October 11, 2005

When Boosting Traffic Flow Kills Off Your Downtown: West Palm Beach

"In the 1980s, community leaders in West Palm Beach, Florida, did everything they could to promote a high level of service for motor vehicles," the Active Living Resource Center notes in a short case study. "The result? Cars sped through the downtown area without stopping. People with a choice moved out and businesses closed. Vacant buildings and lots became a hotbed for drug dealing and prostitution."

City planners had taken actions like widening lanes for cars by narrowing sidewalks and eliminating on-street parking, as well as synchronizing traffic lights to speed traffic through downtown. Great for creating traffic sewers; not so great for creating a sense of place where people want to come, stroll, shop and linger.

It's a classic mistake of downtown revitalization: After looking at what helps suburban malls succeed, local officials think that designing easy-as-possible access, optimal traffic flow and maximum parking will help a neighborhood business district. But downtown business centers can NEVER compete with suburban malls in those areas. Instead, such actions help destroy downtowns' chief asset, a pedestrian-friendly sense of place. After years of decay, West Palm Beach planners finally understood that.

Over time, a new vision for West Palm Beach emerged, one that recognized that thriving cities are built for people. The city narrowed its streets to slow the traffic, widened sidewalks, and added amenities for pedestrians. Businesses returned, and private investment increased. Residents began to choose to come back into the downtown area.

West Palm Beach now has a thriving downtown and is considered a desirable place to live, work, and shop.

"The City of West Palm Beach has adopted an innovative approach to transportation planning, with an emphasis on traffic calming. This has helped stabilize and revive the downtown and several older, challenged neighborhoods. The intent is to reestablish the quality of life and improve resident and visitor perception of the built environment," says a presentation posted on the U.S. Conference of Mayors Web site, one of several traffic safety best practices. I love this quote from Mayor Graham:

Urban streets can be safe and friendly if and only if the streets are designed to physically and emotionally foster apt behavior by all their users. Conventional engineering theories be damned, the true test of success for urban streets is if a child pedestrian can independently get there from here safely and pleasantly. Unfortunately, most urban streets fail by design.

This is an important cautionary tale as Framingham officials begin investigating the possibility of depressing Rte. 126 under the railroad tracks downtown.

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