Can We Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Vehicles?

By Chris Hamilton, May 28, 2020

Back in April we shared an article Reimagining Key West – 3 Quick Wins for Revitalizing Duval Street that suggested to get a start on pedestrianizing Duval Street, now during the Coronavirus slowdown, we could install parklets, put in more bike parking and “Slow the Cars Down and Let People Take the Street.” We’ve expanded on the parklets idea (20 Parklets on Duval in 2020), talked a bit more about bicycling (Key West, Let’s Radically Speed Up the Implementation of Our Bike/Ped Plan) and even suggested City of Key West – Let Our Restaurants Take the Streets! Now we’d like to further explore the idea of letting people take the street by slowing the cars.

Photo credit for the above big picture Michael Beattie of the Conch Scooter blog.

The idea of closing Duval Street off to vehicles after a certain time of day has been talked about for decades. To be clear, this would be our preference. People love the idea for obvious reasons, but we often get stuck on the details. Conversations usually devolve into “close the block entirely to cars” or “you can’t do that because…” and so nothing gets done, as there’s seemingly no in-between or compromise way to do this.

When asked what they like most about a city they have visited, almost no one answers: “The cars whizzing by on the streets.” Cultural attractions, the people we meet, walking through the city and gazing at plazas, buildings, and places—these are the things that make a city unique.

Brooks Rainwater, National League of Cities

We give credit to Mayor Johnston and Commissioners Weekley and Kaufman for trying with the Mall on Duval, but even that little 3-block experiment, eventually got smothered by whining and opposition and withered away in a 4-3 Commission vote against extending it any longer.

What about the delivery vehicles? What about seniors, people with mobility or ADA issues that need to be dropped off at the front door? What about taxis, Ubers and Lyfts? What about the hotels and inns with access off of Duval? Good questions, but certainly something we can overcome, if not accommodate, right?

In our previous article we suggested that if we don’t ban cars outright, perhaps we institute a 5 MPH speed limit and simply allow people to walk in the street. We gave the example that Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts does something similar in their season, during the summer. They have small sidewalks and a narrow street and so they allow people to walk in the street. Notice that in most of these pictures there are indeed cars on the street. But in this case, the sheer number of people forces a vehicle to slow down. There’s people riding bikes too. But if you look at the pictures closely you’ll notice that sometimes the amount of pedestrians makes bike riding uncomfortable and so people are walking their bike. Even though Commercial Street is their main retail and activity street, unless people in cars really need to use it, they try to avoid it, especially in the afternoons, evenings and weekends during the season. It works. No extra police. No infrastructure. People know the nature of the street and everyone adjusts.

Now some people will say Key West is different and unique. We know. Duval Street is wider. Yes. Commercial Street is a one-way street. Yep and Duval is two-way. Provincetown’s a special case. Okay, that’s a given. And this is where our conversations usually get derailed because well, Key West isn’t anyplace else and the powers that be are loathe to try anything from someplace else. We know. We know. We are unique and do things our own way. But there is growing evidence from around the world that people adjust to these types of situations and that it can be done. So why can’t we figure this out in our own Key West way?

“Shared Streets” or “Woonerfs”

This isn’t a new concept. A Woonerf is a Dutch term for a street shared by cars, bicycles and people as equals. Woonerfs are alternately called “Shared Streets.” Although cars are allowed in most — but not all — of the zones or blocks of a Woonerf, they are generally restricted to “walking speed” with the onus of responsibility for safety entirely on the driver. Bikes cede the right of way to pedestrians. Instead of dividing a street with barriers like curbs, sidewalks and bike lanes, everyone uses the street simultaneously and cars are forced to drive slowly. There are things called Slow Streets, but usually those are associated with residential neighborhoods. And these aren’t Complete Streets, which accommodate all users but do so with separate infrastructure or lanes for pedestrians, bikes and vehicles.

In speaking of a woonerf, “They’re designed to allow cars but they aren’t designed for cars. Cars have to behave themselves in a different way.”

Stan Eckstut, the lead architect in a huge Washington, D.C. project called the Warf in an article about it’s growing use in North America

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) just came out with a free guidebook Streets for Pandemic Response and Recovery that compiles emerging practices from around the world and includes implementation resources for cities and their partners. This offers us a how-to-guide for quick implementation of these ideas over the course of the summer and fall, so that by the season, we’re more prepared to provide visitors and residents with a safe experience.

So perhaps in Key West on Duval and some adjacent streets we:

  1. set the speed limit at 5 MPH,
  2. get rid of on-street parking so people aren’t coming down the street looking for it (up to one third of traffic are people looking for a parking space),
  3. ban cars outright on a few blocks at certain times of day, thus alleviating people trying to traverse the entirety of Duval for a sight seeing adventure and giving a few blocks that want it, more of the “Mall on Duval” experience,
  4. not allow cars on one side of the street on some blocks to allow retailers, restauranteurs, and artists to use the space and have vehicles go around these,
  5. discourage through traffic. If you come down the block it is because you are making a delivery, dropping off or picking up passengers or you are going to a specific destination that has off-street parking or needs access on that block (like a hotel),
  6. encourage private and public parklets in former parking spaces,
  7. install temporary barriers, barricades and signs that make it clear you are entering a Pedestrian Zone and to block or protect temporary seating and displays,
  8. educate visitors, residents and workers that this area works this way.

Business can work with City staff to come up with a quick plan. It is important that at this point there be no City fees attached to this. It would help if Duval Street had a business improvement district to oversee this, but that’s the subject of a future story.

Is this a perfect solution? No. Is it a compromise? Yes. But in the face of the seemingly all or nothing conversations we’ve been having for decades on closing Duval Street to cars, perhaps this can be a start for discussion. We wouldn’t need to do much planning nor infrastructure improvements to implement this. Doing these things wouldn’t have to be permanent, so if we want to reconfigure the street in the future, we can change things. Duval Street is something that should bring us all together. The idea is to do it quickly, over the summer and fall, get a win and feel good about doing something that will be more healthy and prosperous in response to this Coronavirus mess. Repaving Duval Street was a nice start. Now let’s make it for everyone, not just cars.

Sources for this Article and Additional Resources

Active Streets for Business, City of Milwaukee – A pilot program to support local businesses by promoting the safe reopening of restaurants and bars through expanded options for increased physical distancing and dining in outdoor areas. View the presentation from June 3, 2020. 

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Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

1 Comments on “Can We Pedestrianize Duval and Still Allow Vehicles?”

  1. I proposed t a woonfuf for local Old Town lanes too narrow for safe curbs and sidewalks. Seems we can do it for Duval an Green as well. Kudos. Let’s query our Commissioners, each one.

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