Mobility Shifts in Downtowns

12 Jun

Cars, Pedestrians and Downtown Districts

Several years have passed since I last visited one of my favorite midsize cities, Charlottesville, Virginia. But I often think about the magnificent pedestrian mall that graces the downtown of this city. Known as the “Historic Downtown Mall,” it is the area’s heart of civic activity, featuring more than 120 shops and restaurants located in pristinely maintained historic buildings surrounding Old Main Street. Eclectic in feel, it reflects the ethos and vibe that define this university town.

For years, pedestrian thoroughfares experienced great appeal as centers of community vitality. Their beginnings date back to 1959, when Kalamazoo, Michigan, became the first American city to adopt one for its downtown area. From there, the pedestrian mall concept gained momentum as 220 cities followed suit, closing downtown thoroughfares to traffic and paving them with cobblestones. With retail establishments and eateries serving as points of attraction for residents and visitors, foot traffic and pedestrian vibrancy became abundant.

As early as five years ago, there was talk of a changing paradigm for these thoroughfares. A number of urban experts were quick to exclaim that pedestrian malls had lost their luster due in large part to the Great Recession. Examples abound of the decline of these walkable areas, leading to a lack of activity along what once may have been a vibrant pedestrian area.

Citing the popular belief at the time that automobile traffic serves as a magnet for economic activity, a number of cities such as the aforementioned Kalamazoo, Michigan reopened many of their downtown streets to vehicular traffic. The argument here is that retail activation tends to work better when there is vehicle access, visibility and parking near storefronts.

Today, there has been a resurgence of interest in pedestrianism and walkability within downtown corridors. Accompanying this fundamental shift in the way people ambulate around districts are new mobile phone-based technologies that facilitate pedestrian mobility from place to place. These tools are also useful in helping users identify area sites and amenities.  They include mobile based apps such as Fourquare, Yelp, Google Maps and Walkscore. Much of this has emerged in response to the desires of millennials and baby boomers alike seeking civic intelligence information, directing them to their local desires and interests.

For downtown leaders, this should be seen as good news. Why? In addition to cultivating an environment that encourages consumer foot traffic and economic activity, walk-friendly locales provide a forum for promoting healthy lifestyles and wellness. These new patterns suggest the advancement of good ole “foot power” as the new common denominator for place-based initiatives; one that downtown leaders and planners will increasingly be called to address in the years ahead.

Many downtown experts note that the on-the-go millennial crowd is largely behind this rapidly developing mind shift. Automotive industry company reports that young adults aged 18–34 purchased 30 percent fewer cars in 2007 than in 2011. And since the late 1990s, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their 20s has dropped from 20.8 percent to 13.7 percent. Bottom line: Growing numbers of young adults are choosing to nestle within and in close proximity to downtown center-city districts where density favors walking, bicycling, and other non-traditional modes of transportation. In their words cars “suck”; two feet “ROCK.”

Surprisingly many empty nesters are also walking in record numbers. Many are opting out of their restricted suburban ways and embracing downtown areas that offer easy walking access to dining, arts, sports venues and other lifestyle interests. Here, many are also capitalizing on the health benefits that ensue from active physical movement.

James Shaffer, president of Streetscapes, Inc., a Denver-based firm providing pedestrian amenities for public spaces, believes that downtown leaders and planners must keep a close eye on the mobility shifts occurring within their districts. This, he says, involves striking a delicate balance in terms of the coexistence of cars and pedestrians, both of which are vital to sustainable downtown vibrancy. “Creating a well thought out infrastructure that supports these two modes is vital. It is critical though to keep in mind the importance of creating inviting environments that truly engage those you are seeking to attract,” says Shaffer.

Shaffer has had first-hand experience with these issues through his stint as board president of WalkDenver, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience in Denver. And while acknowledging the value of mobile apps to facilitate downtown district walkability, he believes traditional wayfinding signage and directionals hold equal importance, particularly for those baby boomers who are reluctant to adopt mobile technologies.

Challenges notwithstanding, the reintegration of cars into pedestrian-friendly locales has a great deal of momentum behind it. However, there are still a number of holdouts in terms of exclusively walkable streetscapes. Pearl Street Mall in Boulder is obviously well known. Third Street Mall in Santa Monica, California represents another success story, with much of its foot traffic attributed to a highly targeted tourist market. And in another twist, the city of Montreal, Canada just announced that it will bar motor vehicles on a number of their vehicular stretches just for the spring and the summer, converting them into pedestrian havens for the enjoyment of those frequenting the area.

So in terms of this autocentric versus walkability convergence, clearly the more things change, the more things stay the same. But as the great urbanist Jane Jacobs once remarked, “Downtowns are for the people, not for the cars.”

Maybe that settles the score.


Michael Scott is the head content creator with Social Buzz For Cities, Inc. He writes white papers, blogs, and targeted thought pieces for a variety of clients in the urban/economic development space. He can be reached at or


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