Active Trans Urges City to Think Big With List of Potential Car-Free Streets

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Could Chicago create a vibrant car-free space like New York’s Times Square? Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago has a number of innovative projects in the works that reconfigure streets to prioritize walking, transit and cycling and create lively public spaces, but one area where we still lag behind peer cities is the creation of car-free spaces. Today the Active Transportation Alliance called for the city to rectify that, releasing a list of 20 streets and locations that could be transformed into places for people to stroll, bike, shop, relax and congregate — respites from our automobile-dominated streets.

“Chicago lacks for car-free spaces: parks, plazas and pedestrian malls,” Active Trans director Ron Burke told me. “These kind of places can be really vibrant attractions for a community. This proposal is about placemaking, encouraging biking and walking, and rebalancing the public right-of-way.” He noted that the city has roughly 4,500 miles of streets, about a quarter of its total landmass, and most of that is dominated by autos.

The list includes ideas ranging from the commonsense to the visionary. Downtown, a lane of Clark Street might be converted into a protected bike lane with a landscaped seating area next to it, Active Trans suggests. Monroe could be completely pedestrianized between Michigan and the lakefront, with underpasses added at Michigan and Lake Shore Drive to facilitate crossings. The Mag Mile could be transformed into a transit mall, not unlike Denver’s successful 16th Street Mall.

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Monroe was opened to pedestrians and cyclists during Open Streets in 2012. Photo: John Greenfield

In Pilsen, Carpenter, Miller and/or Morgan could be cul-de-sac-ed on the north side of 18th to create a pedestrian plaza, since the streets currently dead end two blocks north and get little through traffic. Ellsworth and Payne Drives in Washington Park could be closed to cars during the summer to create a safer, more tranquil environment for park users. A similar treatment could be done on Humboldt Drive and/or Luis Munoz Marin Dr. in Humboldt Park.

Sections of 47th in Bronzeville, as well as Taylor in Little Italy could be pedestrianized to bring more foot traffic to stores, Active Trans proposes. Milwaukee could be closed through the Logan Square traffic circle to unify green space that is currently bisected. Broadway could be transformed into a car-free greenway from Diversey to Belmont, which would also make more room for landscaping, benches, restaurant seating and other amenities. The list includes a dozen other intriguing ideas.

Burke said he realizes that closing streets to car traffic is a tough sell in Chicago. After all, the State Street pedestrian and transit mall, which existed from 1979 to 1996 on a wide street with fast bus traffic, was widely viewed as a fiasco. “We need to think beyond the pedestrian mall, and especially the failed State Street mall,” he said. “Car-free spaces can take many different forms, including neighborhood plazas, [pedestrian-only] malls, and transit malls. And they don’t have to be permanent street closures. They can be seasonal, or evenings or weekends-only. There are lots of options.”

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Denver’s 16th Street Transit Mall. Photo: John Greenfield

“We’re not saying that all of these proposals should be implemented,” Burke added. “Just that they merit further study.”

Active Trans is basically calling for the amplification of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s Make Way for People program. That initiative has already done some modest street reconfigurations such as the creation of six People Spot mini parks in parking spaces, and the creation of Woodard Plaza, currently under construction at Milwaukee and Diversey. While some of the proposals on the list, such as removing cars from Michigan, may seem radical, they’re not so different than what has already happened in other cities, such as New York’s car-free Times Square. Hopefully CDOT will give these ideas serious consideration and we’ll see some of them become a reality.

  • madopal

    There really should be more NW side on here as well. 6 Corners? Jefferson Park Transit Center? These could all use the same treatment.

    I hope this starts some conversations at least.

  • Vic

    Growing up in Humboldt Park I would love to see him close off all the streets around the park the car traffic. You have tons of family that come to use the park and they need every single space along the street park, let alone all people use the ballfields for baseball soccer and all the family as they come. Where do you propose they park? All of the side streets? Killing off parking around a park is not a solution.

  • I think it would be very difficult to close any streets around the Jeff Park Transit Center unless you allow bus operations. With 11 or so bus routes feeding into there from all directions, there would have to be a way to access the center. However, I can see a case being made for closing parts of Lawrence around Milwaukee for festivals and/or evenings and weekends.

  • Adam Herstein

    But this one project thirty years ago failed, so every similar project after that will fail too.

  • jeff wegerson

    Bryn Mawr, Broadway to Sheridan is an interesting possibility. At first blush I rejected it because it is a transit hub with the Redline and Peterson Bus. But Alderman Osterman took Bryn Mawr out of the Redline Rehab so he could get special treatment for that Red-line stop.

    One of my goals is the Peterson BRT (see link below) that would connect Bryn Mawr with the Jefferson Park transit hub. So if the Bryn Mawr station were moved north such that a connection at Hollywod with a Peterson BRT would work, then I could support this pedestrianizing Bryn Mawr there.

    http://edgewaterobserver.blogspot.com/2010/01/parisifiing-chicago-peterson-ave-brt.html

  • JacobEPeters

    Having grown up in Lincoln Square, it is amazing what an amenity Kempf Plaza has been over the years. There are sections of Milwaukee that could really benefit from this treatment as a way of creating space for protected bike lanes, but the issue will always be convincing the old guard that there are alternatives to Milwaukee…it’s just that those alternatives might not be 2 way, 4 wheeled, or even on a street. Always good to see conversations started by bold plans, even if it doesn’t lead to any of the plans being implemented.

  • jeff wegerson

    Neither wolf nor dog. Design worked neither as a pedestrian mall nor as a transit mall (or whatever). Plus the timing was bad as American capitalism was in the midst of divesting from central cities at the time. I guess this was a case of Burnham’s make no small plans going horribly awry.

    But yes, still very useful as an example for all those people who are car fetishists in the extreme.

  • BigBabyJeezUs

    It’s too bad changes like this will – at least for the next 70 years or so – come with the added cost of reimbursing the parking meter company (either in cash or new metered parking). It’s already hard enough to improve our city streets and I think this added hurdle is really going to hold Chicago back. Thanks to Mayor Daley for his shortsightedness (and worse) and to Rahm for affirming his horrible decision.

  • Sorry Not There Yet

    There are many likely problems with several of these proposals. As commentators have previously pointed out there is the parking meter situation. There is also the issue of several of these streets hosting busy CTA bus routes. Really is there a net benefit to moving the CTA buses off these streets to allow for more pedestrian space? As pointed out frequently on this blog in regards to Ashland BRT proposal, good bus service is what brings people to local businesses. There is also the issue of providing some truck access for deliveries to business (this likely can be accommodated through limited hours for truck access). Then there is the issue of emergency vehicles. In some places this isn’t a big issue. In others it is a huge issue.

    The Make Way for People program is much better focused. It looks at small areas that can be enlivened. It tries to replicate the benefits of places like Lincoln Square. That is 1) not disruptive to traffic, 2) cost effective and 3) a great placemaking strategy. Transforming small roadway areas to plazas, pocket parks, etc can work. Active Transportation Alliance however is proposing to close long stretches of busy streets (for example 1/2 mile of Broadway and nearly 1 mile of North Michigan Avenue).

    It is hard to give Active Transportation Alliance serious thought since they released Zero criteria for their chosen routes. Sure they say they are trying to start conversation? How about following that up with some real data. And did anyone notice that in all the media yesterday, not one (not a single) alderman or key city staff person voice support. Bad rollout, Active Transportation Alliance!

  • madopal

    Yes, but narrowing to 2 lanes with bus priority would be a start. The surrounding area has good street level retail and could easily be a more robust retail environment.

  • madopal

    More BRT is definitely better, but I’d think Irving would make a better E/W BRT route than Peterson. It’s more centrally located, would service Edgewater/Andersonville/Lincoln Square, and would connect with the north end of the Ashland BRT. Eventually, I could see both Peterson and Fullerton being E/W on the north side. And to service further north, BRT should really extend north on Ashland all the way up to Rosehill.

    Also, the train sections where Peterson turns into Caldwell thru Edgebrook would severely increase the cost of BRT going all the way to Jeff Park.

  • Oregon Mamacita

    Anyone visit Eugene Oregon in the 1990’s? They made parts of downtown into a pedestrian mall and it became a ghost town. Now, I agree that each project needs to be considered on its own merits, and that Chicago is not Eugene, OR.
    I just want people to proceed with caution and ask if you will end up with the
    empty stores I remember from Eugene.

    The cool thing about Eugene: protected paved bike trails between downtown and the mall. Awesome! Teens riding bikes to the mall.

  • Oregon Mamacita

    Your remarks seem quite sensible and sensitive to your city. Hopefully, people will listen so that Chicago can reap the benefits of a more pedestrian-friendly area without killing the area. Because, these plans, poorly implemented, are truly bad for business. It is all about careful, realistic implementation.

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  • jennacatlin4

    Good to know that Chicago is working on many projects to prioritize walking, this provides spacious spaces to the people to move in an area specified for walking.Meet and greet car parking Heathrow

  • There we go again: “Burke said he realizes that closing streets to car traffic is a tough sell in Chicago. After all, the State Street pedestrian and transit mall, which existed from 1979 to 1996 on a wide street with fast bus traffic, was widely viewed as a fiasco.” It was a fiasco because of poor planning and design, (making one wonder if it was intentionally made to look as drab as possible) while they could have copied the success stories of cities all over the world. Chicago, where exceptionalism reigns.

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