Streets without cars: how the pandemic has changed downtown America

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As the sun sets, another day of socially distanced attractions comes to a close in downtown Ventura.

Jonah Billings, Writer

If you head over to Main Street Ventura right now, you will probably notice something is out of the ordinary. People wearing masks walk freely in the middle of the street, and dining tables occupy parking places once stuffed with cars. 

Recently, the Ventura City Council extended the Temporary Outdoor Business Expansion Program. Nicknamed Main Street Moves, the program closed Main Street to all vehicle traffic and allowed restaurants to put tables on the streets in order to socially-distance their patrons. Downtown areas large and small across the country have been doing similar things to save their businesses from the jaws of the pandemic. What began as a temporary solution now has many calling for it to become a permanent institution in cities around the world.

Major cities across the world are closing streets to cars.

The concept of vehicle-free streets is not by any means a new idea. Cities have been making their main thoroughfares pedestrian-only for many years, for a multitude of reasons. Some hope to reduce the number of vehicle-related deaths and injuries, while others attempt to control air quality and pollution (fossil fuel emissions have plunged 17 percent due to closed roads during the pandemic). In many cases, however, banning cars is actually a smart financial decision in addition to an aesthetic one. Eli Tan, who owns Spicetopia on Main Street, agrees with this assessment. “The Main Street closure has brought in business we otherwise wouldn’t have received,” says Tan. “In addition to possibly a higher profile from the street, nearby outdoor restaurant seating has directly increased sales.”

You may be wondering if, theoretically, Main Street could stay closed after the pandemic and still remain successful. The answer? Absolutely. Take Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, for instance. Paved with red bricks and lined with over a thousand businesses, Pearl Street is one of the American Planning Association’s Ten Greatest American Places. It showcases a wide variety of entertainment and character that would not be possible for a street cluttered with cars. Closer to home, Santa Monica also showcases a pedestrian-only downtown area, which has become one of its most attractive features.   

Would you like downtown Ventura to remain car-free?

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Even as you read this, cities are closing more and more streets to cars, for the pandemic and beyond. Could a pedestrian-only Main Street here in Ventura bring that incredible small town, americana atmosphere that so many cities strive to find? “Even when [the pandemic] does end, Ventura has awesome weather,” says Tan, who is in favor of a continued closure. “More people will visit or come out of their homes to dine.” While there are currently no plans to permanently close Main Street to cars after the pandemic, one can’t help but wonder if it’s out of the question. 

What do you think?