Everyone loves pedestrian malls

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Pearl Street Mall, Boulder - JOHN OLSON
  • John Olson
  • Pearl Street Mall, Boulder
We’ve all experienced a pedestrian mall and, for the most part, we love them. The experience of walking along the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado is absolutely wonderful, but what makes us enjoy them so much?

On the surface, it’s evident that it's the lack of automobile presence that makes the pedestrian mall experience so divine. As a parent, my stress levels are much lower knowing that my children can be outside of arm’s length from me and I don’t have to worry as much about them getting run over by a fast-moving vehicle.

The removal of vehicle traffic is an important element in how pedestrian malls function, and I’d argue that carefully designed characteristics of the architecture and landscape also have a major influence on how these places work.

The real question is, though, is this replicable in other places? Can we translate it to the Springs?

I believe that the answer is YES, pedestrian malls are translatable to Colorado Springs, but the details and the location must be carefully calibrated. Many successful pedestrian malls have set a high precedent, but even more have failed. The majority of pedestrian malls made in the United States have failed – and that margin isn’t close.

But let’s look at successful examples and what makes them work.

The Pearl Street Mall, a shining example, is located near the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. In my opinion, that’s the critical factor to its success and it’s not just because of the students. Pedestrian mall success is more about mobility choices and what influences those choices for the population.

Like many major university campuses, UC Boulder has a student body either without access to their personal vehicle or without a vehicle altogether. Most of the population is entrenched in a lifestyle of alternative transit, and that translates to the patrons of the businesses and the success of the Pearl Street Mall.

Pedestrian malls work in highly populated urban areas where driving is not the preferred method of mobility. Hotels, condos, apartments and high-density residential and office buildings are necessary to make this work, as are alternative mobility options, characteristics similar to university campuses. And they tend to be effective adjacent to an intense mode of recreation, like ski resorts, too.

But dense, urban downtowns are more of a risk for pedestrian malls when a campus is not there. I see portions of the 16th Street Mall in Denver that are really not doing well, while other segments are flourishing. Market fluctuations and other factors can be deadly as well.

If the population is used to driving and parking in front of businesses that will be along the mall, it will fail.

So where could we make a pedestrian mall work in Colorado Springs? The answer is still unclear, although many have offered up Tejon as an option.

In my professional opinion, converting Tejon Street to a permanent pedestrian mall would be a costly failure that would need to be changed shortly thereafter. I believe that there is a solution for Tejon Street, but it needs to be a hybrid approach.

Hybrid approaches that maintain on-street parking and two-way traffic along Tejon or Pikes Peak Avenue are worthy of exploration as they have more area dedicated to the automobile than is needed – both could use a diet of some sort. We shouldn’t take away all traffic and parking for these streets though, at least until we have a robust transit system and some density to work in their favor.

For a potential pedestrian mall, or a street where we could limit automobile access to transit, I’d look to underutilized streets downtown such as Pueblo Ave, or the one block of Colbrun in Old Colorado City, or perhaps Cache La Poudre, adjacent to Colorado College.

But because Tejon is often brought up, allow me to offer some food for thought on the topic. The businesses along Tejon Street need the on-street parking and therefore the traffic to make them function. But do they really need the center turn lane? Could we take out the center turn lanes and have the deliveries made in the alley behind the buildings? Is that space that we could allow for wider sidewalks? Could it really be as simple as extending the sidewalk on one side of the street for more patio dining space and decreasing the width of the actual street?

Yes. And I believe that the makings of a hybrid pedestrian mall could be that simple, and it would have an amazing effect on how those streets function.

John Olson is a licensed landscape architect, residing in Colorado Springs. He serves as the Director of Plannning and Landscape Architecture for EVstudio Planning & Civil Engineering. He is also a co-founder of Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, which implemented Better Block Pikes Peak in 2012, the recent Walkability Signage found in Downtown Colorado Springs, and perhaps most notably, Curbside Cuisine.

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