Monday, March 2, 2009

Nike vs. Goodyear: The Battle for Broadway

NEW YORK, New York -- After New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to close portions of Broadway to car traffic as part of an experiment in pedestrian-friendliness, Newsweek is picking up on traffic-network theories that say fewer roads mean less congestion, not more (we spoke about it previously).

It's an interesting thought, and I'd like to think it's true. The people over at Streetsblog sure believe it. But a few cautionary tales have been reported recently that may give NYC-wannabes pause. Significantly, Boston's faltering Downtown Crossing area is considering inviting the cars back after 30+ years as a pedestrian-only zone. Turns out that when a city aims for that "St. Mark's Square" feel, it sometimes gets "Downtown Detroit After Dark" instead, as consumers find new shopping areas that are car-accessible and, over time, retailers move out.

That Downtown Crossing was right next to a neighborhood called the "Combat Zone" probably didn't help, though neither do the fact that Downtown Crossing's big draws for decades, homegrown New England department stores Jordan Marsh and Filene's, no longer exist (the "today" shot above shows the reconstruction of Filene's into a financially troubled skyscraper development). That, at least, is more indicative of the much broader economic trends dating back 30 years than it is of pedestrian vs. car traffic.

More generally, though, a potential factor in the success of ped-only zones is how well serviced a city's pedestrian-only area is by public transport and, crucially, how many people in a city take public transport. Downtown Crossing, for instance, does have a major subway stop right underneath it, but Boston's urban population is small and poverty-stricken. Many of the shoppers coming into town drive in from the suburbs. New York, on the other hand, has a critical mass, and then some, of affluent residents who predominantly use the subway, plus Jersey, Westchester, CT and Long Island suburbanites often come in by train. Not to mention the many thousands of tourists staying in Midtown.

Regardless, we'll be ready with firsthand reports once Broadway gets pedestized (sounds pretty creepy, huh?). For urbanists everywhere, we'll be hoping it goes over well. I guess for the sake of our beleaguered friends in Detroit we'll have to hope it doesn't spell the (19th) beginning of the end.

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