City Centers Thrive Without Cars

I’ve just returned from a trip abroad (Scotland & Ireland) and am having familiar thoughts: why do other countries seem to get things about urban design that America just doesn’t?

Okay, so looking around a bit while on vacation isn’t exactly a scientific way to evaluate the relatively quality of urban planning, but it’s not nothing either. Whenever I’m abroad, I sure get the feeling that European cities and towns understand that moving cars around is not an important priority for a vibrant urban center. Just the opposite.

Pedestrian Zones

Nearly every (every?) major city and many, many smaller cities and towns have pedestrian zones in the downtown shopping areas (and elsewhere). For example, the Royal Mile in Edinburgh is the historic (like, way-back) main drag in the city center, connecting a castle on one end to a palace on the other. My (possibly flawed) memory says that last I was there, most of it was open to car traffic. This time, significant chunks were pedestrianized:

Pedestrianized portion of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh

And even where cars were allowed on the Mile itself, they did not seem prioritized and/or were few enough to not meaningfully detract from an enjoyable stroll. It was great. (I thought I spotted new pedestrian areas in the city’s Georgian New Town as well, but didn’t snap any pictures).

Okay, so the Royal Mile is more of a tourist destination than an active shopping corridor, so maybe it doesn’t count and doesn’t contain any lessons for cities without ancient roots that attract travelers.

But you can’t say that about Princes Street, which is lined the kinds of retailers that cater to locals (e.g., Boots). While not pedestrianized, much of it is off limits to private cars and given over to transit:

A view down Prince's Street

A view down Prince’s Street

It’s not just the big cities either. Here’s the center of relatively minuscule Fort William in the Scottish Highlands:

Main drag, Fort William

Nor is it contained to the island of Great Britain, as here is Grafton Street in Dublin:

Grafton has been car-free for as long as I can remember (okay, so that’s probably less than a decade, but still), but I could swear that Dublin has expanded the zone of pedestrians along a number of the cross streets. And this is shopping central. I’m also pretty sure there are new pedestrian zones in the shopping areas on the north side of the Liffey as well.

It works for entertainment areas too. Here’s Temple Bar, Dublin’s “party zone”:

Temple Bar, no cars.

Or both shopping and entertainment, in Galway (where Saturday afternoon sun really brought out the crowds):

Sunny afternoon in car-free central Galway

Meanwhile, we’re spending tens of millions of dollars to re-build the Nicollet Mall, but keeping the buses.

Traffic Calming

Short of going completely car free, I also noticed Scottish cities doing things that would seem like they would spark outrage if they were proposed here. For example, check out this street in central Stirling:

Traffic calming in Stirling

My photography skills may not have captured this as clearly as I would have liked, but this is something I’m not sure I would have noticed before I started reading this blog regularly. What we have here is traffic calming measures to what would already have been a very narrow street by U.S. standards. Note that the car coming toward me is making it’s way through a chicane that’s forced it to slow down. In the foreground, both sides of the street have bump-outs that tighten the required turning radius and slow turning cars,while also reducing the crossing distance for pedestrians. You’ll have to take my word for it that this is all on what amounts to a major thoroughfare in the historic part of the city.

And can you image doing this with our speed limits:

20 mph speed limit on a Fort William side street

Obviously, Minneapolis and St. Paul are not historic or painfully quaint. They certainly don’t currently have the charm of an ancient European city. Nonetheless, what’s happened in nearly every European City (if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve seen some of the those “Amsterdam didn’t used to be Amsterdam” images) demonstrates that de-emphasizing cars is not fatal to vibrant city centers. On the contrary, I firmly believe that our downtowns stand a much better chance to thrive if we can make them a wee bit more like places to be, rather than places to drive through.

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

24 thoughts on “City Centers Thrive Without Cars

  1. Eric

    Isn’t it less “smart urban design” in Europe and more the happy accident of “cities/towns were laid out before the advent of the automobile”?

    1. Alex

      Minneapolis and Saint Paul (and most smaller cities in Minnesota) were also laid out before the advent of the automobile.

      1. Justin Doescher

        European cities were laid out before the locomotive, and even the modern grid system.

    2. Andy R

      This is a street called Briggate, in my home town of Leeds as it was up until about the end of the 1980s;

      This is what it looked like for about the next ten years;,

      And this is what it’s looked like since about the year 2000;,_Leeds_(4th_May_2010)_003.jpg
      (the van in the mid-ground is only allowed for delivery purposes between certain times – it is otherwise completely pedestrianised).

      The UK isn’t all ‘quaint’ medieval streets where you walk down the middle and can touch both sides – it too has had ‘traffic sewers’ and managed to change some to be more people friendly.

    1. Will

      Nicollet Mall had/will have buses and cab traffic. If you’re on foot, you’re supposed to stay on the side. Different street type, I’d say.

      1. Rick Hall

        Nicollet Mall was pedestrian only for a limited time. The businesses failed and it was reopened to at least busses. Commercial competition is far greater in the US. Customers shift from one new/improved shopping district to the next, at least in suburbia. The issue if far greater than physical design of mobility. Obviously needs in depth study. Many pedestrian only shopping streets failed in the 70s. Only a limited number survived, such as Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall, one in Charlottesville, in Boulder to mention several.

        1. Matthew

          Don’t forget the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

          One of the subtle differences between pedestrian malls in Europe and the US is that in Europe, cross traffic is usually closed or strongly controlled. Most (all?) of the “pedestrian” streets in the US allow(ed) cross traffic to pass across them with full vehicular priority.

    1. NiMo

      My favorite metric/imperial split is liquor vs beer. By UK law, liquor is sold in metric units, while beer is sold in imperial.

  2. Eric Wojchik

    I lived in Scotland for over 10 years, and worked there as a Planner. The concept of the New Town over there has been a bit of a failure because these towns often didn’t have a city center and were designed around the automobile. The concept of the city center is so much a part of the British psyche. You go to the city center to shop, leisure, meet friends, etc. We just don’t really have this deep-rooted concept here in the US. When my friends from the UK come here, they are always struck by the lack of a city center in our cities, including Mpls. They expect long, pedestrianized streets for shopping, and they are always surprised to not find this. I always have to emphasize that US cities are really more about the neighborhood, but this concept is difficult to access for a tourist with perhaps little time on their hands to dig too deep into options. Also, Edinburgh has added a lot more pedestrian areas and has relaxed rules around sidewalk cafes, etc, in order to bring life to the streets.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      American cities are arranged around cars, and our pedestrianized shopping areas exist inside malls (which are themselves struggling).

  3. Eric Wojchik

    Also, I hope you made it to Glasgow, definitely the understated but better of the two cities, in my opinion. 🙂

      1. David MarkleDavid Markle

        Just two quotes from a very readable, relevant book:

        “In a nation [the US] where the opportunity for personal profit knew no natural limit, unbridled economic forces were free to damage both nature and culture, and they accomplished this most visibly by degrading the urban setting. The great cities of Europe, long abuilding, were at once centers of political, commercial, ecclesiastical, and military power, and they showed it not just in their finely grained urban fabrics–their plazas, forecourts, esplanades, and galleries–but in the overarching civic consciousness with which buildings and spaces were tied together as an organic whole, reflecting the idea of civilization as a spiritual enterprise. American cities flourished almost solely as centers for business . . .” . . . . “Historians speak of an anti-urban bias in American life. In fact, American cities did not develop the same way as those in the Old World, by slow stages over a long period of time . . . The devices in civic design that had adorned Europe–derived chiefly from the notion that the space between buildings was as important as the buildings themselves–did not jibe with American property-ownership traditions, which put little value in the public realm”
        ===James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, 1993.

        Having savored Edinburgh, you might try Paris next: a city admired by Kunstler (and by me as well).

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

          I need to get back to Paris to check out what they’ve done in the last few years to take some of the city back from cars.

  4. Daughter Number Three

    I’m just back from Italy, and have similar impressions from Rome, Bologna, and a small town (50K) called Faenza. Bologna (SMSA 1M) especially is a model of traffic calming and street life. I saw just one bike helmet the whole time I was there, and people of all ages and genders on bikes. Elderly women in dresses on bikes. Really.

    Many streets without curbs and only paint to indicate the “sidewalk,” making them basically woonerfs. Cars completely deferring to pedestrians. It was amazing.

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    I don’t think that Kunstler (whose book was loaned to me a week ago) talks about keeping cars out of existing cities, and I don’t know what Paris has done in recent years. But Paris is a great place to walk, and the Metro is great.. London has taken steps to reduce automobiles in the central area.

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