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Cars bunched up on a downtown street with buildings on either side.

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Should Boston ban cars from its downtown?

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds

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In mid-October, San Francisco transit officials moved to ban cars along that city’s busy Market Street from near the shoreline to more than two miles inland.

The change was years in the making, with activists and elected pols pushing to prioritize safety on a drag where 500,000 people walk daily and 650 cyclists ride bikes every hour during peak commutes.

Not surprisingly, then, the decision to ban cars—save emergency vehicles or commercial deliveries—by 2025 arrived this fall, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “with undiluted support from just about everyone: bicycle activists, politicians, city bureaucrats, parents, health care workers, business owners, ride-hail companies, and Mayor London Breed.”

No other major American city has taken such a giant leap in terms of permanently closing such a large portion of its downtown to vehicular traffic. What if Boston did the same thing?

Such a move would help Boston meet its own stated goals of eliminating pedestrian deaths and reducing pollution so much as to render the city carbon-neutral by 2050—never mind that, contrary to some concerns, the evidence suggests that banning cars downtown would not necessarily hurt businesses there.

Plus, Boston has been a municipal first in the U.S. in many ways—first public park, first public school, first public library (there’s even talk of first free public transit system). So what about first to ban cars in its downtown?

“Even more vibrant”

It’s not such a leap. The city has already closed or is planning to close swathes both big and small, and has cordoned off major thoroughfares on a temporary, rotating basis.

Perhaps the most notable and most popular temporary closure was that of Back Bay’s Newbury Street on Sundays the past four summers. The closures turned the famed shopping drag into one big pedestrian plaza during the daytime, complete with copious outdoor seating and dining.

People walking on a closed city street in sunny weather.
The first Open Newbury Street in August 2016 drew pedestrians on to the famed Back Bay drag.
Getty Images

There has also been what the city called Open Canal Street in the West End in 2017, and Open Charles Street in Beacon Hill just this past September.

As for more permanent closures, the city announced in late September that it would close Roslindale’s Birch Street to vehicular traffic after testing the idea in the spring.

The Birch Street closure falls under the city’s so-called tactical realm guidelines, which allows residents, businesses, and groups to propose street closures and other public-space repurposing ideas and to work with the city in implementing them. The Tontine Crescent, a closed bit of Franklin Street in downtown, was also done under the tactical realm guidelines. The closure of a turning lane on Harrison Street in Chinatown is another example.

As of early November, there were no additional pedestrian plazas planned in Boston, according to city officials, but, in announcing Rozzie’s Birch Street closure, Mayor Marty Walsh hinted that that could change. “This project will make Roslindale Village even more vibrant, and we look forward to similarly transforming more street space at locations throughout our neighborhoods,” Walsh said.

The same officials, too, said that the city was open to suggestions regarding additional pedestrian plazas.

Shopping ideas

Aerial view of a busy intersection, with cars and pedestrians, in the early 1970s.
Washington and Summer streets on Christmas Eve 1973, five years before Downtown Crossing was closed to vehicular traffic.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

The biggest example of Boston street closures, of course, predates the Walsh administration by decades. That would be Downtown Crossing, which was born of a 1978 move to start cordoning off sections of a retail-heavy portion of downtown.

Today, the closed-off portion is bordered by Washington Street, from Temple Place to Milk Street; Winter Street, from Tremont Street to Summer Street; and Bromfield Street, from Washington to Province Street.

The move—which basically created what we call Downtown Crossing wholecloth from a portion of what was just “downtown”—was initially a smash hit, just as planners intended. It made the area the most popular retail shopping destination in the Boston region at that time, according to the Boston Redevelopment Agency, the precursor to the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

By the late 1980s, though, Downtown Crossing was losing that status to other retail hubs such as Copley Place and CambridgeSide Galleria. As the new century progressed, there was even talk of opening the area to vehicular traffic again. By 2011, with the closure of the popular Filene’s Basement, Downtown Crossing’s success as a shopping district seemed to be over.

A similar fate befell Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which had reopened in the 1970s after an extensive renovation and after streets around it were closed to traffic. It went from being one of the nation’s most popular tourist attractions to one that struggled to draw visitors proportional to its prime location, along the Freedom Trail and next to Faneuil Hall.

Then things began to turn around for both areas.

In Downtown Crossing, the 685-foot Millennium Tower filled the Filene’s Basement site in 2016, introducing hundreds of condo owners to the area. A Roche Bros. opened. A general economic boom lifted foot traffic as well as the number of commuters exiting the Red and Orange line stations. On a typical day this past September, nearly 45,000 people passed by the intersection of Washington and Summer streets in Downtown Crossing, according to the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District.

The economic boom has benefited Faneuil Hall Marketplace, too. The square, which includes Quincy Market, drew 20 million visitors last year, up from 16 million just two years before, according to Manhattan-based owner and operator Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation.

That’s still down from its earliest years, when as many as 32 million people annually milled about the marketplace, but the durability of both Faneuil Hall Marketplace and especially Downtown Crossing show that closing swathes of Boston streets to traffic need not sound a death knell for business activity.

A larger consideration

A bus in a bus lane on a busy city street. Courtesy of New York City Department of Transportation

In early October, New York City launched a controversial ban on most cars and trucks along Manhattan’s 14th Street, one of the megalopolis’ major crosstown thoroughfares. The move was not necessarily meant to benefit pedestrians and cyclists, but rather to speed up the corridor’s notoriously slow bus service.

By that measure, New York’s 14th Street closure was “a runaway success,” according to one analyst. The closure in some cases has halved commute times for bus riders, and it has also had the unintended effect of making shoppers and other pedestrians along the drag feel safer. The city might make other streetscape changes based on 14th Street’s success.

Stacy Thompson, executive director of Boston nonprofit Livable Streets Alliance, was on 14th Street shortly after the closure. She said she liked what she saw and thinks New York’s move could serve as a model for Boston in considering what the city should be doing with its downtown streets. That can include street closures, but other things as well—including a busway like that along Manhattan’s 14th Street.

“I think that the higher-level message is that there is a growing movement to rethink our streets and make them work better for people,” Thompson said. “What that means is sometimes something like Downtown Crossing. But that’s a different use than, let’s say, converting an entire corridor to transit priority.”

Downtown businesses could be supportive of such a rethinking. The Downtown Boston BID, a nonprofit that area businesses fund, is in talks with the city on reconstruction of the Downtown Crossing streets that are part of the pedestrian zone—with a particular emphasis on Winter and Washington streets—as well as on making regulations for the zone clearer, including those surrounding unloading and loading of commercial vehicles, the city said.

The request for proposals for that redesign will come in January 2020. The BID will review the RFP before it’s issued, the city said.

For its part, the BID wants to emphasize making the streets safer and merchants more easily approachable, according to Anita Lauricella, the organization’s senior planner and project manager.

“We want the pedestrian zone that we have to be the safest it can be,” she said. “And we want it to be welcoming and we want it to be beautiful.”

Whether that pedestrian zone expands to encompass all of downtown Boston remains to be seen. But it is definitely a question Boston should be asking itself, especially as other cities now take bolder steps in reimagining their streets for the rest of the century. Stay tuned.

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