words, is there an alternative street that could be used that would function adequately and that added traffic on that and other streets would not be detrimental for those who live there.
If it’s in a business environment, then typically the traffic volume on the street is not going to be an issue. But if you end up adding traffic to residential streets because you closed down a certain street, that’s going to affect the quality of life of those residents so that’s generally not seen as a good trade-off.
Q: What are some examples of Bay Area street closures that you think would or would not work long-term?
A: I know one of the streets that was closed down was University Avenue in Palo Alto. That’s a pretty major street and even though there are parallel streets in the downtown area, they don’t connect as well to El Camino (Real) and over to Stanford. It would take some serious planning to close that street off permanently.
San Jose’s San Pedro Street, however, is only a few blocks long. It’s downtown. And, it’s parallel to Market Street, which is the major street that really carries most of the traffic that needs to get around there. San Pedro is really not an important street to the downtown circulation from a motor vehicle standpoint, so there would really be very little effect if you closed it down. Although, we’ve got to figure out what to do with that parking garage (that has one of its entrances on San Pedro Street).
Q: Would you be concerned about the potential loss of on-street parking?
A: There are not many street parking spaces compared to spaces available in downtown garages or parking lots, but on-street parking is considered prime parking for certain businesses and this creates an issue between restaurants and other retail businesses.
Restaurants can take advantage of the street being closed. They can put tables out in the street and they’re more of a destination type of business. Some other retail stores and establishments are not in favor of it because they’re going to lose parking spaces out in front of their business and then have to rely entirely on foot traffic.
We get a lot of calls from stores or retail developers asking us for the traffic volume on streets where they’re looking to locate their stores because there’s a belief — and I would have to think a reality for them — that the more traffic on a street, the more successful their store is going to be.
Q: Why were most pedestrian malls of the past unsuccessful?
A: Pedestrian malls got very popular back in the 60s because people were moving out of the center of the city and retail development in city centers was struggling with having to complete with shopping malls, which of course don’t have any traffic.
But one of the reasons that most of them have failed and been converted back to vehicle-serving streets is that downtown retail was kind of failing anyway. If you look at any city, whether they have a pedestrian mall or not, downtown retail is struggling. Closing off a street and making it pedestrian-only is not going to affect the overall trends of economic development.
The pedestrian malls that have been successful have done so because there are other reasons to be there outside of retail shops. If your pedestrian zone is only a block or two long and it has a lot of restaurants, for example, that’s kind of a different situation because you can attract more people that way and have more pedestrians to activate the area, which just means there’s going to be a lot of people there.
Q: So what do you say, are car-free downtown streets here going to outlive the pandemic?
A: I don’t think it’s once-size-fits-all when it comes to this. I think it depends on the street and it depends on the businesses that are on the street. If you have businesses that are not that popular, closing off the street and making it pedestrian-only is not going to create a magical transformation.
There is also a spectrum of how to approach it. It’s doesn’t just have to be ‘shall we keep it open 24/7 or close it 24/7?’ There’s also an in-between. For example, should we close it at night, should we close it on the weekends and otherwise it’s open.
A lot of it also has to do with the design of the street. Is it a nice environment? Do you have shade and weather protection, so you can use it on a cold night or if it’s really hot and sunny? You’re trying to help the businesses and also create a night place downtown that people want to go to.
Title: Transportation planner, President of Hexagon Transportation Consultants
Birthplace: Redwood City, California
Current home: San Jose, California
Family: He has a wife named Linda and three adult children
Education: He earned his undergraduate degree in geography from UCLA and graduated with a Masters degree in urban planning from the University of California, Berkeley
Five things to know about Gary:
- He’s a fourth-generation Californian
- He participates in amateur race car driving in his 1960 Austin-Healey
- He’s an amateur trombone player who has been playing since he was in fifth grade
- He recently returned from a safari in Africa, which helped him check off an item on his bucket list
- He’s gone on many cruises because his daughter was a longtime singer and dancer on cruise ships