Encouraging More Sustainable Cities with Mobility Hubs and Car-free Zones

July 23, 2020

mobility hubs and car-free zonesThe modern city has been developed over the last century with the car in mind, prioritizing automobile transportation over other modes of transit. The rise in the past decades of individual car traffic has created a strain on the availability of on street parking resources to balance different uses including parking, biking, pedestrian access, rideshare companies, buses, curbside pick up and deliveries, and the environment. To reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, enhance economic development, create a greener, more liveable city for visitors, workers and residents, cities are promoting options to encourage other modes of transportation and pedestrian traffic. Two of these are mobility hubs and car-free zones, which we’ll take a look at below.

Mobility Hubs

There are more and more options to get around a city these days. In the last decade, cities have seen an increase in things like shared bikes and scooters, as well as on-demand rides. As cities try to encourage a variety of options for people to get around the city, they realize that one of the biggest challenges to encouraging public transit is the so-called “first and last miles” – getting people to and from public transit to their home and their final destination. Mobility hubs help solve this. They are places where different modes of transportation (from regional and local public transit to walking, biking, scooters) come together, ideally also located near places to work, live, shop and play. This may include bike racks, bike and scooter share stations, designated ride hailing drop-off zones, parking spaces reserved for ride sharing vehicles, high-frequency local shuttle services, and taxi waiting areas located near train and bus stations or metro stops.  

Mobility hubs give city travelers who do not live or work near public transit stations access to a variety of options for transportation and a number of destinations without having to drive themselves . With different transportation options, cities are starting to plan to accommodate them, including improving safety and accessibility in city streets.   

Car-free Zones

Another idea to reduce the number of cars in a city is to open car-free zones by closing streets to vehicle traffic, creating pedestrian-only areas. This can be done during certain hours of the day, days of the week or permanently. Car-free zones create “open space” for people to walk and bike safely and easily in areas that have amenities such as shops, restaurants and entertainment.  In addition to reducing congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions, car free zones can be a powerfuleconomic engine encompassing retailers and restaurants and generating income for businesses and cities. These areas are key to what urban developers call placemaking, welcoming spaces for the community to gather, for everyone to experience and enjoy.  An added benefit is that banning cars from certain areas is reversible. City policy can be changed relatively easier than building or widened roads to reduce congestion or adding bike and pedestrian lanes to existing streets.    

Denver has had the 16th Street Mall, a 1.2-mile tree-lined promenade in the downtown’s  main street,  for over 35 years. More recently, more cities in the U.S. and around the world are closing streets and areas to cars. In January 2020, San Francisco converted more than two miles of downtown Market Street, banning private cars and limiting traffic to street cars, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians. In the fall of 2019, New York City began a pilot program, banning all cars on one mile of 14th street, allowing only buses and some trucks and emergency vehicles. In Europe, cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Oslo have car-free zones in downtown areas.

Mobility Hubs and Car-Free Zones in Norwalk

In Norwalk most recently, responding to the city and state reopening plans during COVID-19, the City collaborated with the Norwalk Parking Authority to take  28 parking spaces out of service on Washington Street. This allowed businesses there to expand outdoor dining locations and curbside pick up along with a pedestrian walkway. The area was enhanced via the Arts Commission and local artists by creating artistic collages using the concrete barriers separating the area from the street. While this may be temporary due to the pandemic, the city can use this to assess the success of this kind of program. Norwalk is also looking at the effects on commuting habits due to COVID and how that may shape transportation options in the future.

The East Norwalk Transit Oriented Development Plan envisions mobility hubs that improve transit accessibility, expanding pedestrian and bike networks as well as developing more pedestrian-friendly areas.  The Bike Walk Commission is looking into increasing and enhancing biking facilities around Norwalk, providing much needed safe connections and encouraging this alternate mode of transportation.