Design: Trying to Tame the Automobile

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U.S. cities look to Europe for livable streets

Boston can be a nightmare for motorists: a spaghetti tangle of twisting alleys, tree-sentineled boulevards and cramped, one-way lanes. But it can be equally harrowing for the poor pedestrian. Consider Appleton Street in the South End. Some years ago drivers discovered they could short-cut their way to the Southeast Expressway by using Appleton. Many weekday afternoons since then, the once-tranquil street has looked like some thing out of the Le Mans 24-Hour Race, and during the rest of the day, when the wide, one-way street is lightly traveled, like a drag strip. Next spring, things should begin to change for the citizens along Appleton Street. For one city block on the four-block-long street, Appleton will be the site of a ground-level experiment that could presage a new era in unscrambling the agonizing mesh of big-city residential traffic in the U.S.

Trees, planters and decorative street-lighting will be used to channel automobile movement. The entrance to Appleton will be narrowed so tightly that only one car will be able to enter at a time. Cars will be parked in clusters in a hopscotch pattern to impede the flow of autos—indeed, to slow them down to 5 to 10 m.p.h. When the overhaul is completed, cars, cyclists and pedestrians all will share wall-to-wall rights to the street, with pedestrians first among equals.

The concept is known as a Woonerf, a Dutch word that might loosely be translated as "protected precinct." Right now, the Woonerf is spreading through Western Europe, and the concept, in whole or in part, is in use in Boulder, Colo., and Seattle, Wash., and under consideration in Washington, B.C., Portland, Ore., and New York City. "My own feeling is that we should slow down traffic, not keep it out of residential streets," says Donald Appleyard, professor of urban design at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Livable Streets. "And the Woonerfhas proved a great success in European neighborhoods."

The automobile has contributed much, willy-nilly, to the decline of the old central cities. In the process of surrendering to unlimited automobility, these cities buried entire neighborhoods under concrete freeways, widened roads at the expense of shoppers and trees, bulldozed handsome buildings for parking lots and threatened the purpose and identity of downtown districts.

Some downtown business district planners are beginning to fight back with measures designed to restrict or divert automobile traffic from shopping streets, or to ban autos altogether from certain areas, or at certain times. Pedestrian malls that are well-served by public transportation and parking often prove to be profitable delights. The best of them, such as the pedestrian shopping districts in Portland, Ore., or the old city of Munich, Germany, are continuous festivals.

But closing one street to automobiles only increases traffic in others. When main arteries are clogged, impatient commuters short-cut through residential streets—as the people on Boston's Appleton Street discovered, to their dismay. Incessant traffic noise, pollution and lack of parking rank high among the reasons why people move out of the cities.

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