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The traffic can move fast as it flows along Pittsburgh’s Liberty Avenue, going to and from the Fort Pitt Bridge.
“You’re literally coming across the bridge at 55 miles an hour,” Jeremy Waldrup, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, said during an interview on Monday. Spanning the Monongahela River, the bridge is a main entry and exit point between Interstate 376 and the city’s downtown business district, which is known as the Golden Triangle.
Liberty Avenue is about 115 feet wide in some places here, with broad medians separating at least four active lanes of northeast and southwest bound traffic that cut between commercial high-rises.
“It’s basically, kind of, a large on-ramp for the highway,” Waldrup said, referring to the portion of the thoroughfare that is near the Fort Pitt Bridge.
But, after a recent workshop, the Downtown Partnership, and others involved in the city’s downtown planning and business community, are taking a close look at a concept that would involve radically altering this part of Liberty Avenue into what’s called a “shared space.”
“There aren’t any rules”
The concept is still nascent and has not been approved, or formally advanced, by any city officials. But as imagined, it could involve removing traffic signals, signs, lane markings, and crosswalks along a roughly 800-foot stretch of Liberty Avenue between Commonwealth Place and Stanwix Street. Pedestrians would mingle freely with cars in a plaza-like atmosphere.
“Shared space really is an open design, meaning that there aren’t any rules,” said Robert Ping, technical assistance program manager at the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, an organization that is based in Port Townsend, Washington.
The Walkable and Livable Communities Institute helped facilitate the two-day workshop in Pittsburgh, where the idea for the shared space on Liberty Avenue emerged. The Downtown Partnership held the event in late June in conjunction with the AARP.
Ping said the segment of the avenue that was discussed during the workshop is “really quite messy the way it’s being used by drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, trucks, buses, everybody.”
While that may be so, he also acknowledged that shared spaces do have the potential to leave some motorists a bit unnerved.
“It looks like it’s chaos,” Ping said. “The driver feels afraid they’re going to hit someone.”
But he also noted: “Because they’re going slower, everybody has more reaction time to deal with each other. Speed is what kills.”
Shared spaces already exist in other countries, in cities around the U.S. and, to some extent, in Pittsburgh’s Market Square, which is only a few blocks from Liberty Avenue. But Ping believes that the concept from the workshop could be groundbreaking, at least domestically.
“If they did the full shared space concept that was invented during the workshop, Pittsburgh definitely would be a leader,” he said. “We don’t have anything at that scale here in the U.S.”
Currently designed for a different era
According to Franklin Toker’s book, Pittsburgh: a New Portrait, the area’s nickname was first used after The Great Fire of 1845.
At that time, then-Mayor William Howard apparently said: “We shall make of this triangle of blackened ruins a golden triangle whose fame will endure as a priceless heritage.”
These days, the Liberty Avenue skyline is dominated by commercial towers. There are also some residential buildings nearby. Close to where the avenue meets Stanwix is the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s Gateway light-rail subway station. There are stops for major bus lines around as well. And at the triangle’s tip, where the rivers converge, is Point State Park, a 36-acre, National Historic Landmark.
“Downtown is still Western Pennsylvania’s major job center, there’s 113,000 people who work downtown every day,” said Sean Luther, executive director for Envision Downtown, a public-private partnership created by Mayor Bill Peduto and the Downtown Partnership.
Envision focuses on both long-term planning efforts and short-term demonstration and pilot projects, which have to do with urban design, transit and infrastructure. During an interview on Monday, Luther said that transit and street upgrades have not kept pace with the other development that has happened in the city during recent years.
“Even as downtown Pittsburgh has undergone this really dramatic revolution, with an emphasis on residential growth, cultural amenities, and public space,” he said, “the road network, and the transportation network, is basically the same as it was after World War II.”
Pittsburgh is not unique in this regard, according to Ping of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.
“The way we’ve designed our roadways is to really prioritize the automobile’s throughput and speed,” he said.
In his view, this type of design for city streets is making less and less sense for many parts of the U.S. these days given changes in demographics and preferences.
Baby Boomers, he said, are “tired of commuting in from the burbs, or they’re no longer able to,” and some are looking to retire in dense urban areas. Millennials, meanwhile, “don’t want to start commuting.”
“We’ve hit a tipping point,” Ping added. “It’s a shift in culture, from the ‘we love cars’ culture that started in the ’50s in the U.S., to ‘we love being around other people and cool stuff.”
In addition to improving pedestrian safety, the Downtown Partnership’s Waldrup sees other benefits that could arise from the shared space concept, or similar types of changes in the Golden Triangle. “We think that through better design, by encouraging folks to walk through this space, there’s a great opportunity to see increased retail density,” he said, “and to really draw folks into Point State Park. It’s a place that most downtown office workers don’t go to.”
For now, small steps
There is certainly no plan to begin ripping out traffic lights and erasing lane markings on Liberty Avenue in the coming weeks. Waldrup and Luther both agreed that if the full shared-space concept were to take shape, it would not happen for at least another two or three years.
The concept is complicated by the fact that it hinges on re-working traffic patterns to funnel more vehicles onto the nearby Fort Duquesne Boulevard and the Boulevard of the Allies.
“Those are two fairly large roadways that have some increased capacity, and provide safer access to the Fort Pitt Bridge,” Waldrup said.
Ping described this as “spreading the load” of vehicles to other parts of the city.
“There’s really no need for a car to come in and point through the middle of downtown,” he said. “It could actually be quicker for them, and easier, to go a little bit out of the way.”
Though realizing the shared space concept may still be far off, there are smaller changes to Liberty Avenue that the Downtown Partnership plans to recommend to the city in the near term.
These initial recommendations are based on discussions that took place during the recent workshop and include things like “bulbed” curbs, which typically bulge slightly into the street at crosswalks, and possibly eliminating islands where, Waldrup said, pedestrians often end up stuck between lanes of traffic. He estimated that some of these changes could begin to take place in within the next six weeks. “It’s something that the city is committed to,” Waldrup said.
There’s also talk, he noted, of closing off a short spur of Penn Avenue to vehicle traffic. This piece of the avenue runs diagonally between Liberty and Stanwix, near Gateway Station.
Waldrup sees the possible closure as a way to test the shared space concept by letting pedestrians mix with cyclists.
As for when the closure on Penn could take place, he said that it would be something the Downtown Partnership would “advance from a planning perspective later this summer and into the fall,” and on the city’s side, he “could see something happening in the spring.”
Ping sees real promise in what the Golden Triangle might one day look like if a plan for the shared space does eventually move forward.
“There’d just be a lot more humanity on the street,” he said. “It would just become a really beautiful and fun place to be.”
This post originally appeared on Route Fifty, an Atlantic partner site.
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