Just give us 800 feet

San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 4th Street are now off limits to most cars. This, according to CityLab.com, being indicative of a “wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors…”

To which it is worth nothing that college towns have been way ahead of the curve in reclaiming their downtowns for people – not just to save lives but to promote economic vitality.

I’m thinking of Pearl Street, in Boulder, Col.; State Street, in Madison, Wis.; and Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, hard up against “Mr. Jefferson’s’ University of Virginia.

I’ve visited all three of those cities and walked all three streets. My observation was that the downtown street life in those communities is more diverse, prosperous and enjoyable than anything we have here in Hogtown. And unlike Gainesville’s, which is primarily a nighttime downtown, those three university downtowns generate considerably more daytime activity.

Boulder and Charlottesville are mainly pedestrian malls, while State Street – linking the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol building – is still a people magnet despite making allowances for buses, taxis and select other vehicles.

Here in Gainesville we’re willing to close portions of University Avenue for the Homecoming Parade, and the rare Open Streets event. But that’s about it when it comes to making life a little less convenient for motorists as a trade-off for an enhanced street life.

But, say, here’s an idea. What if we started out small and liberated just three downtown blocks from autoAmerican tyranny? Heck, we could even ease into it and start with weekends only.

The City of Gainesville is going to collaborate with the University of Florida on a downtown master plan. If I were looking at ways to enhance downtown’s “street cred,” while making it a friendlier and more inviting place for dining, retail, relaxation and collaboration, I’d take a serious look at turning SE 1st Street, from University Ave to The Hippodrome, into pedestrian haven. This following either the Boulder and Charlottesville (people only) model or Madison’s (vehicles restricted) example.

That stretch of 1st. is just about 800-feet long, and that’s a good thing. “Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long. Their more intimate settings offer retail on a human scale, with sufficient points of interest, and places to linger, encouraging customers to browse at their own pace and make connections with shop proprietors.” This from Build A Better Burb.

Creating a “people” corridor on First Street wouldn’t affect downtown traffic flow one wit. Yes, it would sacrifice dozens of on-street parking slots along 1st. But with two downtown parking garages and lots of on-street parking remaining on the perimeters, that’s a small sacrifice to make in return for a prosperous, people-centric downtown.

And there is a powerful case to be made for rethinking downtown parking.

Imagine the former parking spaces of SE 1st sprouting outdoor cafes, street vendors, sculptures and fountains. Imagine travel lanes being given over to buskers, flower sellers and street bands. If we’re not careful we might create all manner of inviting places for folks to converge and collaborate and see and be seen.

No question there would be initial resistance from business owners who fear the loss of free parking just outside their doors. But if planners do their jobs correctly they can make a case that restricting vehicles will reap greater rewards.

In a recent piece in CityLab.com, Brooks Rainwater, senior executive with the National League of Cities, points to initial resistance to Rotterdam’s decision to limit cars in the city’s center. “At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts,” he wrote. “But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones.”

All I’m saying is give people a chance, Gainesville. A chance for them to claim a space of their own without the hassle of having to dodge heavy moving objects. Who knows, it might even lead to the downtown revival that has so far been elusive.

Since I wrote this for the Gainesville Sun I came across a recently issued “pedestrian zone” report from the National League of Cities. “The idea of pedestrian zones existed far before the introduction of automobiles. But old ideas can be made new again, serving as solutions to our most modern problems. With this guide, local leaders can consider strategies to build people- centered communities, both now and in the future,” writes Clarence E. Anthony, Executive Director National League of Cities.

“Rethinking urban mobility is not a new trend, but it is a timely one,” the report continues. “As cities continue to feel the effects of climate change, high levels of air pollution and increasing traffic, local leaders are tackling one of the biggest culprits: private vehicles. With the growth of micromobility and increased use of public transit, residents are increasingly utilizing non-car options. And cities are rethinking and redesigning city spaces to accommodate these changes in mobility, while simultaneously addressing the environmental and health concerns plaguing urban dwellers.”

It’s time for Gainesville to rethink its urban mobility options for all of the above reasons.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

One thought on “Just give us 800 feet”

  1. I could not agree more. I too have visited the cities you mention, and lament a similar lack of vision in Gainesville. The only way Downtown Gainesville and the area between downtown and campus will be a vibrant, diverse commercial area will be if vehicular traffic is calmed. A four lane expressway known as University Avenue will never invite the type of development you suggest. Now that would have been a transformative project for the CRA. But, I am certain that will never garner the necessary political support. More vehicles need to be going “around” Gainesville, not thru it. I hope your small initiative – SE 1st Street gains traction.

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