What if we looked at our transportation system as a land-use decision?

Are we getting all we can and want from this land use? Did you know that our roads make up on average 80+% of our public lands in urban places? When you think of our roads as public land does that change how you think of them and how you might want to use them?

4th Street closed in Ketchum

Open Streets… Complete Streets… Road Rightsizing… Street Reclaiming…Parklets – You’ve probably heard of some or all of these. Each is a response to these questions and provides a new vision for how we might use our urban streets differently, so they can become human-centered again and less car-centered in places such as our downtowns, neighborhoods and community places like our parks and schools.

For more than 70 years we have, very successfully, built our cities for cars but now we are asking how well that serves people. These ideas suggest a transportation system for cars, rather than people, has had unforeseen consequences and doesn’t serve our communities as well as it should. These ideas represent the ongoing evolution of transportation.

COVID Streets

None of these efforts are new but COVID has created an opportunity around the world to “open” our streets to more uses in a way we’ve not seen before. Because car travel fell to the lowest levels we’ve seen in decades and is still down from what it was AND because there has simultaneously been an uptick in people walking and biking in many cities and towns across the world some saw the opportunity to try opening some streets for people and explore how we can might change our streets to better serve the other land uses they’re connected to and get more from this significant resource.

8th Street in Boise

In Idaho, Ketchum and Boise are trying it out. Boise has closed one block of 8th Street downtown to cars. This street already had been significantly right-sized to better serve a high volume of walking and biking as well as all the restaurants that wanted outdoor patio seating with very wide sidewalks, limited car parking, a contra-flow lane for bicyclists and single one-way car lane.

Extra patio seating on 8th Street in downtown Boise

But with COVID this change was not enough to allow restaurants to safely serve their customers, they needed more spacious outdoor seating. So they’ve temporarily closed the street to cars and converted the travel lane and parking space into one wide place for walking in order to allow the outdoor seating to expand and take up all the sidewalk. This seems a very a natural evolution for this street and the city is considering making it permanent depending upon how well it works. They also want to explore other places in the city where similar changes would benefit the community.

4th Street in Ketchum

Ketchum has done something very similar on 4th Street through its downtown. Like Boise’s 8th Street it had already undergone some changes over time as Ketchum has continued to redesign and rethink its downtown to make it a place for people. Ketchum Sustainability Advisory Committee sent a letter of support to City Council for an initiative to close 4th Street from Walnut to Leadville Avenue for the summer. They said “communities throughout the nation are closing streets to provide space for walking, biking and outdoor dining while maintaining physical distancing,” and “4th Street is an ideal street for pedestrians and bicyclists and not a main thoroughfare.” The committee further pointed out that while this action is not specifically identified in the Ketchum Sustainability Action Plan – 2020 they state it “relates to the long-term city energy goals to reduce emissions and decarbonize.”

Open Streets think about roads as a way to connect people (not cars) to places, goods and each other and that we should design them with this in mind.

We have divided neighborhoods and communities, separated people from the places they want to go and hangout and reduced mobility, disconnecting people from jobs and opportunities except for the more privileged. Isn’t it time to rethink this amazing resource and land use we call streets and roads in our urban places and get more than we are getting from this investment?

Share your Examples

We’d love to hear from you about places in your community that have tried something like this or that you think could benefit from an “open streets” approach but that today is really for cars and not people.


Deanna Smith – Program Coordinator for Idaho Smart Growth

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