COVID-19 was a harsh blow to the service industry across the country and small college towns like Blacksburg were dealt one even harsher. Seemingly overnight, Virginia Tech students were returning home, and many restaurants who thrived on their indoor dining had to make do with take out only, so many of Blacksburg’s cherished restaurants were struggling. To combat these issues, Blacksburg — like many other places — chose to close off part of Draper Road to through traffic. City officials put seating outside and changed the end of Draper Road into a place for the community to gather. Now that many more students and Blacksburg residents are vaccinated and the pandemic is lifting, the space has become an outdoor gathering spot for people and a pillar of the community that Blacksburg would be wise to replicate in more places.
Many cities and towns in the United States face a fundamental problem: They are car-centric. This means that main parts of the downtown area are taken up by infrastructure used for automobiles. Even walkable places like Blacksburg’s downtown area are not immune to this. Main Street rumbles with traffic from early in the morning to late in the afternoon; meanwhile, on side streets, cars zip past pedestrians — often at unsafe speeds — which is a problem that is echoed in perhaps every other city in the country. According to the Old Urbanist, cities in America dedicate a large portion of their downtown to parking or roadways, valuable real estate that could instead be used for people, restaurants and other businesses.
In an effort to combat this effect during the pandemic when vehicle traffic decreased, many cities opted to close downtown streets to traffic. They made room for outdoor dining and safe places for the community to gather during the pandemic. Cities are discovering that these public spaces offer much more than simply a place to sit.
This sentiment was echoed by Stephanie Davis, a collegiate assistant professor for the Center for Public Administration & Policy (CPAP).
“I absolutely think it's a great idea to utilize public spaces for other types of uses as opposed to vehicle traffic,” Davis said. “With the pandemic, there weren't a lot of people, so that gave restaurants the opportunity to offer safer ways to dine. If you look at small college towns, they were hit the hardest by the pandemic because the students left. Those restaurants rely on students so any way they can encourage people to partake is ideal.”
Walkability is a measure of how accessible or friendly a given area is to pedestrians. Blacksburg scores high in this regard, having a score of 88/100 on the walkability index. Both students and regular citizens benefit from a more walkable downtown area.
“It's something that cities large and small can benefit from,” Davis said. “I hope to see that sort of thing continue. I would also like to see walkability increase in other cities.”
Blacksburg should follow its own example; by closing Draper Road, Blacksburg has created a beautiful space that allows the community to gather safely. Likewise, it increases the economic activity of the small shops and cafes around the road closure. One thing can ultimately be said: cities are for people, not cars. It would be wise of Blacksburg to make more changes like this to make our town an even better place to live, work and study.