Q: Why doesn't Kirkland turn downtown into a Pedestrian-Only Zone?
This is a question which is raised often by folks who are tired of congestion and who long for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown core. The idea is enticing: tree-lined streets without curbs with pedestrians roaming leisurely about freely. Automobiles will be banished to traveling the outskirts of town on a ring road of sorts. This vision seems very European indeed.
And it seems rather idealistic for Kirkland.
Unfortunately for those with such desires, Kirkland is located in America, not in Europe. As such, we have neither the population density nor public transportation system built over a century to support a pedestrian-only downtown.
Another hinderance is our geography. Downtown Kirkland consists of only a handful of square blocks. Lake Washington and three hills surround downtown which severely limits our ability to move vehicle through or around the downtown core. Lake Washington Blvd, Third Street and Sixth Street are the only ways for traffic to flow through town. Also, there are only two east-west routes which bound downtown -- Central Way to the north and Kirkland Avenue to the South.
Parking, of course, is another issue which would crop up if downtown were pedestrian-only. Would Kirkland be willing to follow the European model and build a piazza or public square with underground parking to bring more people downtown while leaving their cars underground? Who knows?
Or maybe we should pretend that cars won't exist twenty years from now and everyone will simply ride the bus or light rail?
How realistic is that thought?
Some think our future will be without automobiles, but they are mistaken, at least for the foreseeable future. The shapes and sizes of cars will change and the power sources cars use will move beyond fossil fuels, but the automobile, at least in America, is here to stay. Cars are still as much a part of our society as, well, as the commercial jingle from my childhood used to go, "baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet." That will change if fewer people can afford to own cars.
Reality is we will have a better public transportation system, with more people will utilizing those options. Greater population density will demand this. Driving an automobile will become more of a luxury and our public spaces will become more and more hostile to cars. These trends are visible today.
There is hope for those who dream of a more Euro-Kirkland. In a nod toward the European model, the renovation of Park Lane. As envisioned by planners, the street will morph into a tree-lined pedestrian-only oasis winding through downtown in the not so distant future.
Let's not get our heads stuck in utopian visions of a world free of automobiles, where everyone uses mass transit exclusively. Let us plan not only for more public transportation, but let us also realize that cars will still play a vital, and majority roll in our transportation needs for the next several decades.
When we plan for the future, we need account for the realities of our culture, lifestyle, density, geography, transportation modes and existing city designs.
We are not Europe. And we cannot graft European models on our very different American landscape.