September 27, 2006

‘Boston’s love/hate for cars?’ Oh, please

Incredibly, author David Kruh compares the soul-less concrete wasteland of City Hall Plaza with the North End's pedestrian-packed Hanover Street. In today's Boston Globe, he writes: "As we look around the city at our experiments with auto-less streets (not just City Hall Plaza, but the mess that is Downtown Crossing) even the most anticar, pro-pedestrian advocate has to wonder if we are, once again, reacting with our gut instead of accepting how Boston actually lives, works, and plays."

Um, no.

Every streetscape,  as well as street, has its own characteristics that make it succeed or fail as a traffic route and pedestrian draw. Comparing poorly designed City Hall Plaza (where an existing neighborhood was razed and hideous "modern" architecture deposited where it didn't belong) with Hanover Street is like comparing Route 9 with Newbury Street and expecting the exact same outcome if cars were banned.

I doubt you could draw many pedestrians to the Golden Triangle even if cars were banned, unless building siting, architectures and facades were substantially changed. On Newbury Street, though, pedestrians would naturally fill in the added space. That's because Newbury Street is already a great walking environment.

Kruh, who has written two books about Scollay Square, is certainly correct that City Hall Plaza was an experiment gone awry. But that's not because it's a chunk of space where cars don't go; it's because of a terrible design. Nearby Boston Commons and the Public Garden work very well as spaces where cars can't drive through.

In fact, Hanover Street is already a major pedestrian draw. I doubt banning cars will make it less so; instead, it would give pedestrians more space to walk and sit outdoors. The idea here isn't to create another City Hall Plaza by wrecking the existing neighborhood!

Given the local climate, walkers probably don't need the extra space from, say, November through February or March, and it's certainly realistic to argue that during the worst New England weather, it might be more beneficial for suburbanites to be able to drive close to their destinations than it would be to keep the street empty for people who won't want to linger outdoors on foot. But once the weather gets nice, a pedestrian plaza on Hanover Street will improve an already great streetscape that's a proven pedestrian magnet.


  1. Maybe, now that the city councilor who made the Hanover Street proposal has all but abandoned the idea, but I wanted to reply to the thoughtful response that was posted in reply to my column.

    My point was no so much to compare Hanover Street with the Plaza - certainly there is nothing with which we can truly compare City Hall Plaza, and thank God for that - but to make the historical point that public opinion tends to swing wildly pro- and anti-car, and that we shouldn't be so quick to ban cars from a street that is so vibrant and so alive with their presence.

    Yes, Hanover Street is already a major pedestrian draw, but once you take away the cars and trucks, are we certain that the quality of life along the street would improve? That was my point about downtown crossing - another anti-traffic experiment that failed.

    Finally, the writer makes an excellent point about the weather which I failed to include in my original piece. The cold weather is a deterrent to walking for at least three - usually four months - out of the year. Banning cars would therefore, I would argue, have a negative effect on the neighborhood for for 1 out of 3 months every year.


  2. I'm not familiar with Hanover Street, but I might weigh in that I tend to agree with David using the old adage - if it's not broke, then don't fix it. The scale of building heights to street width and activities on the street need to be absolutely perfect and in balance for pedestrian streets to work. Most of the time, right-of-ways are too wide in America for pedestrians to feel comfortable as the only "mode" on the street. Although, there are cities where it works well in Europe, Asia, and Australia that I've visited.

    It's a dangerous risk to take considering the long list of failed pedestrian-only streets here in the US. My town of Sacramento has a few, but to be fair, one of them has a light-rail line going through it. If there was actually street traffic filling in the space in the middle, I think people would be hailing it as a wildly successful street, because there are certainly many pedestrians using the street. It just seems empty during the day. It is pretty dead at night.

    I have been to City Hall Plaza before in Boston. One of the big reasons I was not enamored with much of the downtown. Boston does have many great streets in various parts of the city though.