Boise’s multi-laned one-way streets, such as Front and Myrtle, were built to rush cars in and out of the city.
The setup was convenient for people who wanted to get on the Connector or back home to the western suburbs as quickly as possible. And the smaller one-way streets made it easy to pick up speed when driving from north to south.
But over the years, the downtown core – like others around the country – started dying out. Instead of meandering down narrow streets and stopping to pick things up on the way home, drivers sped straight out to the suburbs. Downtown stores languished, and many closed.
Now that city business leaders are trying to build up the downtown again, they’re taking another look at the one-way streets. And the Capital City Development Corporation is also considering closing the most central downtown street – Eighth Street between Bannock and Idaho – to cars altogether.
Closing streets to traffic, known as “pedestrianizing,” was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a way to create a walking-friendly, family-friendly space where people could take their time visiting shops and restaurants.
Proposals to close a street always attract attention, especially from restaurant and store owners who worry their business will suffer if drivers can’t pull up right outside. Boise has a little bit of experience with the practice from its popular Capital City Public Market on Saturdays. On the days the downtown streets are closed to traffic for the market, so many people come out to shop that it’s hard to make your way down the street even on foot.
There’s no telling how businesses on a closed-off Eighth Street would fare. But this week, planners got a chance to learn a little bit more about pedestrian-only streets from Jeff Speck, an architectural designer and city planner who spoke at the Boise Metro Chamber’s leadership conference in Sun Valley.
Speck made some good points about sprawl (“This is why we have soccer moms; we didn’t need them when I was young, because every neighborhood had a ball field within walking distance”), Boise’s one-way streets, and Ketchum’s amazingly obedient drivers, who form a rolling roadblock at 24 miles per hour (“You build 50 mile-an-hour streets, you mark them at 25, and you put cops out; that works”).
Speck, who writes books about urban planning and economic development, isn’t a big fan of broad, multi-lane downtown thoroughfares that discourage walking. He likes bicycle lanes, streetlights, and tree-lined boulevards. He says investing in high-quality public art multiplies other investment nearby, and that when faced with the reality of traveling through town by trolley, people get upset first and then quickly adjust.
To my surprise, Speck doesn’t think much of closing off streets to pedestrians. He told the leadership conference that 200 cities and towns pedestrianized their main streets in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, and 150 failed almost immediately. The stores closed, and the car-free streets became dark. He estimates only 15 are successful today, including ones in Santa Monica, Calif., and Burlington, Vt.
But he had some good ideas for Boise’s Eighth Street.
He noted that Boise’s blocks are short. That means a closed-off block of Eighth Street wouldn’t become the kind of tunnel-like cavern that invites homeless people and sub-par street musicians to hang out there all day.
He also pointed out that Boise doesn’t have to construct huge bollards to signal that a section of Eighth has become the domain of walkers. He suggested putting up some temporary traffic measures – the kind used now for the Saturday public market – to see what would happen.
It’s a great idea. It’s already clear from the Saturday market that there’s a strong appetite for closing off the street to cars some of the time. If it turns out that Boiseans would rather keep the block open to cars the rest of the time, no problem; just remove the bollards.
The topic of pedestrian-only streets is so heated that it’s difficult to get anyone at CCDC to talk about it in anything but the most cautionary of terms, like, “We’re just considering ideas at this point.” But I think Speck might have given them a way to finesse this potentially tricky decision: They can try it out.