Pedestrianizing Boston

A MITASC story contributed by Jen Fox

Picture your ideal urban avenue. Take Boylston Street and eradicate the exhaust from stalling vehicular traffic. Erase the horns and motor hums blocking conversation rising from cafe tables. All that’s left of the cars are their images, so let’s replace those with kids playing hopscotch, residents running and walking their dogs, tourists exploring the historic streets of Boston.

The case for pedestrianization isn’t new, and the benefits are manifold. Numerous pre-auto-boom cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have championed pedestrian- and bicyclist-centric infrastructure as a result of both existing urban build and progressive municipal policies (CityLab). American cities, meanwhile, have endorsed an inefficient transit system idolizing the single-passenger-vehicle, at the expense of intra-national public transportation options. This system cannot provide a sustainable solution to our cities’ exponential population density growth. American urban centers expand at alarming rates, and single-family houses and two-SUV garages aren’t feasible options for our future cities.

By progressing towards European-inspired pedestrian-dominated streets, we foster closer communities, increased commercial activity, healthier lifestyles, and cleaner cities. With neighborhood collaboration, pedestrianization can even manifest increased commercial activity, as demonstrated across case studies from sundry international urban centers (Future Place Leadership). Additionally, people-dominated streets can foster healthier lifestyles and cleaner cities. Think of a functional, breathable, sociable city street: is it packed with cars or people? Reduction of car congestion helps eliminate the safety, health, and environmental detriments brought on by the vehicular traffic limiting sustainable city growth.

To implement pedestrianization, we need to close off streets to cars. If we look at Barcelona’s globally lauded superblocks, (also known as superdillas—internal streets largely cut off to private vehicle traffic and open only to pedestrian, bicyclist, and community use), greening is often used as a barrier to vehicle entry. Resilient ivies, broad-leafed bushes, and coniferous trees can flourish even in Boston’s roller-coaster climate, and serve as simple, low-budget urban beautification. Thanks to some remarkable displays of urban science and revolutionary, pedestrian-first neighborhood design, city planners around the world laud Barcelona for the incredible neighborhood experience they’ve created, boasting community benefits of open plazas, boulevards hugging greened strips, and blocks of playing children and strolling street-goers.

Other cities have begun transitioning urban centers with vehicle-restricted ordinances in “Pedestrian Zones” as well. In Seattle, land use codes ensure concentration of pedestrianization initiatives in active street-level uses, characterizing this new zoning as “an intensely retail and pedestrian-oriented shopping district where non-auto modes of transportation to and within the district are strongly favored” (The Urbanist).

Case studies can reveal, with compelling statistics, the economic worth of these conversions when implemented in active commercial neighborhoods—meaning central location and high concentration of “stop and stay” activities like cafes and retail outlets. In Copenhagen, the pedestrianization of Strøget in the 1980s proved that removal of cars can increase revenue for local retailers, with a whopping 400% increase in “stop and stay” activities since the program’s implementation (Global Designing Cities Initiative).

Statistics can demonstrate how pedestrianization improves the street-goer’s experience, as well. The City of Copenhagen reported a 35% increase in pedestrian volumes in the first year alone, as well as a 20% increase in time spent by pedestrians in the street and an 81% increase in outdoor cafe seating.

Our policymakers can use other cities’ zoning initiatives and policies to move forward on a program that has already brought so much joy to university students, Boston residents, and transient tourists alike. Drawing from the success of Open Newbury, City Council should advance the pedestrianization of Newbury, reclaiming the street for residents, visitors, and shop-owners alike.

Newbury Street is one of the most socioeconomically and culturally diverse places in Boston, a quintessential representation of our city’s unique historic culture and urban flavors. And it really is the most idyllic location to test this. First of all, Newbury encompasses everything that is so beautiful about the great city of Boston. Its streets are lined with refurbished brownstones, trees, and lively businesses. The diversity and variety offered, of shops and cafes and restaurants’ offerings and prices, of the people who roam the streets, residential and student and foreigners: the space is accessible and comfortable and inviting for anyone, of any class, of any kind, and it represents Boston so perfectly.

Person-focused improvements to the urban landscape have been highly praised by street-goers and shop owners alike. Open Newbury days, debuting now for their fourth consecutive summer, transform the street into a lively pedestrian walkway. Bostonians flock excitedly to the site, increasing foot traffic more than 150% from an average weekend day (UrbanLand). That’s right: on a typical day, the city logged 20,000 to 25,000 people roaming Newbury; the pedestrian counter for Open Newbury counted 50,000 people throughout the day (I haven’t completed my economics degree yet, but I assure you that this is statistically significant).

We live for this kind of experience: for being able to walk freely, to own our urban space, to roam outside of shopfronts and cafes and sit in the street and breathe air free from the exhaust of stalling traffic blocks, and let children populate the street. In Pontevedra, Spain, open streets have resulted in more children, more life on the streets, and healthier adults as a domino effect. Carlos Ferrás, an expert in demography and a lecturer of Human Geography at Santiago de Compostela University (USC), lauds Pontevedra’s pedestrianization initiative’s impact, “promoting attractive and affordable residential developments in the urban area rather than in the suburbs, and an urban model that is sustainable, greener, convenient, and designed to support citizens throughout their parenting process” (CityLab). Families out on the streets, it turns out, makes our streets a whole lot more active, and our residents a whole lot healthier and happier.

This transition doesn’t have to be stark, either; interim pedestrianization allows for closing off vehicular traffic at some times in the day—midday lunch hours and mid-afternoons where people are out and about—and reopening it for heavier commuting hours.

Some worry that removal or restriction of car lanes may displace commuters and foster heavier congestion on surrounding routes. In reality, pedestrianization drives rational adjustments to residents’ optimal mobility habits. Congestion in parallel streets occurs only in the short term, as travellers defer to local solutions. Over time, altered mobility patterns reach new equilibriums, and commuters opt to the more convenient route of non-auto transit. This contributes to public transit improvement’s positive feedback loop: the more commuters, the more funding allocation, the better the efficiency and experience of travel.

Cities are infamous for fostering social disconnect while harboring such an immense volume of people. Can you imagine how much better Bostonians’ experiences could be? Wouldn’t we all love a world where your commute is a fifteen-minute bike or T ride instead of thirty minutes of frustration, sitting in traffic? A world where motor infrastructure can’t block out kids’ laughter playing in the streets, and those kids’ parents aren’t suffering heart palpitations at the image of their kids actually playing the street?

Pedestrianization is an absolutely necessary shift our cities need to make now—a movement which is already happening across the world, improving community wellness, increasing social interaction, supporting sustainable infrastructure. If you want to support the movement, you can find your Boston City Councilor here to reach out and ask them to increase pedestrian-focused programs and zoning ordinances. It’s time to reclaim the roads for Bostonians—because the streets are for us, not our Buicks.



This public reflection was produced as part of the work of the MIT Action Sustainability Corps. Learn more about MITASC here.