The Strip Mall vs. the Multi-Way Boulevard: In consideration of subtle differences

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 strip mall on an arterial has many of the same ingredients as a walkable multi-way boulevard.

Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California accommodates a lot of traffic, encourages walking, and still allows for parking in front of the building.

Subtle Differences

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 anatomy of a strip mall on an arterial demonstrates a disconnected pedestrian realm with access and standards focused within each individual parcel.

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 anatomy of a multi-way boulevard.

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.

Striking Differences

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.

The SmartCode and many emerging complete streets standards allow for the multiway boulevard. In a retrofit situation, this one demonstrates how the sidewalk and parking lane could be within private property linked by a common streetscape standard.

 

  • 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.

With the transformation of the Central Freeway to Octavia Boulevard, San Francisco is a great resource for implementing multiway boulevards (source: http://www.sfbetterstreets.org)

–Geoff Dyer

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Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Stupidityflowering and commented:
    An interesting observation here:

  2. Geoffrey Mouen says:

    Geoff,
    Great post. I will share this with my local colleagues. So many municipalities should use the Multiway Blvd. rather than the typical road widening.
    Has there been any public private partnerships formed to help pay for the transformation? Strip mall owners could give up some low use parking area for improved circulation and a more inviting pedestrian environment without loosing trips or exposure. The multiway Blvd. clearly brings social, environmental, and economic improvements and opportunities.
    Nice work. Thank you,
    Geoffrey Mouen

  3. Geoff,
    Excellent post. We are always happy to show friends and colleagues the Esplanade here in Chico.

    Two through lanes, nice side drives with parallel or diagonal parking. Left turns are not allowed at the signalized intersections every 2 block, but a left turn pocket is provided in the median at the blocks in between the lights. The street carries 35,000 ADT as it passes the Hospital, High School and University Campus. The traffic lights are timed for 28 mph. Beyond the technical benefits, it is a _very_ nice street.

    Best,

    R. John Anderson

  4. Its a nice concept for suburban retrofit and I like it, but we also should be aware that there are far more differences between the arterial strip and the boulevard, particularly if we’re talking in a big city.
    First off, an urban boulevard often has multi-story mixed-use housing along it.
    Second, an urban arterial generally has a density of housing and a walkable network of side streets connecting into it, giving it an economic vibrancy that does not depend on primarily on cars parking but rather on people walking.
    And, these boulevards would likely carry public transit.
    So, this is a great start – building the right infrastructure now (from road way to shared parking to pedestrian improvements to tree planting) is good in and of itself, and can allow positive land use changes over time.

  5. What I see from your post are the similarities between a multi-way boulevard and a strip-mall-lined arterial, to the detriment of the boulevard. Even the model boulevards you cite are auto-dominated corridors that are intimidating for pedestrians to cross and problematic for transit and bicycles. They’re by no means a “paradise”, and they’re a far cry from the truly walkable streets you can find in Berlin, Stockholm, Tokyo, or countless other places.

    The far better approach is to calm traffic, narrow the road, convert lanes to parking and/or on-street bike lanes, and provide wide sidewalks at the street edge. I’m well aware that it’s politically easier to implement a boulevard that allows for, or even expedites, fast auto traffic, but that’s putting pseudo-urban lipstick on the strip-mall-arterial pig.

  6. While I agree on the importance of the detailed design elements: pavements, store entrances closer to the pavement etc. in making the multy-way boulevard succesful, I think the fundamental difference lies at the larger scale issues related to street network connectivity. Let me explain, in general, the arterial roads, because they emphasise vehicular through-movement, have few intersections and therefore segregate the neighbourhoods at either side. The result is that even though shops might line the two sides of the arterial, each side serves only half of its potential catchment.

    A multi-way boulevard on the other hand will have more streets crossing it and joining the two communities at either side of the road. This immediately makes it more accessible to more people and in turn makes it, not only a more vibrant space, but also makes it more economically viable. Furthermore, more crossing points (along other design measures mentioned in the article, particularly a median to encourage informal pedestrian crossings) signify to those driving a more pedestrian environment where speeds should be reduced.

    The challenge, I think, is twofold. Frist, in the need to understand the wider city context making each street/bouldevard intervention unique, and secondly, on implementation projects, to engage with all stakeholders in order to move away from a traffic-engineered, vehicular dominated approach into a pedestrian and cyclist first environment. This is not to say that road capacity should not be considered, but that it needs to be masured agains the economic and social benefits of the pedestrian led solution and that in the end similar vehicular capacities can be achieved with a less vehicular dominated environment.

  7. I would not use Shattuck Ave in Berkeley as an example of a fine, walkable boulevard. I live here, try to live sustainably (without a car), and Downtown Berkeley is simply not a nice place to walk around. My opinion is that the road is far too wide — cars drive too fast and crossing the street takes about 30 seconds. Shattuck tears at the urban fabric of what is by and large a pretty great town.

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