On certain Fridays in the summer, there is a concert in front of the courthouse in downtown Monroe. And a rather remarkable thing happens. The city closes down Broad Street from Washington to Spring Street. Cars have to go around for just a couple of hours.
People pack into the space between those two roads. Families set up lawn chairs on Broad Street. Kids throw footballs. Dogs wander. Music drifts.
There is a future for Monroe where downtown is like this all the time. Not that there are always bands playing on the courthouse lawn, but where there are never cars in downtown on Broad Street.
This is not as crazy as it sounds. Several city leaders who I’ve spoken with over the past year have expressed interest in closing downtown to cars.
And there is plenty of evidence that doing so would make downtown a better place.
Take Ghent, Belgium. In 1996, the city made almost 90 acres of its city center off-limits to cars. In 2017, that expanded by 17%, with the support of 72% of Ghentians.
More bars and restaurants have opened since the expansion, and empty storefronts are filling fast, the deputy-mayor of Ghent told The Guardian last year. Bikers and walkers rule. Paris, Hamburg, Oslo and Barcelona have made similar, but smaller moves in recent years.
Other cities have closed streets to cars to improve transportation. In October, New York City closed 14th Street, a major east-west artery, to traffic except buses and trucks, leading bus commutes to plummet and traffic on nearby streets to barely budge. San Francisco will do the same to Market Street, one of its largest streets.
Fifty years from now, it might be unusual for cities to have centers with cars in them than without. It’d be a shame if Monroe was one of them. But it will not, obviously, happen anytime soon.
Step one would be for the Georgia Department of Transportation to finally build the bypass around town. Step two would be to close Broad Street once a week, to see how people and local businesses like it. In my mind, it would made sense to keep Spring Street open and close two chunks, Washington to Spring and Spring to Highland. Then, if the public were on board, step three would be to close those sections full time.
There would be challenges. Businesses could have trouble with deliveries. Streets like Madison might see more traffic. More housing would need to be built within walking distance of downtown. But it could be a future with more nights like those Friday nights.