Are pedestrian malls the future or the relic of antiquated thinking?

As New York expands the use of pedestrian-only spaces, Sacramento pulls back.

Sacramento’s K Street Transit Mall El Cobrador

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Even as New York City makes big news for transforming parts of 34th Street into a pedestrian mall, Sacramento is pulling back from the concept. Four decades after first closing a section of downtown’s K Street to automobile traffic, the leaders of California’s capital have had enough. They want the cars back to bring new vitality to the city’s streets to save businesses threatened by extinction due to a lack of traffic.

In the post-war period, many medium-sized American cities seemed to be doing it — by forcing cars off the downtown business corridors, the assumption was that retail traffic would thrive just as it was in the big new shopping malls being built in every region. Influenced by the example of Kalamazoo, Michigan, which pedestrianized Burdick Street in 1959, more than 200 other cities hoped that this approach would bring new vitality to their dying centers by beautifying the street and encouraging consumption-oriented strolling.

Unfortunately, the suburban malls mostly won the contest; in cities across America, pedestrian malls or not, downtowns were mostly dead by the 1990s. The lack of noise, pollution, and danger associated with fewer cars was replaced by something that induced a lot more fear: A lack of people. Potential crime was far more detrimental to business growth than the possibility of being run over in a car.

Sacramento has experienced a slow decline in its downtown since the introduction of the transit mall, though it’s unclear whether that loss of business was a result of the loss of cars from K Street or just the inevitable consequence of the lack of interest in shopping downtown experienced by cities nationwide.

The addition of light rail service to K Street in 1987 didn’t improve the situation appreciably as it replaced what had been an entirely pedestrian boulevard with a light rail right-of-way.

And so the obvious course was to reverse direction. Kalamazoo moved to reintroduce cars to its downtown in 2000. Cities like Raleigh, North Carolina followed its example several years later. Even Sacramento conducted an experiment a few years ago to reopen a couple blocks of the mall and instantly saw more retail traffic.

So the city will now spend $2.7 million to bring cars back in by late next year. Cars will be allowed to travel along one lane in each direction at a maximum of 15 mph with no parking. It is hoped that this influx of vehicles will bring more eyes to the street and thus improve the downtown’s business environment.

Of course, now that New York is spending millions to expand its use of pedestrian malls and plazas, one wonders if Sacramento is taking the right step. Some cities, including Charlottesville and Denver, have thriving walking-only downtown streets that weathered the post-war decline in inner cities. In other words, it isn’t necessarily the pedestrian mall that caused the fall-off in patronage for stores in Sacramento, but rather that the city wasn’t “ready” for this type of street. Or something went wrong in Sacramento that these other cities didn’t experience.

California’s capital may have suffered from a density problem: it didn’t have enough residents and office workers in the immediate surrounding area to keep its streets active during off-hours, so the pedestrian mall often felt too quiet to be comfortable. The fact that many consumers visiting the street arrived by automobile made the situation worse. In New York, where there are hundreds of people on virtually every block, there’s little to fear, and most people visiting businesses likely come on foot anyway, so getting rid of car access won’t change much.

Is it possible to create a working pedestrian mall without much foot traffic? Perhaps Sacramento could have redesigned K Street with, for instance, a priority on lighting or plants. On the other hand, if there aren’t many people walking on a street in the first place, what’s the point of closing it off to automobiles?

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Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.

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Tags: new york citybuilt environmentinclusionary zoningcommutingwalkabilitydenveryonah freemarkgrassroutessacramentoraleigh

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