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Sunday, December 11, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Success Stories: Pedestrian-Only Areas In European Cities

WHEN people think of or talk about the great cities of the world the images that come to mind are abundant and diverse. We think of outdoor cafes, magnificent plazas, window shopping, public markets, and tree-lined boulevards with wide sidewalks.

The ability to drive easily through or into any of those cities is not part of the picture. Free-flowing traffic or easy access by car is not an essential element of great cities.

Why, then, are we debating automobile access to one block in downtown Seattle? Retail business interests claim they cannot survive without people driving on Pine Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues. They contend that blocking that street has caused additional traffic congestion that discourages people from visiting downtown Seattle. They also cite studies of other cities in the United States that have shown business fleeing downtown when streets have been turned over to pedestrian use.

Let us examine these two contentions. First, a recent traffic study has shown that closing Pine Street has had a negligible impact on traffic flow in the downtown. Even if there has been some impact, there is no evidence that the additional traffic congestion has driven retail patrons away.

Second, studies that have concluded that pedestrianization has a negative impact on downtown business have shown only that when poorly planned or haphazardly executed, downtown pedestrian malls fail, not that the whole concept is bad. In our own region, Portland has been hailed as a model downtown area whose human scale Seattle would do well to emulate. Automobile access to major downtown shopping streets in Portland has been denied for some time. Vancouver, our neighbor to the north, has a vibrant downtown that is anchored by a transit-only mall. Boulder, Colo., has a well-designed downtown pedestrian area that supports a major shopping area, which is heavily used despite competition from well-designed and attractive shopping malls on the periphery of the town.

The shift of activity in the United States from downtown central business districts has occurred because of powerful population and land-use shifts, not because of the introduction of pedestrian zones. In fact, there is evidence that the shift of retail business activity has occurred partly because of the lack of pedestrian-friendly, human scale attributes in downtown areas.

Looking at other parts of the world, the experience in Europe - especially in Germany - stands out. Since the 1960s, virtually all German cities with populations more than 50,000 have retrofitted their downtown areas with Fussgangerbereiche, pedestrian-only areas. These have proven to be very successful in preventing the migration of retail business to suburban shopping areas. Interestingly, they were often implemented over the strong objections of retail business interests, who later became their strongest supporters.

Rolf Monheim, a German transportation, land use and urban design expert who has studied pedestrian zones extensively recently wrote, "The main opposition against . . . introduction or expansion of pedestrian precincts in many cases comes from shopkeepers and their organizations because they still believe that they depend essentially on car accessibility. Empirical research shows that other elements are of much greater importance for the survival of downtown shopping against the pressure of new shopping centers in the urban fringe."

Monheim goes on to report that the major problem with pedestrianization in German cities has been its success. There is not enough room for all the pedestrians, and the debate now is how to bring the high level of retail activity into better balance with recreational and cultural functions.

While it is dangerous to translate a specific type of urban design decision from one location to another, the noteworthy success of pedestrian zones in Germany and cities in our own region demonstrates that the concept works well when the whole context supports it.

We do not need to look beyond the Seattle area to observe success in giving pedestrians the right-of-way advantage over cars in a shopping area. The Pike Place Market is commonly hailed as a premier shopping and gathering place in downtown Seattle, attractive to tourists, residents and downtown workers. The (limited) ability to drive a car through the center of the Market certainly does not deserve the credit for that success. Most people who drive through the Market are probably either lost or new to the area.

What about those suburban shopping malls, the alleged competitors to downtown Seattle? One of the reasons they are so successful is that they are pedestrian-oriented - at least once you have negotiated the crowded arterials and vast parking lots to get there. They are places to meet and greet others, to browse a variety of shops on foot, and where parents can let their kids amble freely without worrying about them being run over by traffic. Why can't that successful aspect of suburban malls be emulated in downtown Seattle?

The discussion should not be whether to re-open Pine Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues, but how to expand beyond the Westlake Park and to develop further opportunities for pedestrian-friendly areas in downtown Seattle.

Perhaps the initial undertaking should be to develop the pedestrian connection among Westlake Park, Pike Place Market and the Seattle Art Museum by closing off some streets to all but transit access. This would provide a continuous pedestrian-oriented public space from the waterfront to the Westlake Park. As the Commons continues to be developed, the pedestrian area could be extended all the way from Elliott Bay to Lake Union.

Such a plan would require complementary decisions to provide good transit access to various parts of downtown, to make parking convenient on the fringes without creating ugly holes in the urban fabric of downtown Seattle, and to make other decisions that would support the development of a dynamic and rich outdoor, public life.

The plan could incorporate measures short of pedestrian-only access, such as streets with very low (5-10 mph) speed limits or other innovative approaches. Most of all, the plan would require vision, commitment and the faith that people know what they like and will be attracted to a human scale, pedestrian-oriented downtown. There is a reason we have our distinctive images of great cities. Cy Ulberg is research associate professor in the Institute for Public Policy and Management, Graduate School of Public Affairs and the Washington State Transportation Center, at the University of Washington.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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