In a great post on Monday, Crimson at Oakland Streets discussed the problems and opportunities with creating pedestrian zones in cities. In addition to some illuminating insight into the mechanics of Bay Street/Emeryville (which should give pause to those who think there is much there for Oakland to emulate), Crimson called for a more experimental approach to creating pedestrian zones, which I think is spot on.
As mentioned, some places like Telegraph Avenue (near the UC-Berkeley campus) just cry out for pedestrianization. Having spent over half a decade in Madison (image above), where the main commercial thoroughfare (State Street, connecting the campus to the Capitol) is restricted to buses and service vehicles, I can attest to how well this would work. In fact, everytime I go to Telegraph, I'm amazed it still carries traffic (one way, no less).
But with other places, a much more experimental attitude would be beneficial. Somehow, I don't feel as if permanently restricting vehicles in Chinatown would work. On a commercial basis, it absolutely could, but there is an appealing chaos there that might be lost. But to know, we'd have to try. For a place like 17th Street, I could see starting with a quarterly or monthly street closing on a weekend day, which might serve to highlight the street and create more energy upon it. After a while, you'd adjust the frequency (more or less often) and the days (Saturday, Sunday, or weekdays?), until you found a sweet spot, mindful that the sweet spot itself might be in flux, and would require continued experimentation.
Too often, cities seem locked into existing infrastructures, conventional wisdoms, and mindless habits: you can't build a 6-story building next to a bunch of 2-story buildings (or a modern one next to a traditional) because it would be "out of context", congestion is bad for a city, or prescribing traffic movement via signs and paint rather than through interaction ensures greater safety.
Something like closing a street to cars for a day is so easy and cheap, and the opportunities it provides for shaking citizens out of ingrained and cliched modes of living is so visceral. Oakland would do well to take Crimson's advice and walk it out.