Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ‘em down for your consideration.
Like its larger cousin the mall, the strip mall has become a symbol for our dysfunctional car-focused suburban environments. Ask any born-again urbanite why, and they’ll tell you that the strip mall’s most damning offense is putting all that parking in front of the store, creating a horrible car-focused environment. But… is it so simple? Take that same urbanite to some of the celebrated boulevards of Paris, Barcelona, or even Chico, California and see those offenses forgiven.
The fact is that these wonderful urban environments actually share something with the strip mall: they are on busy car-focused corridors that allow cars to slip out into a slower lane and find parking in front of the store. Yes, parking in front of the store.
This realization occurred to me a while back as I wound myself mindlessly through a dysfunctional arterial corridor lined with strip malls, pondering how I might transform it into a multi-way boulevard paradise. Given the basic ingredients of these two roadways, their differences are really quite subtle on the surface, but their outcome is strikingly different. So what’s up? The reality is, if you take all the basic ingredients of the roadway itself, there are many similarities between the two. You’ve got fast moving lanes in the center. You have a landscaped area at the edge, maybe with or without a sidewalk but definitely with curbs, you’ve got a slower traffic lane near the buildings, and then you have parking. So what is the leap between a strip mall on an arterial and a commercial building on the boulevard?
Anatomy of Two Streets
The obvious difference, one might point out, is that each strip mall provides its own parking on its own lot and in its own way. True. But this misses the central issue. The multi-way boulevard provides a connected, high-quality pedestrian realm linking multiple properties. In fact, one could adopt this as the central difference between car-focused suburban environments and urbanism.
The Strip Mall: Let’s start with the Strip Mall. Confined by its right-of way, an arterial typically must provide its sidewalk (when it does provide a sidewalk) at the edge of the arterial street. With a parking lot on one side and fast moving traffic on the other (that prohibits a protective layer of on-street parking), no amount of berms and landscaping can make this anything but a conduit for the heartiest pedestrian and bicycle commuters. This sidewalk and landscape berm is punctuated with individual entries for each strip mall (often two) that leads into a parking access lane and parking stalls. Then there is a sidewalk to serve pedestrians from the parking to the store. While sometimes the parking lane is connected to neighboring strip malls (this is now often mandated by jurisdictions), the sidewalks usually are not. This completes the disconnected public environment, the true root of the strip mall/arterial problem.
The Multi-Way Boulevard: Now take the multi-way boulevard. With the higher-speed traffic confined, like the arterial, to center lanes, you find a curb and buffer at the edge — in this case a median that can be paved as a sidewalk or public space, but is more often landscaped with regularly spaced shade trees. Then you have a parking access lane. But unlike the one in front of the strip mall, this one is detailed like a one-way street that stretches from one side of the block to the other connecting property lines. From here you may find parallel or angled parking and then a sidewalk to access the store. But unlike the strip mall, this sidewalk is a true pedestrian realm paved at least 10’ from curb to building, and stretching from one end of the block to the next with a consistent streetscape design linking multiple properties.
While both the arterial and the multi-way boulevard handle lots of traffic, give stores parking in front, and serve as regional commercial corridors, the subtle difference of a connected high-quality pedestrian realm versus the disconnected individual access of a strip mall actually ends up producing a very striking contrast. Here is what the multi-way boulevard allows:
- The connected, pedestrian friendly sidewalk near the store encourages walking.
- Encouraged walkers will park once and access more stores and other land uses, thus reducing car trips on the faster moving center lanes.
- Happy pedestrian environments attract other possible building uses including office, hotels, and even residential.
- Because the parking lane is accessed at one point (at the beginning of every block) rather than at every parcel, there are fewer accesses interrupting the faster moving center lanes which makes traffic engineers and motorists happy.
- Stores that are asked to move up to the sidewalk and be more “livable” still get some parking in front of the store (with the rest in the rear for longer term and overflow parking).
- And the ultimate advantage? Economic development. The more attractive boulevard builds value for the municipality, increases livability, increases tax base per infrastructure, and becomes a destination for visitors. (Hey, apparently anyone can build a big dumb arterial street).
So, Why the Arterial?
To conclude, I ask the rhetorical question. If there are only subtle differences between the ingredients of the two roadways, there are many successfully built boulevards, and there are far, far more advantages of the multi-way boulevard over the arterial, then why are we still building miles of big dumb arterial streets while our multi-way boulevards are kept locked in the broom closet like Cinderella? I’ll leave it to you to ponder. Meanwhile, here are a few things that might help you get one built:
- Corridor Conversions: Converting corridors within established rights of way and fragmented property ownership is hard. Consider allowing the side access lane and parking to occur on private property to define a consistent semi-public realm within private property. You may already have commercial site design standards, so use those to create a connected, high-quality pedestrian realm.
- Greenfield is much easier. Stop building new arterials in urban environments.
- Focus on a small section first: Don’t take the whole corridor on at once. Find a strategic block or two that is ready for redevelopment and focus your efforts there.
- Look for Complete Streets funding: With the addition of a bike lane, the multiway boulevard meets the criteria of a “Complete Street” and may be eligible for various funding sources.
- Hire Qualified Advice: Find qualified, experienced consultants who can help you design the boulevard right.
- Visit and Analyze Working Examples: Take a delegation of city officials and engineers to visit a few real working boulevards. Nothing beats empirical evidence.
- Buy the Book: Many jurisdictions, such as San Francisco and El Paso, Texas, are adopting multi-way boulevard standards and offer great precedents on how to do it in your community. But you may want to start with a firm foundation of understanding the what, why’s, how’s and where’s of multi-way boulevards. The pre-eminent and authoritative text on this “The Boulevard Book: History, Evolution, Design of Multiway Boulevards” by Jacobs et al. Buy it and treat yourself to a well illustrated, in-depth understanding of the issues.
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