Trek through Boston’s Downtown Crossing and you’ll notice a striking absence of vehicular traffic. Save for the occasional delivery truck or passing police cruiser, sections of Washington and Summer streets have allowed only pedestrian and cyclist access for decades.
That area, the city’s epicenter, should be exponentially expanded.
Cities that enact car-free, pedestrian-only access zones are implementing a strategy, not joining a municipal fad. In Paris, pollution levels reached such a point that going car-free for even just a day helped temper the toxicity in the air. In Hamburg, officials are opting for green space linkage to promote alternative modes of transportation over more throughways. In Melbourne, alleyways have become canvasses for urban art.
And in Boston, data indicates that the city will only become more walkable in coming years. Notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic, I’m sure many are more than willing to attest to, has also driven plenty out from behind the wheel.
Boston has an opportunity to preemptively attack any environmental detriments posed by air pollution, to stimulate street-level commerce, to relieve the reliance on our beleaguered public transportation system and to design appropriately for a refreshed retail destination that may soon moonlight as a denser residential neighborhood.
“A unifying theme is slowing things down so it is safer for all users, reclaiming/opening alleys to connect the city more and eliminating large blocks,” said Brendan Kearney, spokesperson for pedestrian advocacy group WalkBoston.
In the late 1970s, then-Mayor Kevin White spearheaded the revitalization of both DTX and Faneuil Hall Marketplace to the point that these two areas have come to reclaim their status as go-to hotspots for shopping and dining. In doing so, he eliminated vehicular traffic in order to provide more space for businesses in lieu of parking and so that foot traffic would catalyze shopping.
Though perhaps DTX didn’t quite achieve the level of success as Faneuil Hall Marketplace in subsequent decades, it’s been tapped by developers for urban renewal in recent years.
Millennium Tower is quickly on its way to overshadowing its adjoining developments. Winter Street buildings now boast apartments and condos. Summer Street is home to a popular supermarket. The upcoming Congress Square project, a stone’s throw from Downtown Crossing (DTX), is poised to augment residents and foot traffic.
“Businesses have not been deterred and with enough time for daily deliveries to be made, we have not had any complaints,” said Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, of the area being car-free. “With robust construction taking place in and around the pedestrian zone and the downtown business improvement district in general we believe we will see this public amenity become even more important in the future.”
She’s right about car-free being an amenity for future generations to enjoy. The aforementioned Congress Square project also aims to be car-free, and the BRA approved a condo development above The Times Restaurant and Pub and The Littlest Bar without on-site parking.
After all, millennials more and more are shunning cars. And ride-share services, most notably Uber and Lyft, as well as Hubway‘s bike-share program, and parking apps like SPOT, have made it so residences don’t need built-in parking. They’ve also made it so residents can park their car somewhere else if need be.
Max Grinnell, a professor of urban studies at the University of Chicago and maintainer of the blog The Urbanologist, views DTX as a terminus for the same kind of green space linkage Hamburg is endeavoring to obtain.
DTX is, after all, flanked by Boston Common to the north and west, and the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway to the east.
“An obvious extension would be to extend this all the way down from Summer Street to create a pathway to Dewey Square, the Greenway and beyond,” said Grinnell. “I think you would need to get buy-in from major stakeholders along the way, but it seems like the perfect place to add some vendors, create space for temporary art installations, and the like.”
Mayor Marty Walsh recently announced that his administration is crowdsourcing ideas to fulfill Boston’s first master plan in 50 years. He and his top advisors told reporters that it won’t strictly pertain to development. Rather it’ll incorporate arts and culture, event programming, sustainability and more.
If the city is willing to make certain streets, as opposed to one sweeping area, car-free it could open up the potential to incorporate all of the master plan’s themes in one, or several, spots around the city.
Greenway personnel told me that Janet Echelman, who was commissioned by the Rose Kennedy Greenway for her vibrant aerial sculpture, suggested to Mayor Walsh at the sculpture’s grand opening that Pearl Street – which runs from the intersection of Water and Congress Streets and empties out at Purchase Street right where Echelman’s sculpture hangs – be closed on Sundays.
BostInno reached out to Echelman but she was not immediately available to comment.
“We believe we will see this public amenity become even more important in the future.”
Even restricting traffic on certain streets temporarily would help promote the positive effects of going car-free. For Echelman, the Pearl and Purchase juncture would be the ideal locale for people to enjoy the sculpture, take in the park and for the likes of food trucks, live music and other programming to gather.
Boston Transportation Commissioner Gina Fiandaca said there are no plans at this time to expand the current pedestrian-access zones, though temporary restrictions on traffic are certainly a viable solution and one that her department is actively exploring.
“In recent years, one mile of Blue Hill Avenue has been shut down to motor vehicles for Circle the City events attended by thousands of people,” said Fiandaca. “In addition, we’ve been incorporating ‘Shared Streets’ into Boston’s landscape. These are areas where the street and sidewalk are at the same level allowing the location to be used for varied purposes.”
It’s encouraging that the city is experimenting with this kind of urbanism. We know that Mayor Walsh is not averse to testing out new streetscape concepts as evidenced by the South Boston street reconfiguration that lasted from February to yesterday. The best way to determine if it’s a lasting initiative is to solicit thoughts and ideas from the public, and ultimately to put it in play for a piloting.
For logistical reasons alone, Boston should consider increasing car-free space. Downtown in particular is already difficult enough for drivers to navigate, with its various one-way and often narrow streets, which contributes to the city’s road-rage inducing traffic problem.
But for more substantial reasons, ones that could affect generations of Boston dwellers and nonnatives alike in all facets of city living, a more comprehensive look ought to be given to the intricate pros and cons of less cars and more creative uses of our streets.