A Tale of Two Car-Free Cities
 
 
Billy drove through a scene of even greater desolation.  It looked like Dresden after it was fire-bombed -- like the surface of the moon.  The house where Billy had grown up used to be somewhere in what was so empty now.  This was urban renewal.  A new Ilium Government Center and a Pavilion of the Arts and a Peace Lagoon and high-rise apartment buildings were going up here soon.
That was all right with Billy Pilgrim.
-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5

 

November 3, 1977, was a bleak day for downtown Raleigh, North Carolina: Community leaders gathered in the rain to dedicate the new Fayetteville Street Mall, a central street that was re-worked to exclude cars and welcome pedestrians. (1)  The Raleigh News & Observer over-hyped the project, boldly proclaiming "Downtown mall reflecting changes," "Downtown merchants anticipate gradual gains," "Mall pedestrian traffic is gaining momentum," "Party for mall shone in rain," and "Long dream comes true on the mall." Unfortunately, Raleigh's urban renewal honeymoon didn't last long, because a few months later headlines were notably less chipper: "Wanted: Downtown tenant," "Extra police patrols downtown requested," "Downtown crime haunts businessman," "Litter, vandals hit mall," and so on. (2)  Raleigh's foray into city revitalization was a spectacular failure, but it wasn't alone as about 85% of 200+ pedestrian malls in the US during that time also failed. (3)

pedestrians swarm to the new Fayetteville Street Mall in 1978 (photo credit: Goodnight Raleigh)

pedestrians swarm to the new Fayetteville Street Mall in 1978 (photo credit: Goodnight Raleigh)

Fast forward to 2000, when I arrived at NC State University as an undergraduate freshman.  Despite the school's close proximity to downtown Raleigh, people avoided it like the plague.  Apart from a handful of brave restaurants, museums, and shops, there was little to do in this once-bustling capital city.  Besides, downtown Raleigh had developed an unfortunate aura of urban decay common to downtowns of that era.  Downtown redevelopment eventually gained traction and in 2003 community leaders once again gathered downtown at Fayetteville Street Mall, but this time to re-open the street to cars.  With the exception of a few minor design changes, the pre-1977 road and its vehicles reigned again.

 
picturesque morning in downtown Ljubljana

picturesque morning in downtown Ljubljana

As downtown Raleigh re-opened its downtown core to cars, on the other side of the world cities were doing the opposite.  Cities all over Europe were closing off or limiting downtowns to cars which proved to be bold yet successful moves.  The most notable of these is the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana, which closed its core downtown to cars in 2007 and was named the European Green Capital of 2016.  Ljubljana is a medium-sized city (272,000 population versus Raleigh's 432,000) packed with a rich history, beautiful buildings, and friendly people.  Having been lucky enough to recently visit this amazing place, as well as being a huge fan of planning-for-people advocate Jane Jacobs, I asked myself, "How has Ljubjlana's car-free downtown excelled where Raleigh failed?"  In thinking about both situations, I compiled a list of five factors that make for successful car-free zones, including lessons learned from Raleigh and Ljubljana.  For more information on Ljubljana's green features, check out two great articles here and here.  A good article on pedestrian malls is here.

 

 

FIVE WAYS TO CREATE successful car-free zones

  • Retain unique (and historic) elements in the urban center.  Many cities get caught up in urban planning buzzwords and cookie-cutter projects that don't take into account what makes a place special and attractive to people.  In 1960s Raleigh, blocks of old buildings had been cleared for awkward high rise buildings, massive parking decks or lots, and a short-lived convention center.  In Ljubljana, although the tram system was abolished in 1959 in favor of cars (there has been recent talk of resurrecting it), buildings and features in the 1800s-era historic center remained mostly intact and there were no signs of massive "urban renewal." (Come to think of it, urban renewal may not have been in issue in Europe as it was in the US.)  As Jane Jacobs aptly noted, "New ideas must use old buildings," and study after study proves that people are drawn to human-scale historic buildings and elements.

  • Have a clear purpose and support for the change.  While people may say one thing, getting them to act on it is another story, a story that goes by the name of attitude-behavior gap.  While many Raleigh citizens in the 1970s stated that they wanted to revitalize downtown and property owners even paid an assessment to develop the pedestrian mall, getting people to physically go downtown and be pedestrians was quite the challenge. (4)  I imagine this was because there was no clear purpose or draw of the pedestrian mall, unlike Ljubljana, whose goal was to "focus on sustainable urban planning while also meeting the real needs of [the community]." (5)  Ljubljana's citizens wanted a more sustainable city and urban planners responded accordingly, creating a city with simple green features citizens would use and support.  If people were already going or living downtown, why not make the experience better (and greener) by creating people-oriented spaces with cleaner air and less noise?

  • Build on people's behaviors.  Generally speaking, European cities have stable downtowns.  Sprawl isn't much of an issue because local governments have strict land development policies and people pay higher gas prices (aka, closer to the true, non-subsidized cost of gas).  Mass consumerism in the form of suburban big box stores is not the cornerstone of shopping (although Sweden IS the birthplace of IKEA).  With these factors in mind, Europeans are accustomed to going downtown for shopping, working, dining, or simply people watching, and most of these visitors walk, bike, or use public transit to get there.  Therefore, when Ljubljana closed off its downtown from cars, it didn't require a huge shift in locals' behaviors; instead, it encouraged more pedestrian behavior.  And although I wasn't in Slovenia when the change occurred, I can't imagine there being much of an outcry about "lost parking" and/or "having to walk a few blocks" like there would be in the US.  So, the failure of US pedestrian malls gives credence to the adage, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink."

  • Employ the "strategy of convenience."  Similar to the previous point, creating a car-free zone that people embrace involves making the transition as organic and easy as possible.  One of my favorite authors, Gretchen Rubin, discusses the strategy of convenience in regards to forming healthy personal habits, a strategy that is also applicable to urban planning.  Essentially, the strategy of convenience says that people tend to do things if they are easy.  In the situation of Raleigh vs Ljubjlana, in the 1970s growth in "Sprawleigh" favored cars with lots of rural subdivisions and suburban shopping centers, so it was much easier to get in the car and head to the mall than it was to plan a trip to the pedestrian mall with few shops and even fewer opportunities to people-watch.  In Ljubljana, people were already going downtown, so nothing much changed in that regard.  What did change was providing for the people that saw the car-free zone as a barrier, people such as the elderly, disabled, tourists, and parents with children who now have the option of using the small electric Kavalir taxi service for free.  Planners even accommodated people accustomed to arriving downtown by car, as parking options include an underground garages by the car-free area and park-and-rides with a return bus ticket included in the price.  Even cyclists were accommodated by being allowed to ride slowly (instead of dismounting and walking) in the center.  (It is worth noting that the city makes cycling extremely easy in Ljubljana, with many protected bike lanes and a bike share program that costs about $3 a year and is connected to library and transit services.)

  • Eliminate conflicting policies and development.  Easier said than done, right?  While US pedestrian malls of the 60s and 70s were intended to "revitalize" struggling downtowns, erecting some bollards and hoping for the best clearly wasn't an effective way to do this.  If Raleigh and other cities were serious about drawing people back downtown, local governments would first have looked at what was taking the people from downtowns and make changes there.  In the mid-1900s, the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 had pumped billions of dollars into car-oriented infrastructure, which, paired with racially-biased real estate lending practices, cheap land, affordable cars, subsequent white flight, and the push to suburbanize shopping, was a recipe for ghost towns.  Expecting downtown businesses to go up against all of that and succeed is nonsensical.  (Unfortunately, I have found this way of thinking to still be true in the US.  For example, when I opened a retail shop in a small, struggling downtown in 2012, I remember the town's "economic director" boasting to me about how he got insurance behemoth Liberty Mutual to build a huge campus miles out of town on a greenfield site, exempting the company from taxes for years as a reward.  Not only were there no such "perks" for opening my small business or renovating an eyesore of a building, but had those thousands of Liberty Mutual employees been located in the near-empty downtown, I probably would have had enough foot traffic so I didn't have to close in less than a year due to sluggish sales.)  

 

Ultimately, creating successful car-free, people-friendly spaces is about understanding people's unique behaviors and tailoring development to them.  Paired with the basic elements of good urban areas (diverse uses, steady foot traffic, people watching opportunities, physical safety, and human-scale development), cities like Ljubljana set themselves up for success when they thoughtfully plan for spaces that people will love.

 

Scenes from Green Ljubljana

 

Footnotes/sources
1.  https://www.raleighnc.gov/government/content/PubAffairs/Articles/Historic.html
2. http://statelibrarync.org/noi/search/search?q=fayetteville+street+mall&yt0=
3. http://www.governing.com/columns/urban-notebook/trouble-with-pedestrian-malls.html
4. http://nacto.org/docs/usdg/revisiting_pedestrian_malls_scmidt.pdf
5. http://www.pirancafe.com/2016/03/23/how-ljubljana-became-2016-european-green-capital/