The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged local economies across the country — especially in college towns. Small businesses have been forced to adapt to limits on in-person capacities and increases in online shopping. Dozens of businesses in Washington, D.C. neighborhoods, for example, have begun offering service outdoors in converted parking spaces or on pop-up patios. The sudden shift towards expanded outdoor spaces — often occupying roads and parking spaces — has exacerbated the already fierce debate over the role of car infrastructure in future urban development.
The pandemic has called into question our prioritization of car infrastructure over pedestrian-friendly and walkable neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, an increasing number of cities — like San Francisco and New York — were already planning to enact new car-free and public transit-oriented zones across their municipalities. Just a few hours from Grounds, the City of Alexandria has been considering closing a few blocks of its main street to vehicle traffic. With a goal of making the street more attractive to tourists and more useful for local businesses, the plan provides unique insight for Charlottesville.
As home to one of the country’s 15 remaining pedestrian malls, Charlottesville is no stranger to pedestrian-oriented design and rethinking urban planning — even if the City Council still dumps millions of dollars into a new parking garage instead of investing in public transit. The Downtown Mall is one of the most successful examples of pedestrianization in the country — we shouldn’t be afraid to stop there. The Corner is the perfect place to take the next car-free jump — it should be pedestrianized.
Pedestrianizing the Corner would boost business, increase safety for pedestrians and cyclists and foster bonds between the University and Charlottesville community. Studies show that commercial zones which serve hyperlocal, frequent-patron populations — like neighborhoods saturated with college students — are best suited for pedestrianization because most of their customers travel on foot anyway. Removing vehicle traffic and turning the Corner into a community space like the Downtown Mall would also attract new patrons from across the city.
Pedestrianization would also increase public safety. While Charlottesville only sees a handful of pedestrian deaths each year, anyone who has walked or driven on the Corner — especially at night — knows the danger of low visibility and sharp turns. Removing non-essential vehicle traffic would remove the unnecessary risk to pedestrians.
Most importantly, pedestrianization would foster community. It would remove a physical barrier between Grounds and the surrounding community, blending the two and bringing the University closer to its neighbors. One of the 2030 Strategic Plan’s four core goals is to “cultivate the most vibrant community in higher education.” While any plan to pedestrianize the Corner would have to come from City Council, the University would be smart to support such a move — not only because it would improve safety, but because pedestrianization aligns with its plan to strengthen our community.
The opportunities that come with pedestrianization are truly endless. Wider sidewalks, public seating, exercise space, bike or bus lanes, art installations, community events and festivals would all entice students and residents alike to spend their time — and money — on the Corner. Removing vehicle traffic would create an entirely new public leisure space smack between the University and the community. The local environment would also drastically improve — cleaner air and less noise would make spending time outdoors on the Corner more enjoyable.
The pandemic has upended the way we go about our daily lives, and called into question — among other things — our reliance on personal vehicles and excessive parking. Pivoting away from car infrastructure towards walkable neighborhoods and public transportation is the way forward for sustainable urban development. Pedestrianizing the Corner is the next step.
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.