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NY and SF Demonstrate That Better Pedestrian Amenities Create Stronger Communities

9:58 AM PDT on July 21, 2009

Recent pilot programs in New York City and San Francisco demonstrate something that Livable Streets Advocates have known all along: by opening "car space" to the public, one can dramatically reduce car traffic and increase livability and sense of community.  While it's true that the concepts demonstrated by our friends to the north and the east are seemingly alien to the folks at City Hall these days; we've learned that once Livable Streets activism reaches the tipping point, things can happen quickly. Thus, we need to continue to celebrate and highlight some of the success stories in other cities.

The New York example is the more dramatic of the two case.  The above video, narrated by Streetsblog publisher Mark Gorton, is a tour of Broadway's car-free squares.  As Mark says, the counterintuitive truth is that taking away space for
cars can improve traffic while making the city safer and more enjoyable
for everyone on foot. There are sound theories that help explain why
this happens -- concepts like traffic shrinkage and Braess's paradox which
are getting more and more attention thanks to projects like this one.

When the plan to create these plazas at the expense of car-travel lanes was first announced, some of the local press in New York predicted doom for Broadway travelers.  One paper even went so far as to call the soon-to-be-created traffic disaster "Carmageddon."  Unsurprisingly, Carmageddon has been forestalled.

In San Francisco, new pedestrian plazas on 17th Street are having a similar effect.  The San Francisco Great Streets Project has surveyed residents surrounding the new plazas and found that...

...residents of the Castro neighborhood who felt a strong sense of community character rose from 76% to 89% after the plaza opened and those who considered the pedestrian experience of the area as positive rose from 79% to 84%.

Their survey also found that people were spending more time in the plaza, views of the plaza turned it from a "route" to a place and destination, and residents of the Castro neighborhood now want more...more open space and more outdoor amenities.

The SFGSP also has some great "before" and "after" pictures of the plaza that really demonstrate the sweeping changes a little investment can make in a community.

(editor's note: this post leaned heavily on the writing of Clarence Eckerson Jr. in NY and Matthew Roth in San Francisco.)

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