As the daughter of a diplomat, I spent half my childhood in Europe, so I got spoiled from being able to walk and take public transit almost everywhere. I’ve lived in the United States nearly my whole adult life and have always gravitated to streets that remind me of the ones I grew up with in Europe — with charming stores, restaurants and other businesses you can walk to and pop in and out of. It was no accident that I ended up spending a lot of time in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, DC and the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. I’ll take a walk downtown over navigating a congested mall parking lot any day.
But Main Streets with rows of stores, restaurants, and other businesses that open up onto sidewalks had a lot more going for them than I realized, until I heard Chuck Marohn, President of Strong Towns, speak in Shreveport, Louisiana (where I live now) in 2015. From his presentation, I learned that in this kind of pedestrian-oriented cityscape, the businesses and the city as a whole do better economically.
A big part of that is the slow speed of traffic through those areas. Car drivers slow down to notice the stores and stop, people on foot feel safer walking from business to business, and the whole structure of downtown spaces generates more tax revenue per acre for the city. The most successful downtowns are implementing design changes in these areas to slow down traffic down and incentivize walking (which was once the standard mode of transportation in historic downtowns), rather than allowing drivers to speed through. We can learn a lot from these examples, so I looked at three towns whose city centers have been redesigned to slow down traffic and create more economically productive places.
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania: The Thrill of Slowing in the Ville
From 2006 to 2012, I lived in the Borough of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, which is about twenty miles west of Philadelphia and is home to Swarthmore College. Affectionately called the Ville, Swarthmore’s population is 6,000+, and its tiny downtown consists of two streets, Chester Road and Park Avenue, on which there are about 25 small businesses — stores, restaurants, local banks, etc. Chester Road’s business row actually resides on a side street that forks to the right from the lane going northbound. The sidestreet is one-lane and one way going north. The sidestreet curves in a U going leftward; at the bottom of the U is a wide sidewalk/platform for the regional railway station where people drop off rail commuters.
When we lived in Swarthmore, a plan was afoot to build an inn on Chester Road/Route 320, which runs north-south. The inn was supposed to have been built when I lived there, but a controversial proposal to have alcohol served in it slowed the process because Swarthmore was a dry town. The Inn’s construction was not approved until 2014.
The Inn at Swarthmore was completed in May 2016 and is located on the southeast border of Swarthmore College's campus on Chester Road, across from Chester’s business row. A restaurant and a campus & community store were built connected to the Inn; the architectural design goal, according to Swarthmore College's website, was for the Inn complex to “serve as a physical and social link between the Borough and the College, promoting collaboration, communication, and opportunities for intellectual engagement involving the entire community.”
The Borough and Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation (Penn DOT) also approved the building of a roundabout to replace the unsafe intersection previously used to get to Chester Road's and Park Avenue's business rows. The roundabout would “provide a new entry to the Borough's retail district [to] enhance the experience for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers” and to provide an entry to the Inn’s parking lot in the back.
In the pre-roundabout days, if you were driving south on Chester Avenue — which is two-lane and bidirectional — to Chester’s business row, you went downhill, under an overpass (on which sits the regional rail station), then uphill. At almost the top of the hill, you turned left and crossed effectively two lanes and then make a left hairpin turn to get to the business row. Often, you had to make the left fast because of heavy, oncoming traffic, and then slowed almost to 5mph to make the hairpin turn onto the side street. Leaving the stores to go back north on Chester was even less safe. You followed the side street’s U-shape until you on the opposite side of the business row; then you had to turn left onto Chester, with cars coming from the north and south and turning left.
The roundabout removed the hair-raising hairpin and left turns. The roundabout slows traffic approaching it from all angles, and drivers make gentle, calm and much safer turns off the roundabout to their destinations. One of the roundabout’s exits takes you to the Inn’s parking in back, which also has drivers finding parking at a leisurely pace. Anyone traveling on Chester Avenue who doesn’t know about the Inn at Swarthmore will see it easily and be able to take it in as they slowly enter the roundabout. They can stop, check out the campus & community store, eat a tasty appetizer in the restaurant, and finally, drink a cold one, too.
Lancaster, California: A Fun, Arty and Safe BLVD
Lancaster is 70 miles north of Los Angeles, located in the high desert of Antelope Valley. After decades of explosive population growth and land annexation, Lancaster’s downtown declined as suburbs and strip malls siphoned residents, retail sales, property value, and tax revenue from it. By the early 2000s, downtown businesses, especially along Lancaster Boulevard (The BLVD) had closed and the district was capturing only 1.5 percent of citywide retail sales. In 2006, the residents and city leaders came together to initiate and then adopt the Downtown Lancaster Specific Plan to develop 140 acres into “a walkable urban core” on and around Lancaster Boulevard (The BLVD) and to revive the downtown. One of the key parts of the Plan was “a form-based code that would regulate the design of buildings and public amenities.”
In 2007, the private sector conceived of a plan to set up an artist community by building affordable residences to, according to a profile on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's website “draw the pioneering spirit of artists to Lancaster's downtown” from within Lancaster and from the Greater Los Angeles area. The result was the Arbor Artist Lofts, a five-story, blue building artists’ apartments, a commercial space on the first floor and a beautiful courtyard for artists to exhibit their works outdoors. The Lofts’ “curvilinear” front architecture made it into a landmark and an architectural and design anchor for The BLVD. As intended, the Lofts attracted artists and the artists exhibited their works outdoors in the courtyard at the front of the building, which attracted crowds of art lovers and more artists. This brought in entrepreneurs, who started stores, restaurants, residential places, and services for diverse populations in eclectic buildings and spaces.
The designing and building of attractive sidewalk businesses and the burgeoning art community by themselves would have helped to slow automobile traffic and make the area more pedestrian-oriented. In 2010, however, the city of Lancaster’s invested nearly $11 million in streetscape improvements along nine blocks of The BLVD that in just eight months transformed it. The road went from being a four-lane, car-dominated urban area into a two-lane, pedestrian-friendly, attractive one. A variety of “traffic calming” measures were implemented including single travel lanes for cars, center-of-street parking (which can be used for other purposes during special events), public plazas, and street trees, which were planted both along the sidewalks and next to the center-of-street parking spaces.
When I was “travelling” down The BLVD on Google Earth to this section, the umbrella-shaded restaurants caught my eye and I admit I stopped my mouse in front of the Kinetic Brewing Co. It turns out, traffic-calming measures will even slow you down when surfing the Internet.
Duluth, Minnesota: Making Duluth’s Downtown Safer for People with Disabilities
Last October, Strong Towns’ Rachel Quednau reported on Strong Towns’ member Ben Garland’s efforts to push the city of Duluth, Minnesota to add safety designs and construction measures to its $34 million downtown reconstruction plan to make the streets safer for pedestrians, especially vulnerable citizens such as children, the elderly, and those who live with disabilities. Ben moved to Duluth after the city had already approved the design of Superior Street, so he worked with the Duluth Commission on Disabilities and other advocacy organizations to draft reasonable, affordable changes that could be added to the approved design. Their four key proposals were:
- Adding raised intersections so pedestrians and people in wheelchairs no longer need to navigate curbs and ramps and will be more visible for drivers;
- Adding raised mid-block crossings (for the same reason as above);
- Using angled curbs to better facilitate wheeled devices and prevent injuries, such as tripping;
- Getting rid of unwarranted left turn lanes to leave more room for sidewalks and narrow the streets.
At the time of Rachel’s article, Ben had collected more than 200 signatures from Duluth residents on his list of proposals to submit to the city council. Duluth News Tribune (DNT) reported last December that Ben ended up collecting more than 430 signatures on his proposals and submitted them to the city government.
According to the DNT article, the city will probably not implement Ben’s first three proposals. Duluth’s Chief Administrative Officer, David Montgomery, said raised intersections and mid-block crossings would dam stormwater that flows down from the avenues that slope downhill to Superior Street. He called moving in curbs and raising intersections "a massive undertaking" since modifications to Superior Street were already planned and doing additional ones would delay the project.
Montgomery said in the DNT article the city was only considering “mid-street crossing from… a paint and signal standpoint.” In an email, Ben Garland explained that Montgomery probably meant the city would paint crosswalk stripes mid-block but would not raise the crossings. Pedestrians who require signalized crossings (such as visually impaired) would need to use the regular 4-way intersections for crossing. Garland said, “Raised speed table crosswalks would make people more visible and improve safety by slowing cars” and he worried mid-block crosswalks only painted with stripes might not be visible to drivers. Ben is also concerned that Superior Street’s 30 mph speed limit will result in drivers traveling too fast and failing to see or slow down for people in wheelchairs, even with striped crosswalks.
Ben’s proposal of removing center left-turn lanes is likely to be used, at least for a two-block section of Superior Street where part of the “Historic Arts and Theatre” (HART) district is located. Duluth City Councilman Joel Sipress told me that because the modifications to HART will happen later in the design process, it would be easier to add in Ben’s idea. Sipress said all the angled parking spaces in HART will be eliminated, a measure from the original plan. The removal of the center left-turn lanes and the angled parking spaces will widen sidewalk space to accommodate the many pedestrians who frequent HART.
Ben will continue to work with Duluth’s City Council and Mayor to make Superior Street and other roads in Duluth safer for pedestrians and persons with disabilities.
These three urban areas have implemented (or are planning to implement) a range of changes that slow down traffic and help make the areas safe, convenient and enjoyable for pedestrians. The evidence shows we need to change our towns’ car-oriented designs to people-oriented ones if we want our communities to be economically successful. To start that change, we simply need to note what we like and don’t like about our downtowns, share that with friends and act on it, like Ben did in Duluth. Let’s get started.
About the Author
Jennifer Hill grew up grew up overseas and in the Washington, DC area as the daughter of a diplomat. She has loved to write since she could write, so of course she double-majored in International Relations and English in college. After graduating from University of California at Davis, she lived in different parts of the United States and worked in a variety of economic sectors and industries (marketing for high-tech companies, teaching undergraduates academic writing, fundraising and marketing for non-profits). In 1996, she earned an MA in Russian Studies from Georgetown University. It was when she pursued a Masters in Public Administration from University of Pennsylvania that she began to learn about urban planning and city infrastructure issues. After earning her MPA in 2012, Jennifer moved to Shreveport when her husband was hired as a political science professor at Centenary College of Louisiana.