Closing University Avenue

One of the best things about going to a small residential university for my undergraduate degree was the lack of cars on campus.  The campus was small, there were parking lots on the outskirts (near most of the dorms), and you walked or rode a bicycle everywhere.  It was a given.  The campus was small enough to make this feasible.  It’s not that there were no vehicles at all–delivery trucks and the like would drive through in the early morning, the streets were plowed during the winter, and on move-in and move-out day you could bring your vehicle in to move your stuff–but for the students, we just had to deal with the lack of motorized transportation.

The Grand Forks/East Grand Forks Metropolitan Planning Organization is looking to do a similar thing for part of the University of North Dakota, reports the Grand Forks Herald.  They have released a report (which I have not located yet) proposing the closing of University Avenue between Columbia Road to the east and Stanford Road to the west (see image from the Herald website) in order to reduce pedestrian/motorist interactions, promote walking and cycling, and reduce emissions from motor vehicles.

Image from the Grand Forks Herald.

This proposal is notable for its daring and progressiveness.  This might be the first instance of closing streets for the sake of pedestrians in Grand Forks history.  There are strong criticisms, however I think they can be mitigated.  Two in particular stand out: emergency vehicle access and perceived increased congestion.

Emergency vehicle access worries are due to the use of University Ave as a route for fire trucks and ambulances, but “closed to personal vehicles” does not mean “closed to emergency vehicles.”  Allowing these vehicles access to University Ave, as long as even one lane is left clear for service, might even decrease response times due to not having to wait for automobile traffic to get out of the way.

Perceived congestion is a more difficult nut to crack, but I propose an initial tradeoff to help people understand the value of this street closure: limited hours of operation.  Larger cities do this all the time–drive into Washington, D.C. some morning and you’ll see whole residential streets change one-way direction–and people learn how it works.  Close University Avenue between 8 AM and 4 PM every day (perhaps with gates) except to service and emergency vehicles for a trial semester, study the effects, and use those data to shut it down completely.

Again, I’m very excited about this plan because it opens up new possibilities.  Street parties.  Street vendors (allowing off-campus restaurants to set up shop for lunch).  More space for people on foot and bicycles.  Less noise, traffic, and emissions for everyone.  What other opportunities do you see?

7 thoughts on “Closing University Avenue”

  1. A.K. says:

    Mixed on this idea and I don’t buy the emissions bit… people will just drive using other (longer) routes. I think any congestion issues are easily solved with crosswalk lights.

  2. schaefs says:

    I loved the pedestrian-only Church St. corridor in Burlington, VT. But, from a strategic standpoint, this is a horrendous idea. It would be a bitter fight and, in reality, only produce negligible gains (at least from a carbon-reduction standpoint). We have to crawl before we can walk. We’re not ready for this step. There are much better ways to improve bike-ability in GF as well as pedestrian safety and inter-campus commuting without doing something that will be so polarizing. We ought to be building bridges (figuratively).

  3. schaefs says:

    I should add that the approach suggested of doing a pilot study with limited hours is an excellent one. Still, when I look at the long list of things that are needed to improve bike-ability and pedestrian safety while reducing car-dependence; closing off this section of University is more of a long-term project. And, one that would have to be approached with the utmost care.

  4. Matt BK says:

    A.K., do you think people would even stop for crosswalk lights, while driving or walking?

    Schaefs, I hear ya. I think the important thing with this idea is to let the MPO know exactly what we think, and to keep the individual issues separate, because they all have pros and cons. Emissions, pedestrian safety, and promotion of walking and cycling are the big three I see off the top of my head; do you agree?

    – Emissions. This is the one I know least about. If there is support for doing this from an emissions standpoint, the study needs to be released (for the naysayers) and the other factors need to be taken into account, primarily congestion and (“think of the children!”) the amount of traffic diverted along 6th Avenue North by Lake Agassiz (because even if University is open west of and including Stanford, it seems like people would head straight on 6th Avenue North if they weren’t headed to campus anyway.

    – Pedestrian safety. On the Herald online comments section, many of the commenters have focused on the personal responsibility angle regarding crossing University Avenue. I completely agree: you shouldn’t step out into traffic without looking and expect everyone to stop. I don’t see pedestrian safety alone as a reason to close the street, but I think creating a mall there might remove a conceptual divide that exists because it can be such a hassle to cross.

    – Promotion of cycling and walking. This is my primary interest in this matter. By making it more difficult to drive on campus, UND would be sending a clear message that walking and cycling are viable and encouraged modes of transportation; however there would be a period of chaos while everyone got used to it. There are other ways of promoting alternative transportation that could be approached first.

    It’s really exciting that this even came up, just like the bikeshare idea, but you’re right that all users need to be careful in making assumptions and becoming polarized on the issue.

  5. A.K. says:

    At U. of Oklahoma we have a similar street that separates the dorms from the rest of campus. Students do a good job using the crosswalk lights because otherwise, THEY GET RUN OVER. It would take a year or two to get students on board (need good education at the university/police level), but once they realize cars aren’t stopping, I guarantee they’ll use the lights.

    I feel like the crippling factor here is the railyard. If we had other decent avenues of transportation on the sides of campus we’d be in good shape, but we’re really constrained on viable routes N and S. We may want/wish/think people will stop using cars, but that’s impractical when you have a climate where it’s cold from Oct-April. I bike to work all the time, but I also have a number of reasons to drive across campus using University. I just don’t see 6th and campus road supporting the load of traffic that would be diverted from university.

    Now if you want to think of some amazing possibilities… what if the railyard moved out of Grand Forks and that area was turned to green space?

  6. Matt BK says:

    I agre completely on the railyard. You can check out at least a few posts (“railyard redevelopment” and “extending downtown,” I think) from the Grand Forks Life blog for previous discussion on that (linked from here).

    It would take an extraordinary amount of political will and money to get that to happen. I contacted BNSF several years back about whistle-free crossings, an interpretive (railway history) cycling/running trail alongside the railyard, and a western UND pedestrian underpass, and they pretty much told me to get the city to do it because they weren’t going to take the initiative, no matter how much goodwill they could have garnered.

  7. Matt BK says:

    Updates (which I intend as a new post at some point):
    – The source of this idea is the UND Climate action Plan, which you can find here. The relevant section is Goal 11, p. 47-48.
    – Discussion by the MPO Executive Policy Board ensued shortly after this idea came to light last year. The minutes show the immediate backlash from members of this board on p. 5-7.

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