The COVID pandemic was particularly merciless to Sarah’s business, a small family-owned winery located on a busy street in a historic district outside of Denver, Colorado. Months of stay-at-home orders and indoor dining restrictions had slashed sales and pushed the winery to the brink, forcing Sarah to begin the bankruptcy process. It was at this point that municipal officials informed her of the city’s plan to implement an emergency pedestrian street program in her downtown district, a plan which involved barricading the street to restrict cars and dedicating the roadway to pedestrians. The pedestrian street program was meant to attract additional foot traffic to the area to offer lockdown-fatigued people public space to be outside at an appropriate social distance, while also providing a boost to ailing businesses.
When I spoke with her, almost a year after the pedestrian street installation, Sarah told me that the program had saved her business. She had been encouraged to set up outdoor seating in the newly available street space, which allowed her to serve customers on-site for the first time in months and in turn helped to generate the necessary revenue to weather the pandemic. She told me that she hopes the pedestrian street becomes a year-round, permanent fixture, recounting fond winter memories of customers sipping mulled wines around fire pits as they watched the snowfall gently blanket the pedestrian street.
Sarah is one of 38 business owners from across the United States that I interviewed who operated along a COVID pedestrian street as part of my graduate research. Pedestrian streets like these were implemented all over the country in an attempt to bolster a restaurant industry that had suffered losses of $240 billion in 2020 revenue (National Restaurant Association), as well as to galvanize retail foot traffic, which had dropped to 30 percent below regular levels during the pandemic (RetailNext). By my extensive research, I recorded and mapped out a total of 108 fully car-free pedestrian streets that were implemented in the United States during the pandemic (see Figure 1). I selected interviewees carefully, speaking with those from a variety of business types, city sizes, geographic regions, and winter climates to ensure that I spoke with business owners who experienced a wide variety of circumstances during the COVID pandemic.
Figure 1: Map of COVID pedestrian street programs in the United States
Evidence from my interviews indicates that pedestrian streets are indeed capable of (1) fostering economic vitality by boosting downtown business and revitalizing struggling urban commercial zones, (2) advancing social equity by providing livable public spaces, high-quality commerce, and increased employment in downtown areas, and (3) improving quality of life by creating beautiful car-free people-scaled public spaces that are accessible for everyone to enjoy.
Fostering Economic Vitality
Overall, the majority of my interviewees approved of their pedestrian street, commending their local program for the benefits that it brought to their businesses. The most enthusiastic supporters were restaurant owners, who especially appreciated the added outdoor seating. I encountered some opponents and doubters of pedestrian streets who felt that restaurants were unfairly benefited because other business types (retailers, service providers, etc.) could not utilize the street space in the same way. However, the majority of non-restaurant business types that I interviewed approved of the pedestrian streets, believing that their business enjoyed a synergistic relationship with nearby restaurants. Open-air dining brought more people to the area, who in turn visited and supported other businesses.
Advancing Social Equity
The initial shock of the pandemic hit urban areas the fastest and hardest (Peterson Center on Healthcare), and with more than a third of Americans living further than a 10-minute walk from a park (Brookings), pedestrian streets were an important strategy for providing walkable spaces for locked down urban dwellers. Many of those that I interviewed were pleased to report a dramatic uptick in the number of pedestrians on their downtown street due to the program, evidence that pedestrian streets can provide walkable areas to those who need them most.
Additionally, pedestrian streets have the potential to offer increased economic opportunity to those living in downtown areas. My analysis of pedestrian street patterns with census data revealed that those living near these pedestrian streets earn 11 percent less than the respective county average income, demonstrating that pedestrian streets can be an equity-increasing tool to benefit those of lower income through improved economic conditions and increased employment opportunities.
Improving Quality of Life
The newly enhanced aesthetics of the car-free streets were a valuable asset to downtown areas. A downtown street in Southern California morphed from a freeway congestion bypass into a vibrant commercial zone. A historical district in the Mountain West, once afflicted by clogged intersections, long lines of cars, honking horns, and vehicle exhaust, now enjoyed far quieter streets, cleaner air, and open spaces for students at the nearby institute to take breaks between classes. Business owners compared the increased foot traffic, open air dining, intimate storefronts, and overall atmosphere of the street to those found in Europe. When I asked about how business patrons perceived the pedestrian street, the answer was nearly always enthusiastic and positive. These COVID-induced pedestrian streets created human-scaled public spaces that were accessible to all, benefiting users with quiet, livable public spaces, demonstrating that urban streets can be used for so much more than the through movement of automobiles.
I believe that these pedestrian streets represent more than just a passing trend; they are a signal that cities are beginning to reconsider the way they utilize valuable urban street space and present an opportunity to implement thriving permanent pedestrian spaces in the post-pandemic future. Originally implemented as emergency measures to save struggling downtown businesses, their acclamation from patrons and businesses alike shows us that they can be much more than that: a valuable planning tool that can aid us in creating a brighter post-COVID future.