The Case for Making Main Street for Pedestrians Only

Local blogger Kyle Nielsen put together an essay for the folks at Houston Tomorrow, partly to discuss the tragic death of a young cyclist, who was run over by a Metro train this week, but also to cover the issues with general mobility of vehicles and pedestrians in downtown. I am normally skeptical of suggestions on how to improve transportation from people who aren't specifically schooled in that profession, but this essay was particularly interesting and made enough good points to merit a review.

The general thesis of the story was that Main Street -- at least the part in downtown that has rail running smack dab down the center of it -- should be closed to vehicle traffic much the way it is for a block near what used to be the downtown Macy's. The theory is that it would give more room to pedestrians and cyclists as well as preventing problems for motorists.

As Nielsen points out:

The Vulnerable Road Users Ordinance that was passed by Houston's City Council requires motorists to give 3 feet of space when passing a vulnerable road user (cyclists, pedestrians, etc.) This ordinance makes it impossible for a motorist to legally pass a cyclist on Main Street in Downtown or Midtown.

That is by far the most compelling argument to be made. I say this as someone who routinely bikes in downtown and I can tell you it is extremely dangerous at times.

Nielsen's suggestion would leave cross streets for traffic to get from one side of Main to the other, but close the actual street to vehicles. With left turns illegal along Main, it actually makes pretty good sense to shut Main down.

Nielsen estimates about 20 parking spaces -- all parallel -- would be lost, and of course there would be the loss of an entire method of ingress and egress in the downtown area, but I have to wonder if anyone has even done a traffic study of Main Street. Does it really carry so much traffic that closing it would create massive problems on other streets?

The fact that Main is already closed for an entire block in the center of downtown only enhances the argument that a more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly thoroughfare makes a lot of sense. It would also create opportunities for businesses that might not otherwise open in downtown, especially retail business, which has become so vital to the city's plans with Macy's packing up and leaving.

Setting aside the safety issue for a moment, perhaps the most important facet of this proposal is how it could transform an entire section of downtown, opening up all sorts of possibilities for events and regular evening and weekend foot traffic. Main Street would cease to be a street and become a promenade, an actual place for people to walk around, grab a bite, do some shopping, listen to music.

My guess is that developers who provide residential space along downtown would be thrilled by it as well, and it certainly couldn't hurt the tourist trade.

I say get on it, Houston.

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