Six reasons for the resurgence of car-free shopping streets


A compelling car-free shopping street


Following the rise of mall culture in the mid-20th century, many of America’s Main Street shopping streets and districts withered, replaced by the big-box retailers whose stores required space only the suburbs could provide. With the return to traditional walkable places and new mixed-use suburban developments, car-free shopping streets have witnessed a resurgence, thanks to the following trends and benefits. Call it a reboot whose time has come or an improvement on an old idea, either way these new shopping avenues demonstrate a street’s ability to support prosperous retail, especially when the pedestrian is prioritized over the automobile.

1. The suburbs, they are a changing. Shopping malls arrived on the scene when people and jobs migrated to the suburbs. But now, walkable places have become more desirable and people are looking for additional retail options in the places where they already live, work, and play. Car-free shopping streets offer just that.

Outdoor shopping brings additional amenities to a neighborhood and shopping streets provide added retail settings that can harness a thoroughfare’s pre-existing foot traffic. Moreover, if the shopping avenue is well integrated into a street network with multiple transit options, it has an increased potential to capture additional customers.

2. Size (and scale) matters. Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long. Their more intimate settings offer retail on a human scale, with sufficient points of interest, and places to linger, encouraging customers to browse at their own pace and make connections with shop proprietors.


Source: Liberties Walk. Philadelphia, PA

3. Flexibility, part I: pedestrian does not necessarily exclude the automobile. There are many varieties of car-free shopping streets. Shared Streets are designed for both people and cars. The street may be closed to automobile use at certain times or days. Shared streets employ design techniques that slow cars down to protect the pedestrians present and make them feel more comfortable. These designs include wider sidewalks, the removal of curbs, reduction of speed limits, and the addition of extra streetlights, stop signs, and crosswalks. Pennoyer Street in Portland, OR and Palmer Street in Cambridge, MA provide examples of these design principle in practice. Intermittent Streets are regular streets that are closed to automobile traffic at certain times – evenings, weekends, and special events. For instance, Ellsworth Drive, in Silver Spring, MD closes to traffic on evenings and weekends. True Pedestrian Streets primarily provide access to only people—they vary in scale from alleys and passageways to more traditional streets. A good example is Palmer Alley in Washington, DC. These different configurations reject the one-size fits all model and maximize a street’s function.



Source: BBB. Ellsworth Drive. Silver Spring, MD

4. Flexibility, part II: public, private, or both. Many car-free shopping streets are privately owned and operated, sometimes as part of a larger development project. Bethesda Lane, the addition to Bethesda Row in Bethesda, MD offers a successful example of a private development. Cities and towns can also leverage their public space – including streets and parks – to attract customers to the privately-owned business that front them. This sort of flexibility allows a range of stakeholders to partake in the success of a car-free shopping street.


Source: Bethesda Magazine. Bethesda Lane. Bethesda, MD

5. Car-free shopping streets create a new market choice for retail activity. Car-free shopping streets respond to market trends for additional places to shop. Developers are looking to provide different shopping environments for retailers and customers alike. City planners have also developed strategies to activate retail along existing streets, lanes, and alleys, so there’s no need to build from scratch. Winthrope Street in Cambridge, MA became an intermittent street after its popularity took off once it was designated a planned shared street.

untitledSource: Cara Seiderman, City of Cambridge

6. It’s all about the experience. Car-free shopping streets provide an added experience to walkable places. The smaller street offers a more intimate and inviting feeling. Both interesting and inviting, they are far removed from bland commercialism and offer a unique way to enjoy a walk outdoors. With their pop-up shops, al fresco dining, and repurposed spaces, these car-free shopping streets put a modern twist on an ancient concept.