Palo Alto Pedestrian Zone worth a look

Originally published in the Stanford Weekly as part of a column series known as Academe’s Vanguard that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation to join a Facebook group calling for the removal of cars from University Avenue - along with the avenue itself. The goal is to create a pedestrian paradise where community members can feel safe to stroll by shop windows while sipping some overpriced beverage.

I promptly deleted the petition, but as these things always seem to work online, I was invited to join again. Having crossed some subconscious barrier that I place against these Facebook groups, I decided to evaluate the ideas with at least some objectivity. At first, I derided the proposal for its seemingly utopian ideals, but further research showed that there could be real economic benefits (when does one see that in a utopian proposal?). Turning University Avenue into a pedestrian promenade is worthy of consideration, although highly unrealistic in the near future.

First, a quick historical lesson. The idea came about as part of a d.School class called “Creating Infectious Action.” The goal for one group was to reduce gas usage. One of the main avenues to create this “infection” was through a Facebook group advocating the creation of a Palo Alto Pedestrian Mall - a group that now counts its membership above 2,000. For additional details, see “Students rethink University Ave” in the Daily archives.

The specific proposal comes from a theoretical urban planning school called New Urbanism, which builds upon research in urban design and the sociology of communities. In short, rather than having one area of a city devoted to housing and one to commerce, (think green and blue in SimCity games), cities can develop mixed-use zoning areas where people live near the place they work and promote cohesiveness across typical social divides.

The Stanford campus is a good example. The university has put in place policies to reduce traffic around the heart of campus for decades. Streets are open to pedestrians and bikes, and buses can take large numbers of people to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time. Commute times to class are short even between the most distant of points and for the most part, the area is safe for riding (even without those helmets).

Imagine a community 50,000 strong with a similar arrangement. A strong downtown area (looking not so different from University Avenue today) would incorporate housing condos and apartments along with businesses on street level to create a walkable and sustainable community with closer social ties among neighbors and workers.

Research into this area is strong. Stanford’s Urban Studies program and Civil Engineering department, along with others, has been investigating this theory over the past few years. Students can focus either major in the direction of sustainable communities. One good friend of mine in Civil Engineering took a class called “Creating Sustainable Development” along with others in those departments to learn the best new urban techniques such as rethinking zoning in a community. She is not alone.

Research has shown numerous advantages to this type of setup. On an individual level, people will tend to walk more to their destinations due to their proximity - promoting a healthier lifestyle than the drive-thru nation that America has become in the last two decades. Social ties have been shown to be closer in such communities. The ideal city would have one wake up, walk to the local coffee house (where everyone knows your name) and then arrive at work while passing many of your neighbors along the way.

In the community context, this style of development can reduce some of the traffic problems that plague older communities founded without planning commissions and urban design plans. City planners can use it for urban renewal, where it has been successful in areas across America, from Redwood City’s Theater District to Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. Crime rates tend to be lower as well, perhaps due to a greater feeling of ownership of the local community.

Finally, on a global level, such communities have the potential to lower pollution through reduced use of cars. They also tend to be more sustainable, with a higher density than typical suburban neighborhoods while reducing the Gotham City feel of a large urban area.

These arguments, of course, are the utopian vision for new urbanism that it almost certainly can never meet. Not everyone can live near his or her work (dual-career families?) nor can one city provide everything desired (not even Palo Alto). Such communities can raise quality of living, but they are not panaceas for all social ills.

Changing University Avenue into a pedestrian zone would make the city closer to this new urban ideal. New sidewalks would let people walk around, park benches and fountains would replace asphalt and we would all be one with the city.

But the problem is the logistics. How exactly do we turn the primary artery through the business district into a no-vehicle zone? There is a belief that greater foot traffic will lead to increased sales. That is true, assuming foot traffic is able to find parking in Palo Alto near the pedestrian mall. The effects on the businesses already there are unclear as well. Restaurants may benefit while others are hit hard as shoppers drive their cars to easier-to-access venues.

There is also the transition period. How will Palo Alto be redesigned to move cars to the 101 freeway? How should cars travel to reach Stanford the other way? Traffic patterns are likely to change into nearby residential areas as people take side streets to reach their destinations.

Thus, we have a situation where the heady idealism of Stanford students (and the Bay Area) meets the cold reality of a city designed and built many years ago. As communities form, they will use these new urban techniques with greater frequency. Turning University Avenue into a pedestrian promenade? A worthy idea, but one whose timeframe is measured in years - not weeks.