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.