It's ironic that the best and most vibrant public space in downtown Silver Spring is called Ellsworth Drive. Even if you don't like the chain stores that line it, it's hard to ignore that this street has become the place where our community gathers to celebrate, to remember, and even to protest. So it's not surprising that many people, including Sligo from Silver Spring, Singular, have called for it to be closed to cars altogether, not just on weekends:
"I'm not sure what the original rationale was for keeping this street open on weekdays, but I think that the last seven years have shown us that there’s a lot more demand for public space in downtown Silver Spring than there is for a single block of road."Sligo is absolutely right. Many of the people I spoke to at last May's charrette talked about the need for public space in Silver Spring. Though pedestrian malls in the United States have often failed, there are quite a few examples of successful ones, like Main Street in Charlottesville, Pearl Street Mall in Boulder and Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. Nonetheless, turning Ellsworth Drive into a permanent pedestrian mall may not be the answer, and there are two reasons why.
First off, successful pedestrian malls have pedestrians at all times. After all, stores need people passing by to get customers, and if there aren't enough people walking by, they'll close. Ellsworth may be crowded on a weekend evening but not the rest of the week. Are the sidewalks busy on a Tuesday morning? Or a Saturday night after 10pm? Ellsworth Drive does have shops and restaurants and movie theatres, but not enough to keep it busy at all times. Though thousands of new apartments have been built in downtown Silver Spring over the past ten years, there are still very few people living within a quarter-mile of Ellsworth Drive, meaning that the only people on the sidewalks are those who came intentionally.
Main Street in Charlottesville has a number of bars, including the one where Dave Matthews got his start. Like Boulder, Charlottesville also has a major university nearby, drawing tens of thousands of carless college students who have to walk everywhere. On Third Street, you can buy anything from today's newspaper to a coffeepot to a skateboard. You can also have dinner and a drink afterwards. Above are apartments, offices, hotels and a hostel, and a few blocks away are Santa Monica's famous beaches. Together, all of these amenities create places where the sidewalks are busy at all times, which justifies closing a street to cars.
Second, we shouldn't be asking why the sidewalks on Ellsworth are so crowded, but rather why sidewalks everywhere else in Silver Spring are so empty. Ellsworth Drive currently works well for cars and pedestrians. But most others in the downtown area, from big ones like Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road to little ones like Thayer Avenue or Fenton Street, have been designed to move cars, resulting in some pretty uninviting places to walk. The biggest reason why businesses along Georgia Avenue or Colesville Road may continue to struggle despite the ongoing revitalization is probably because nobody wants to walk there. Tight sidewalks and speeding cars are enough to encourage walkers to find safe places, like Ellsworth Drive, and stay put as long as they can.
How can we create more public space in downtown Silver Spring? Make the streets narrower. At its intersection with Silver Spring Avenue, Georgia Avenue is nearly 110 feet wide from curb to curb. That's as wide as the through lanes on the Beltway. Let's say you made the lanes on Georgia 10 feet wide, narrow enough to get cars going 30 miles an hour. (I don't know if that's the posted speed, but it should be.) Keeping the current set-up, with six lanes for through traffic and two for parking, you could make the road 80 feet wide, freeing up thirty feet of pavement for other uses, like wider sidewalks, a landscaped median, or space for cafe tables.
You could do this exercise with any street in the business district, giving space back to the pedestrian without changing traffic patterns. If we were really ambitious, we would change traffic patterns, giving over street space to bikes or transit vehicles, such as the D.C. streetcar, which may one day continue up Georgia Avenue to Silver Spring. These changes could allow our streets to move more people than a lane of cars ever could while making them much nicer spaces to be in.
The argument for making Ellsworth Drive a pedestrian mall is pretty similar to the one for building a bridge across Wayne Avenue to the new Silver Spring Library: drivers speed through downtown Silver Spring, so let's keep pedestrians far away where they can be safe. But doesn't this condone speeding? We should make all of Silver Spring safe and fun for walking, even if it means drivers have to slow down. In doing so, we'll help local businesses, improve traffic, and return public space to the people.