Five Tips for Returning City Streets from Cars to People

Five tips for going car-free

Cities today tend to be car-centric landscapes. Sidewalks place pedestrians directly beside exhaust-spewing vehicles with little to no buffer. High-speed thoroughfares or highways dissect neighborhoods and lack appropriate pedestrian or bicycle infrastructure. These conditions are seen around the globe; yet some cities are finding opportunities to reintroduce car-free zones that give the streets back to the people.  Strøget in Copenhagen has set a standard as a successful and charming pedestrian-only throughway, and cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles have been taking steps to follow their example.

As designers of urban space, we want to know what makes these inspiring auto-excluding endeavors a success.  Here is a brief look at some examples and offer five tips for city officials, developers, designers, and community members to consider when pursuing car-free spaces for their own communities.

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The Strøget, car-free since 1962, is one of Copenhagen’s top destinations for shoppers and tourists.


Strøget, Copenhagen, Denmark

The Strøget is possibly the best-known example of a successful zone. It originated when Copenhagen experimented with this concept during the 1950’s when they closed the four-block area to cars for two days during the Christmas holidays. In 1962, without public announcement or input, the road remained closed. Like other movements that eliminate cars, this was controversial, and it took time for people to see the benefits. The original opposition to shutting down the street is the same as the arguments that come up today:

  • Shoppers would forget or not go to local stores without the opportunity to drive by them.
  • Traffic would become congested on surrounding streets of the car-free zone.
  • The local community would not be interested in gathering in these public spaces.

Copenhagen’s worries were assuaged, as the car-free area became one of the top destinations for shoppers and tourists. Local businesses found their sales rising by 25-40%.  It catalyzed the economy of surrounding areas and helped define the walking and biking culture that has helped earn Copenhagen the title of 2013’s most livable city.

San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles

Going “car-free” isn’t solely reliant on adjacent retail spaces. Since 1967, San Francisco has made the eastern half of JFK Drive car-free on Sundays. This street, which goes through Golden Gate Park, attracts droves of cyclists, runners, stroller-pushing parents, roller-bladers, and dog walkers to the park and greatly increases park use.

Golden Gate Park benefits from an increase in visitors that are drawn there by car-free JFK Drive on Sundays.


Similarly, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg temporarily shut down vehicular access to a street extending through Central Park. It experienced such a success that after six months, the pedestrian- and bike-only mandate was extended indefinitely. In another example, on three separate Saturdays, seven miles of streets—stretching from the Brooklyn Bridge up to Central Park along Park Avenue—were closed to cars and opened to the public. Reports indicate that 250,000 people enjoyed live music, fitness classes, rock climbing, and an interactive sound and light installation in the Park Avenue tunnel (which had long waiting lines).

New York’s Summer Streets events transformed the Park Avenue tunnel into a car-free experience in light and sound.


Cities have become urban-design testing grounds for new types of public space and planning. Pop-up car-free zones range from small-scale parklets (San Francisco’s parklet program) to a one- to two-block interventions like the Sunset Triangle in Los Angeles.  Temporary street closures like farmer’s markets, neighborhood concerts, and CicLAvia have helped Los Angeles prove that even in a car-central, car-free zones work.  CicLAvia originated from the “Ciclovia,” event in Bogota, Columbia, during which major city streets are closed temporarily and opened to cyclists and the public.  Los Angeles has held five CicLAvia events in the last three years, and  each time saw increased participation from street vendors, performers, and the public. LA is also experimenting with different scaled street closures – in April 2013, CicLAvia closed approximately 15 miles of streets, from City Hall to the ocean, and attracted more than 100,000 cyclists.

5 Tips for Going Car-Free

Permanent or temporary, success in car-free zones is hardly a guarantee.  Going car free requires a delicate balance of five essential ingredients:

Who knew that yoga (an other car-free activities) in Times Square could actually help alleviate traffic in one of New York’s most congested areas?


  1. Pedestrians are already there – If people aren’t already using the area for shopping, recreation or other needs, they aren’t going to start just because it’s free of exhaust. Cities can’t rely on “car-free” kitsch to be the draw.  In China’s Gubei district there are 937 persons per hectare – making it ideal for a project like Gubei Pedestrian Promenade, a large-scale pedestrian-only throughway. Three blocks were closed to vehicular traffic to create three distinct zones that attracted recreation, socializing, shopping, and dining for the surrounding residents.  While density can help drive a need, it is important to look at whether there is a lack of surrounding open space for people to gather, as was also the case in Gubei.
  2. The street is not currently essential to the city’s street grid – Diverting cars from formerly congested areas can actually improve the traffic flow in the surrounding areas.  New York’s Times Square, was one of the most congested places in the world when it went car-free, successfully, in 2010. Planners found that the surrounding streets absorbed the flow and people made different decisions about how they got to Times Square whether it be walking, biking or public transit.
  3. Community Input to programming the site –Local residents, businesses, employees, and the surrounding community members are instrumental to any successful car-free event or development. Street food vendors, kiosks, street performers, artists and more are needed to bring the spaces to life. Temporary closures are no different. The one-day CicLAvia events have food trucks, a Korean BBQ cook offs, film screenings, and other activities along the route.
  4. A unique regional presence/destination – The place itself needs to be a destination, whether it’s a throughway in a major city park or a desirable retail development in a unique environment. Lewis Avenue Corridor in Las Vegas, Nevada transformed an underutilized alley and parking lot into a linear urban park.  The design is derived from the natural pattern that desert washes create in the landscape after years of seasonal rainfall.  It connects the new Regional Justice Center and U.S. Federal Courthouse in the downtown core and gives a continuous canopy of shade, welcome in the hot climate.  For those who work and live north of the Las Vegas Strip, the corridor acts as a hub for gathering and events and has carved out an identity based on pedestrian sensibilities.
  5. Scale matters –In the 1970’s, Chicago turned nine downtown blocks of State Street into a pedestrian and bus-only zone. While being highly trafficked, the wide street left pedestrians feeling isolated and vulnerable. The negative effects of these poor proportions were compounded by a downturn in the economy and exhaust from the buses. In 1996, Mayor Daley reintroduced vehicular traffic. This retrenchment shows that the volume of pedestrian traffic needs to be in line with how the space interacts with the surrounding context, when supported by adjusted sidewalk widths, the addition of benches or plantings to tighten the space. The right proportion puts the pedestrian at ease, and it allows the place to buzz with activity.

As cities continue to evolve, we are seeing how car-free spaces can help provide economic, social, and health benefits alongside traditional street infrastructure.  Learning from past and present examples, we can successfully use these five tips to reorient our neighborhoods towards people as opposed to their cars.



Gerdo Aquino, FASLA, is the president of SWA, Design Critic in Landscape Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and co-author of the award-winning book, Landscape Infrastructure: Case Studies by SWA. Through his project work and research, Gerdo explores opportunities to redefine infrastructure as multi-performative systems capable of improving cities through programming, alternative transit strategies and design. He blogs about his findings at SWA’s Ideas blog.

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