The Market Wants Walkable Streets

Business coalitions, notably the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, believe streets designed for people rather than cars are good for the bottom line

“Car free” walkable streets have become a popular feature of cities in recent decades, executed to various degrees of scale and stringency. They’re generally seen as pet projects for urban planners and public officials—something “the government does.”

But market forces have increasingly joined the momentum, with prominent companies, business coalitions, and well-heeled residents looking to beautify their neighborhoods. Conversely, it is central planning—namely state DOTs—that often inhibit the conversion. New York City has seen one recent groundswell for this private sector momentum.

TimeOut reports that a business coalition, the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, is advancing plans to reduce car traffic in and beautify much of downtown Brooklyn. The neighborhood has grown substantially, adding over 10,000 residents last decade and growing employment by 16%. High-rise residential construction is happening rapidly due to zoning changes that finally allowed it. The borough as a whole has grown to rival Chicago in population. Downtown is a perfect candidate for this conversion: the neighborhood is compact and has excellent transit access.

But many of downtown Brooklyn’s streets remain auto-oriented and thus dangerous to pedestrians; major thoroughfares such as the Flatbush Avenue Extension basically resemble highways. One major intersection adjacent to the Barclays Center that is a de facto entrance to downtown is very difficult to traverse on foot, due to its sheer size. 

The DBP plan, dubbed the Public Realm Action Plan, is a continuation of proposals first put forward in late 2019, which, according to CityLab, called for a “shared streets” approach where space is devoted to bike and bus access along with cars. The more recent plan would make nearly 20 streets car-free, while widening sidewalks, increasing pocket park space, and reconfiguring the bus network for more reliable service.

“Our membership has come to understand that to be competitive, we [also] have to be a great walkable downtown,” DBP president Regina Myer said

Various other local business coalitions have also called for car-free or pedestrian-oriented street retrofits in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, SoHo and the Flatiron District. And over the last two years, businesses such as restaurants lobbied to move to an outdoor seating model that required taking city curb space currently used for cars. 

All these examples are another indication of private interests recognizing the market benefits of reducing road space for cars. In September, I reported on plans by a Northern Virginia business consortium led by Amazon to improve walkability in the area near its new HQ2. There have also been examples in Miami and Denver. The tradeoff these coalitions are making is to slightly reduce car accessibility into their shopping districts, in exchange for the enhanced property values and greater customer draw that come from having safe, attractive streets.

But often, the plans are frustrated by rules that mandate certain design features, to meet the goal of high auto throughput. I’ve covered several of these for Catalyst in the past, including off-road criteria like minimum parking requirements and use separation. But roads themselves are expected by local or state DOTs to have certain widths or designs to ensure “level of service.” In effect, this metric is generally based on the ability of vehicles to traverse a road over a given time period, thus making car traffic the dominant consideration. As Angie Schmitt writes for Streetsblog, if the top priority is to move cars—and not, say, to improve public safety or economic well-being—the result is a transportation system that will move a lot of cars while failing at almost everything else.”

There has been some legislative action to slow road speeds and widths, and reform the auto throughput model. There is quite a lot of grassroots activism, too, calling to return control of city streets to people who live around them. Market actors have contributed to this activism, calling for streets that are safer, quieter, more attractive, and better for local air quality. Because it turns out all those things are better for business, too. 

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Ethan Finlan.