Pedestrian zone: Boise to revamp 8th St. in downtown core to be permanently car-free

8th Street Downtown Boise
Posted at 4:37 PM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-18 18:37:45-04

BOISE, Idaho — This article was originally published by Margaret Carmel in BoiseDev.

After two years of makeshift changes to create a pedestrian street, Boise’s restaurant row will be getting a more permanent makeover.

On Tuesday, Boise City Council gave the go-ahead for a concept to redesign 8th Street to keep the street closed to car traffic and allow expanded patio space for businesses while making it safer for disabled and vision-impaired visitors to use. The changes, in partnership with the Ada County Highway District, will also make changes to the street crossings between blocks to make the street crossing more visible and useful for the blind and vision impaired.

And yes, this means the bright orange barriers at the ends of each of Boise’s two pedestrian-only blocks of 8th Street will come down. The project is expected to cost roughly $600,000 and will soon head to the engineering and design phase.

Eighth Street went fully pedestrian-only in the summer of 2020 in an effort to give struggling downtown restaurants room to spread tables out and serve more customers outside. Nearly two years later, Boise has kept the design and now wants to make it permanent.

Before the pandemic, the city was reluctant to remove vehicles from the street despite the overwhelming popularity of the idea.

What is changing?

The four proposed concepts were developed by urban planning consulting agency Vitruvian Planning after interviews with roughly 50 stakeholders and walking tours in the area with the disability access community and others.

Don Kostelec, a planner with Vitruvian who worked on the project, said the orange barriers at the end of 8th Street might be an eyesore, but they’re essential for people with disabilities to navigate the street. Many features of streets, like the yellow bumpy ramps bringing people down to the street level, help signal the vision-impaired they are leaving the sidewalk and entering a zone where cars travel.

“When can the orange barricades go away?” Kostelec said. “The reason the orange barricades are there is because a person with a vision disability could miss the bollards and get into the street without having the benefit of detectable warnings to tell them they are entering that risk area.”

Pedestrian zone
A rendering of the proposed changes to the street crossings near 8th Street. Courtesy of the City of Boise

To fix the problem, Kostelec recommended moving the crosswalk between blocks to the center of the street, instead of the edges, so a visually impaired person would be able to walk straight through 8th Street and through the crosswalk instead of having to make a few turns to find the marking telling them the street is beginning. The design calls for the entire width of 8th Street’s intersection with the cross streets to have a yellow ramp down to the street level.

Four options to choose from

Kostelec presented four different options for configuring the blocks of 8th Street themselves.

The option council members chose requires businesses to move their patios further back from the edge of the street to give room for people with disabilities to navigate using the edge of the sidewalk easily, while still giving some room for businesses to have their patios. Kostelec said this option was the most preferred by all stakeholders, both businesses and the accessibility community.

This option will also allow bike racks, trees and other infrastructure located on the edge of the sidewalk to be more easily accessible than it is now.

“I can see why businesses would want to keep (the current set up) because they do have huge patios, but I feel like (this concept) strikes a good balance between having nice patios and also creating space for the rest of the folks using 8th Street as well,” Woodings said. “I think creating a more permanent solution would be preferable.”

Other options Kostelec studied included returning 8th Street to its pre-COVID-19 form with car traffic and leaving the street largely as it is with patios reaching all the way to the edge of the sidewalk. He also proposed a concept that would create a dedicated pathway on the sidewalks for pedestrians to use, but it would limit the amount of patio space for restaurants.

8th street rejected proposal
A rendering of an alternative concept city council did not select, which would have created a dedicated pathway on the sidewalk for pedestrians. Courtesy of the City of Boise

City Council Member Jimmy Hallyburton said he wasn’t set on any one concept, but he was concerned the design council selected would make it difficult for vision-impaired pedestrians to navigate 8th Street due to changes in how the street is laid out. He said the city should make sure it is intentional about removing confusing road markings on 8th Street in the redesign and keeping the walking area as simple to move through as possible.

“In (the alternative concept) there is an obvious space where you would be walking,” he said. “I want to make sure if we do this we will do it right for all of the different road users and we will be considering the folks with disabilities.”