Lately I've been following posts by the Old Urbanist and one of his main inspirations, Nathan Lewis. Lewis puts aside political issues of compromise with car boosters and examines the question of how we would want our environment to look if we weren't planning for cars. He looks at pedestrian-oriented cities around the world and highlights examples of good design. One concept he refers to again and again is the Really Narrow Street.
These streets were usually created before cars were invented, and they have no place for cars. Some are too narrow for any car. Most are wide enough for one car to pass, but not much wider. There are examples from every continent, including Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.
In North America we have a few of these streets in some of our older towns. Here is one of the oldest, Acoma (established ca. 1300):
Here is Santo Domingo (1496):
One of my favorites, in part because it's a small town, is Rockport, Massachussetts (1743):
I spent an enjoyable few days in Rockport last summer. The street in this picture, Bearskin Neck, leads to the main docks and was a key route during the town's heyday as a fishing port. It now leads to the departure docks for some tourist boats, but is more of a destination in itself, and is lined with shops and restaurants. It functions essentially as a woonerf.
Notice that none of the streets above were laid out after 1800. Lewis attributes this to an American fad he calls "nineteenth-century hypertrophism," where wide streets became a symbol of progress and wealth. He observes that in his hometown of New Berlin, New York, the main street was designed so that you could turn a horse and carriage around in it, even though that wasn't necessary for any social purpose.
Lewis argues that Really Narrow Streets privilege the pedestrian and create an opportunity for intense commerce that cannot be matched by any street wide enough to handle cars and pedestrians together. This is an experience that shopping malls, cruise ships and theme parks are designed to replicate.
At this point you may be saying to yourself, "We tried pedestrian streets in the seventies, and many cities are allowing cars back in, because it killed the street." One answer to that is that the streets were still "hypertrophic," too wide to feel comfortable with just pedestrians. My main answer is that it was the subsidies to sprawl commerce that killed downtown streets. Many of them would probably have done just fine as pedestrian streets if the government hadn't been simultaneously building big competing highways and parking lots on the edge of town. Some of them have done fine.