Three Reasons to Free Streets From Cars

As Syracuse plans to reserve more of its streets for buses, bikers, and people on foot, it’s important to be clear about why that’s a good idea. There are at least three different reasons to keep cars off a city street.

To make an intersection safer

Intersections where lots of streets meet at odd angles can be hard to navigate. All the different traffic lights are confusing, and it’s hard to time them well. Traffic backs up, and no one’s sure when they’re supposed to go. People get frustrated, and that’s dangerous when so many of them are operating 2-ton steel motor vehicles.

Sometimes, cities can make these kinds of intersections simpler—and safer—by closing part of a street to car traffic. That’s what New York City did at Times Square, it’s what Boston has proposed for Kenmore Square, and it’s what Syracuse has done at Onondaga Circle, Columbus Circle, and is planning to do at Butternut Circle.

To create a destination

New York City’s Times Square redo also created a brand new public space in the middle of Manhattan—a place where people came to hang out, rest, and enjoy the city.

Plenty of other cities have closed small sections of central streets to create similar destinations: Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, Ithaca’s Commons, Boston’s Faneuil Hall. These ‘pedestrian malls’ are all at the center of their Downtowns—they’re all designed to draw people from across the metropolitan area, to act as commercial/cultural hubs for their regions.

But many tried to do this and failed. For every Ithaca Commons there’s a lifeless Buffalo Main Street. Arian Horbovetz recently argued that pedestrian malls are likely to fail in smaller cities, and that traffic calming is a better option. The reason is that, in Upstate’s car-dominated cities, most people could only reach these car-free destinations by car. Pedestrian malls will only work when people can walk, or bike, or bus to them.

To make it easier to get around

Cities can make it a lot easier for people to walk, bike, or bus by setting aside entire streets for those means of transportation. That was the idea behind taking cars off 14th Street in New York City and Market Street in San Francisco—buses running on those streets are now free from car traffic, and bikers on those streets don’t have to worry about getting run over anymore.

Syracuse can do the same. It was built to house and move a much higher mid-century population, and now it’s got plenty of extra streets that cars don’t need. Already, Onondaga Creek Boulevard is just for bikes and walkers. City Hall should do the same thing on Water Street between Erie Boulevard and Townsend Street, creating a safe, convenient, flat connection between Downtown and the Eastside.

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The good news is that Syracuse doesn’t have to pick just one of these reasons for keeping cars off some of its streets. Simplifying an intersection can create a new public square where people can sit and enjoy the city. Turning a regular street into a bikeway can bring more people to a city’s public squares. Reserving one street for buses can simplify a whole bunch of intersections. All of these different reasons can work together to create a safer, simpler, happier city.