The City of Boston first closed Downtown Crossing to cars exactly 36 years ago, just in time for the holiday shopping season. At the time, the notion of pedestrianizing the intersection of Washington Street at Summer and Winter streets was visionary. Instead of dodging cars in traffic-clogged streets, shoppers and workers could stroll in the space between Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, or amble from Park Street down to their offices. The city passed out 120,000 leaflets to drivers that year, announcing the change and dubbing the intersection “Downtown Crossing” for the first time.
Today, the area feels like a job half-done. The rules about who can drive on the streets, and when, are complex and poorly enforced. Confused drivers make wrong turns. Delivery trucks nudge walkers off the pavement. Construction sites extend into the street.
An estimated 250,000 pedestrians pass through the neighborhood every day. They make for a diverse crowd: suburban commuters, office workers, college students, buskers, teens meeting after school. And it's changing, as new condo developments bring more full-time residents into the area.
Rachel Szakmary, transportation planner with the City of Boston, is one of several city planners looking at the area and asking its users what they want for the neighborhood they frequent. "The focus is on reestablishing the pedestrian zone for exactly what it is," Szakmary said, "a place for people, for walking, for eating lunch, for getting a cup of coffee, but not for fearing getting hit by a car."
Making a secure pedestrian district isn't easy. Traffic must be diverted. Businesses need access to loading zones. Emergency vehicles can't be blocked. Design elements like maps and landscaping help, but so does proposing new ideas entirely. The Downtown Crossing conundrum is longstanding, and Boston isn't alone in facing it. Here are a handful of ideas drawn from other cities' novel approaches to reserving some streets for the folks on foot.
Every Sunday, bustling Guragon in India, shuts down several streets to traffic so that residents can play sports of all kinds, starting at 6:30 a.m. They call it Raahgiri Day. The idea is similar to Cambridge’s weekly closing of Memorial Drive, but Guragon goes much further: The city offers a wide range of free outdoor exercise options including soccer, Frisbee, yoga, Bollywood dance, and gully cricket. The sedentary can play cards or pitthoo, or bring their own games.
The idea of an urban outdoor gym has proved so popular that four other Indian cities have launched their own versions. In New Delhi, The Times of India sponsors bike rentals. Children can even learn to ride unicycles. The city has experimented with extending the car-free day into the evening.
In Bogotá, Colombia, a 13-block portion of city's historic main street, Carrera Séptima, is reserved for pedestrians and cyclists starting at 8 a.m. Shoppers cross the street at ease. Artists draw massive pictures in chalk on the ground. Vendors can pedal their fruit carts. But every night at 6:00 p.m., cars and delivery trucks take the street back.
Boston has a timed system, sort of: Rules for delivery trucks vary all day long, depending on multiple factors, including type of license plate and which street they want to drive on. Bogotá's cleaner version means that pedestrians know they won't have to fight trucks in the morning, and nightlife can thrive, as taxis and restaurant-goers in cars can come and go as they please.
Most pedestrian zones are policed with signs, bollards, and raised curbs. In Boston, confused drivers often find themselves forced to make unexpected turns. Programmable bollards are difficult to install because the T station is directly below the street. The whole scene is
as unfriendly to drivers as it is unreliable for pedestrians.
The city of Burlington, Vt., took a more human approach with its popular Church Street Marketplace, a fully pedestrianized downtown shopping zone. During the holidays, a peak-use time, the city installed crossing guards at intersections who could also explain alternative routes to drivers. Over time the city found that drivers and walkers could negotiate safe passage on their own terms. In Boston, guards might find their work cut out for them indefinitely.
In Istanbul, Turkey, where commuters suffer hours per day in stopped traffic, the city pedestrianized an astonishing 90 streets in its historic peninsula in January of 2011. It was an immediate success. Walkers could pause to look at the city’s beautiful old buildings; reduced air pollution made eating outdoors a more pleasant prospect. So the city went even bigger, and has now banned cars from 295 streets. (Commercial vehicles have overnight access, to supply the area’s thriving businesses.) According to EMBARQ, an international sustainable transportation planning organization, residents and business owners in the neighborhood recently reported an 80 percent satisfaction rate with the change.
While Boston is a different kind of city, and it would be almost unthinkable to ban cars from the entire downtown, Istanbul's success suggests that we may be nowhere near the limit of how much we could include.
The City of Boston's 1978 report detailing the founding of Downtown Crossing as a pedestrian district offered this reason for the change: "The auto and the pedestrian were in conflict and the pedestrian seemed to be losing." But what if the rules favored no one? In one of the world's most radical and closely watched transportation experiments, the village of Makkinga, Netherlands, did away with traffic signs, reasoning that an excess of rules can inhibit basic human courtesy.
What sounds like a recipe for chaos actually led to smoother functioning as drivers, walkers, and cyclists learned to make way for one another on their own terms. The experiment is growing: Several larger European cities have taken notice, and reconstructed their downtown intersections to be signal-free.
Alexa Mills teaches media production to city planning students. She researched pedestrian districts while teaching "Collaborative Planning" at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, last summer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @alexatimeaus.