Pedestrian Zones: Definition, History, and Outlook

Pedestrian zone in Montmartre, Paris

josanmu/Getty Images

Pedestrian zones are car-free zones (some may include bicycles, skateboards, and scooters, as well) in a city or town, designed to make it easier and more pleasant for walkers to enjoy shops, restaurants, and cafes without the noise, smells, and danger of wheeled vehicles.

These zones have become increasingly popular around the world, often in response to the style of building and living that evolved after World War II. The idea behind contemporary pedestrian zones is to encourage community interactions, small local businesses, and a more vibrant public life.

When pedestrian zones are paired with nearby housing options, it is possible to create walkable communities that can incorporate gardens and greenery, marketplaces, and opportunities for outdoor social and sports activities.

History of Pedestrian Zones

Walkable towns, arcades, and marketplaces were part of ancient Rome and built into urban areas during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Pedestrian zones separated the noise and dirt that accompanied vehicular traffic from the needs of shoppers and strollers and promoted public life.

As recently as the 1890s, pedestrians dominated the roads. Even in cities where horse-drawn carriages were everywhere, walkers were unlikely to cede the right of way. Both adults and children used the roadways as they saw fit, leaving the carriage drivers to cope with the pedestrian traffic.

Cars vs. Human-Centered Urban Planning

Then, in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the horseless carriage. Even the Model T could travel at 45 miles per hour, fast enough to be extremely dangerous. The cost of automobiles was also relatively low so that middle-class families could afford them. Car accidents were frequent, and "jaywalkers" were treated as lawbreakers.

The construction of major highways in the United States and Europe, along with the development of the suburbs after World War II made the car ubiquitous. By the 1960s, cities were beginning to be designed for cars rather than for the people who drove them.

The First Pedestrian Zones

In 1950, there were no official "pedestrian zones" in the United States or Europe. But by 1959 the first pedestrian zones were completed—one in Essen, Germany, and the other in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In Europe, pedestrian zones were created in accordance with a new vision of modern cities. In the United States, pedestrian streets existed in downtown areas. Americans referred to these streets as "malls," though they were nothing like contemporary indoor shopping malls. The most famous of the early "malls" was the Fresno Mall, created in 1964, which included play areas, walking paths, and plenty of greenery.

While Germany was the first European country to create official pedestrian zones, France followed suit in the 1970s. By 1982, there were hundreds of pedestrian zones in France, Germany, Holland, and Britain, and 70 in the United States.

Issues With Vehicle-Free Zones

The first European pedestrian zones, while attractive, had two interconnected problems. First, because they absolutely forbade wheeled vehicles, they were difficult to access at all. If you didn't live nearby, how would you get to the zones? Second, because of their isolation, they had to generate their own traffic; in other words, people needed a reason to come to and spend time in pedestrian zones.

To overcome these issues, cities like Amsterdam and Paris began turning to a more integrated version of pedestrian zones. Rather than completely eliminating vehicular traffic, they developed ways to integrate vehicular and pedestrian traffic.

Meanwhile, in the United States, pedestrian zones were already integrated into the fabric of the city. This worked well so long as people came into urban centers to do their business and shopping. As commerce and retail began to move to the outskirts of cities, however, pedestrian zones became less popular.

Pedestrian Zones Today

Today's pedestrian zones vary in style and approach. In one model, pedestrian zones include discrete areas for:

  • Vehicle-free walking
  • Bicycles and other human-powered wheeled traffic
  • Automobiles (driving and parking)
  • Greenery and other design elements such as fountains, benches, and public art as well as cafe tables set up by local restaurants and bars

Other models include vehicle-free zones, recurring street closures on assigned days or at assigned times, covered passages, and, in very rare cases, entirely vehicle-free cities. Below are some modern-day examples of pedestrians zones.


Venice Prepares For Christmas Mostly Empty Of Tourists
Venice prepares for Christmas. Laurel Chor / Getty Images

As has been the case for centuries, Venice is an entirely car-free city. Its car-free status started unintentionally, as the city's transportation is made up largely of canals and pedestrian walkways with narrow bridges. People coming to Venice can arrive by bus, train, or car—but motorized transportation must be left at the outskirts with the exception of motorboats.


An increasing number of Parisian streets are closed, partially or entirely, to vehicular traffic. Some areas have car-free days; in addition, about 100 streets are set up specifically for pedestrian traffic. The Cour Saint-Emilion is a pedestrianized courtyard featuring historic architecture, boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. Many Parisian squares are also vehicle-free, as are the city's unique covered passages.


Copenhagen, Denmark, is home to the longest pedestrian street in the world. Stroget was created in 1962 as a reaction to narrow streets crowded with moving and parked cars as well as pedestrians. This medieval section of the city boasts 3.2 linear kilometers of roads, small streets, and historical squares, making it the oldest and longest pedestrian street system in the world.

North Africa

People walking in town square
People walking in town square in Meknes, Morocco. LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

Morocco's famous medina in Fez is a large auto-free zone. In fact, with its ancient, narrow streets the area can barely accommodate bicycles. The same is the case in the medinas in Cairo, Tunis, Casablanca, and Tangier.

The Future of Pedestrian Zones

Given the international focus on global climate change, there is growing interest in vehicle-free zones.

The future of the vehicle-free movement may be centered around a philosophy called New Urbanism, which stresses livability and community over convenience and people over vehicles. New Urbanism also takes into account the growing need for cities that are environmentally friendly and sustainable. Other groups, such as the Complete Streets Coalition, have a similar perspective.

Many American city planners are taking their cue from European innovation by seeking ways to expand areas that are safe, accessible, walkable, and integrated into the larger life of the city. Bicycle lanes and outdoor dining areas with decorative features are part of this larger picture.

In recent years, climate change has also started to play a significant role in city planning. Fewer motorized vehicles will help to limit cities' carbon footprints, while more trees and greenery will improve air quality, aesthetics, and comfort.

View Article Sources
  1. Sisman, Elif Ebru. "Pedestrian Zones." Advances In Landscape Architecture, 2013, doi:10.5772/55748