Co-authored by Thierry Paradis, Thierry Suhaupunkt, Stéphane Boudry, Guillaume Drouin, Isabelle Bruel, Robert D’Agostino, Lauren Stanich, Kaarin Andrew, Heather Stefancic, and Erin Coyne, PhD
The fourth, fifth, and sixth parallel streets of Washington’s H Street neighborhood are a busy parade of sidewalk stalls selling everything from bagels and chocolate to lollipops, tacos, and beer. These “pedestrian malls” constitute more than a parking lot for pedestrians, they’re parklets and creative harbors of life and creativity that welcome a swift and friendly breeze in the winter and a clamorous evening crowd in the summer.
Pedestrian malls have been a thriving part of American cities for more than 20 years, but Washington’s H Street Streetscape Plan drew criticism from the project’s supporters and citizens for its treatment of the street, claiming that the only way to protect the streetscape is to protect the sidewalks. Many local streets don’t have real pedestrian malls and are constantly covered with cars. H Street has no sidewalk.
Not so fast.
Pedestrian malls are built with sidewalks designed for pedestrians. The key to preventing car use from bumping pedestrians is to divide the sidewalk into two openings. We propose that from the first encroachment by a curb, a pedestrian mall differs from a street sidewalk in a number of ways:
a. We have another visual cue that points to two narrow sidewalk spaces as if they’re middles.
b. Our second visual cue, a light post in each of the two spaces, explains that the sidewalk is narrower than the street sidewalk and the pedestrian mall is a three-inch drop onto the street.
c. Pedestrians have clear access to the two spaces.
d. Once pedestrians have entered the two spaces, the sidewalk becomes private space for pedestrians and they can’t be blocked in either space.
d. Finally, the sidewalk space shows off a slight curvature, with a weightless and therefore beautiful line of vertical curve.
Safety is a crucial consideration in designing pedestrian malls and pedestrians have a unique set of risk elements that can be addressed differently depending on their individual behaviors and the interaction between them. At design, we iterated with architects, park managers, designers, and community members to update the original pedestrian mall design. We have found that pedestrians experience many of the same safety issues that street pedestrians encounter.
Our new designs meet these safety objectives with incentives for street parking, incentives to use public transit or bike, and incentives to only move on when entering a space. We found that in pedestrian malls, employees of businesses and residents take notice of how attractive, safe, and user-friendly a space is.
On the street level, we see that tickets for parking vary widely across markets, and tickets issued for other violations, such as failure to yield to a pedestrian, rise sharply for the busiest intersections. On the pedestrian mall, we see that a traffic ticket falls almost instantly as soon as a pedestrian walks onto the street and virtually never before. At sidewalks that are covered with a third roadway layer, such as that on Third and I Streets, we encounter the types of traffic problems related to speeding and changing road geometry that have become increasingly difficult to solve on streets.
With our design features, residents are more likely to arrive at sidewalks earlier on their walks to the store, bus stop, or subway. We learned that the added time may be valuable to retailers and customers who return to the mall and take notice of the increased frequency of customer activity and increased foot traffic.
We don’t disagree with Washington D.C. Council member Jack Evans, president of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, who recently lamented that “the H Street Streetscape Plan is a flawed piece of legislation.” We respectfully disagree because street-level pedestrian malls improve public safety in Washington DC.
Pedestrian malls have been shown to improve public safety by reducing the number of collisions that occur on sidewalks, reducing injuries among pedestrians, and improving the quality of life for customers and staff at stores, restaurants, and other businesses that are already located on streets.