Mayor’s Office Nixes Car-Free Mag Mile, But May Embrace Other Ideas

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Which do you prefer? The Mag Mile filled with cars this afternoon vs. filled with people during a 2009 car-free event. Photos: John Greenfield

Senior mayoral advisor David Spielfogel had some disappointing quotes in yesterday’s Sun-Times, arguing that “it doesn’t make sense” to make large streets like the Mag Mile car-free. However, that doesn’t mean innovative changes to major roadways are off the table.

The car-free Boul Mich proposal by Transitized’s Shaun Jacobsen that inspired Active Trans to include the street on their list of potential streets for pedestrianization was fairly radical, calling for no motorized vehicles or cross traffic. However, Jacobsen’s idea represents just one end of the spectrum of solutions that would make Michigan a better street.

Perhaps Michigan could be transformed into a transit mall, like Denver’s thriving 16th Street or the vibrant State Street mall in Madison, Wisconsin. Alternately, car access could be retained, but a few of the six mixed-traffic lanes could be converted to uses like dedicated transit lanes, wider sidewalks, seating areas, and/or protected bike lanes.

Spielfogel raised the specter of Chicago’s State Street mall, viewed by many as a failure and often cited as evidence that pedestrianizing streets will never succeed in this city. “Shutting an entire street like Michigan Avenue is not something [Emanuel] would be very supportive of,” he said. “It seems like a drastic change. I can’t see that happening any time soon. Didn’t they try that on State Street and it didn’t really work?”

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David Spielfogel

Pedestrian and transit malls work best when they’re used to make an already-thriving retail strip even better. The problem with the State Street mall, which existed from 1979 to 1996, is that it was implemented on a business strip that was struggling at the time. The mall’s poor design combined with a seedy retail mix to form a less-than-welcoming walking environment. As such, it shouldn’t be held up as evidence that a well-planned pedestrian district or transit-priority street can’t be a major win for Chicago.

The Sun-Times also noted that some characterized the temporary pedestrianization of the Mag Mile for a 2009 Oprah Winfrey special as a “reckless” decision that “smacked of elitism.” I attended that happening and found it to be an inspiring example of how streets can be energized when space for cars is replaced by space for people. The free event also struck me as being very inclusive, drawing a more ethnically and economically diverse crowd than is typical for the ritzy shopping district.

On the bright side, it appears that the city is open to some of Active Trans’ ideas for making city streets better places to walk, bike, shop, and relax. “Their plan is a list of possible places to find space for things other than cars,” Spielfogel said. “The mayor has been very clear since Day One that he’s into that.” He noted that Chicago’s People Spot parklets, which transform car-parking spaces into seating areas, have been popular, and acknowledged the success of New York City’s car-free Times Square.

And even though Spielfogel said banishing cars from the Mag Mile is unrealistic, he said the proposal is a “conversation-starter” for other street reconfiguration ideas. For example, yesterday he tweeted support for politician Alexi Giannoulias’s call for pedestrianizing the Viagra Triangle, the upscale nightlife area bounded by Rush, State and Bellvue.

Active Trans director Ron Burke wasn’t fazed by Spielfogel’s comments. “Making these streets completely car-free is only one item on the menu of options we’d like to see evaluated, so let’s talk about other ideas, too,” he told me. “We can debate whether a completely car-free Mag Mile is the best option. But it’s clear that the current layout falls short of what this iconic corridor deserves.”

He noted that cars move a small percentage of the people on Michigan, and do so slowly, but take up most of the space. “It’s everyone’s public right of away, not just people in cars, so let’s look for a design that embraces and prioritizes all the foot and bus traffic.”

Streetsblog Chicago will resume publication on Tuesday. Have a great Presidents Day!

  • MLKendricks

    To me a street I could see closed off to cars is Lincoln between Belmont and Addison. It currently is served heavily by transit at Addison and the Paulina Brown Line stops. Its adjacent to Ashland and its Bus (and possible BRT). It has a good anchor in the Whole Foods being close. It has a lot of local bars and some businesses. I think with the new development adjacent to the Paulina stop coming in, it could get the density it needs.

  • Thanks for keeping this alive John, and kudos to the folks of Active Trans. If enough people and businesses start seeing the potential the politicians will follow.

  • Sure thing, but I’m not keeping this thing alive, just responding to the steady flow of news on the topic. That’s a sign that Active Trans was successful in their goal of getting people talking about the potential for rethinking Chicago streets.

  • Adam Herstein

    Both of the scenes depicted in your photo look awful. If you’re trying to sell people on the idea of a car-free street, you shouldn’t be using a photo of the street packed so tightly with people that you can’t move.

  • JacobEPeters

    I could see a one way southbound working for this stretch of Lincoln east of Paulina, but there just isn’t that much street activity north of the Paulina stop other than Fernando’s and Paulina Meat Market. One way on that section along with from Southport to Ashland could actually simplify the Belmont/Ashland intersection. It could allow for a more regularly shaped roundabout than the one proposed by Moss Design in the Lakeview Area Master Plan for the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce http://moss-design.com/2013/10/18/why-a-roundabout-at-lincoln-ashland-and-belmont-is-good-for-everyone/

  • As you mention in the article, going completely car-free is only one option, for Michigan Ave or any of the 19 other streets listed. There could be full or partial restrictions on motor vehicle traffic only for evenings, or weekends, or for summer months. I think it would be most successful if done in conjunction with the “peak hours” of the neighboring businesses, so it would be building up an area already showing potential. We already have a seasonal closing of a major street that is hugely popular: the farmer’s market on Division St, which closes that street to MV traffic on Saturday mornings from May through October around State Street. I’m sure there are others in the city that I’m not aware of.

    Making some of the streets surrounding Viagra Triangle pedestrian-only during summer evenings and weekends would be hugely popular. During those times, there are people practically spilling over the perimeter of the park as they enjoy sitting, eating gelato and relaxing. What’s amazing is how few spaces like that exist in Chicago. As I’ve said, we need one of these in every neighborhood of the city.

  • Anne A

    If you’ve ever visited Memphis and experienced the evening street closures on Beale Street, you’ve seen the potential of what this can do for an entertainment district. I understand that they also do daytime closures during their annual blues festival.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I’d suggest someone go out to the businesses on Bryn Mawr where Active Trans has proposed closing three blocks and explain to the businesses what the potential is?

    Here’s some things to consider. For the first time in over 20 years, all the available commercial space is rented on Bryn Mawr (except for CTA properties). What a change from the boarded up buildings of 10 years ago. What financial benefit will businesses get from taking car and bus traffic off of Bryn Mawr. (After all, businesses are in business to make money). Can you pin point how many new customers they will need to draw in if their customer base that uses buses and cars no longer conveniently come to their place of business or not as often? Can you explain to them how much it costs to attract a new customer and what a it will cost them to get that new business?

    From Kenmore to Broadway there are already 6 restaurants that have sidewalk cafes. Even the Subway Restaurant has outdoor seating. Will more seating in the middle of the street attract more customers? Based on what factors?

    What do you do with the mental patients from Bryn Mawr Care and All American Nursing Home that pan handle up and down Bryn Mawr. They certainly would love more outdoor seating. What do you do with the petty drug dealers that still hang around and the typical grifters that hang around EL stations?

    Do children need a place to play? There are three park district playlots within a 1/4 mile of Bryn Mawr as well as Swift & Goudy schools which have terrific playlots too. Goudy also has a cushioned surface play area where kids can run their bikes on. Senn Highschool has tennis courts football and soccer fields a track and a playlot. And of course the Lakefront, the biggest playlot of all.

    This is not at all like the revered Kempf plaza off of Lincoln Square with a 1 block closed off side street we are talking about. It took years to attract stable businesses to Bryn Mawr and for many of them, losing the prospect of business by removing car traffic could have a detrimental effect on their business.

    I’d love to see what words you would use to convince business owners that this is such a swell idea. And don’t forget to mention how in the winter months when the chilly wind off the lake blows down Bryn Mawr Avenue how attractive this will be to only walkers and bikers.

  • Lizzyisi

    The first Looptopia event downtown was pretty wonderful. As I recall, some streets were completely blocked off and some were limited access.

    I think it’s a shame how little space in our business districts and neighborhoods are reserved for pedestrians. It seems to me that just narrowing some streets, in order to provide more space to walk, would go a long way toward demonstrating that we don’t need to be as accommodating of cars and through traffic as we are.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I will second that. Sidewalks in this city are wayyyyy too narrow. Every time I go home to Seattle, and am confronted with 15-20 foot wide unobstructed sidewalks I’m just in heaven!

    I mean, in some places, Chicago’s sidewalks are plenty wide too, they’re just obstructed with picket fences and planter boxes, which look fine, but we actually need some of that space for walking….

  • It seems like the Chicago Loop Alliance would be a huge supporter of all these ideas, since they hosted the successful Couch Place event last fall, and are looking to transform Wabash. Actually, Wabash is relatively low-volume traffic and has a narrow, quintessential Chicago look that would be fantastic for occasionally opening a segment of it for pedestrians and bicyclists only. It seems like they already have some big plans for the coming season, including alley parties, and pop-up People Spots, according to this article:
    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2014-02-14/site/ct-loop-alliance-0214-biz-20140214_1_chicago-loop-alliance-art-loop-tax-district

  • Anne A

    Way too many large obstructions have been added to downtown sidewalks in recent years – overly wide planters, billboards, sidewalk cafes, etc. We need to have some limits to how much sidewalk can be blocked by all this crap. Planters are nice, but they should be narrower. The width of sidewalk cafes should be limited more than it is now. Those have become an out of control plague on some blocks.

  • MarytM

    I have been to 16th Street Mall in Denver many times, and I have to say that while it’s definitely nice to be able to walk around so easily, the area has also become a mecca for loiterers and the homeless. I worry that most of what makes it nice because of the lack of cars ends up being completely offset. It’s a bit surprising and disappointing at the same time.

  • On 16th Street the Downtown Ambassadors keep an eye out for aggressive pandhandling and also do outreach to homeless people to connect them with social services: http://www.downtowndenver.com/business-retail/clean-safe

  • There are lots of different options for car-free and car-light streets. Perhaps a 24/7 car-free Bryn Mawr wouldn’t make sense, but that strip has a lot of parallels with the area around the Argyle Red Line stop, where late afternoon street closures during the summer for the Argyle Night Market have been very successful, and a pedestrian-priority “shared street” is planned.

  • MarytM

    Yeah, I hear you. That’s good work by that group, always nice to see. I guess my point is that sometimes life is just a big game of whack-a-mole. You think you’re going to make an area nice by getting rid of cars, then other problems pop up as a result, and it ends up being really no better than before, just worse in different ways. And when you consider that Michigan Ave is an absolutely critical tourist attraction for Chicago, it doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially when the problems with panhandling have been so bad on Michigan Ave in recent years that various lawsuits were filed.

    Also, I’m not sure if anyone else mentioned this but I think that unfortunately, there is now a quite serious safety aspect to this. It’s really sad that crime has become an issue in that area (mostly in the summer, at night), although CPD has done a better job recently of trying to get more officers out there and visible. I work on the Mag Mile and I have little doubt that turning it into a giant pedway would make the crime situation much, much worse. Kind of sad that it’s come to this.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    I don’t understand how there’s a “safety aspect” to pedestrianizing the Mag Mile. The CPD officers covering the area are already on foot, on Segways, on bikes, on horses, or on golf carts, and pedestrianized streets always make exceptions for emergency-services vehicles. I would think pedestrianizing the area would make it harder for aggressive panhandlers and pickpockets because pedestrians would no longer be funneled right past them in a narrow chute, like cattle to the slaughter.

  • MarytM

    So you think enabling thousands more people to wander around this area in gigantic crowds while giving police far less mobility would help the current crime infestation during the warmer months? I don’t understand how this could be argued. It’s okay to admit that not every idea that would do away with cars is a good one.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    New Orleans’ 1970 conversion of Bourbon Street to a nighttime-only pedestrian mall seems to be working. Taxis, delivery trucks, private cars, and carriages are free to use the street during the day, but at dusk it fills with (drunk) tourists.

    The reasonable part of me says let’s close the Viagra Triangle to traffic at dusk, and let’s close the Mag Mile to traffic from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., when the stores are open.

    The militant human in me says screw the cars. These oppressors have had their run. It’s time to take back our streets for the humans!

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    I think humans should be free to wander in gigantic herds as nature intended.

    How would pedestrianizing the Mag Mile reduce the police’s mobility? They know their cars are already stuck in traffic with the other cars. That’s why they put officers on foot; on bikes, which move faster than pedestrians; on Segways that get them up above the crowd; on golf carts they can drive at low speeds on sidewalks; and on tall, fast, self-driving crowd-control machines called horses.

    Once the humans reclaim the Mag Mile for our own use, emergency services vehicles can simply use State Street, Wabash, Fairbanks, LSD, and other nearby north-south streets before turning onto the block of Michigan Avenue they need to access. Plus, it’s much easier for a herd of humans to rearrange themselves so an ambulance can get through than for private cars stuck at a red light to try to “suck it in” to make room.

    Simply look at how CPD handles gigantic herds of humans at The Taste, other festivals, sports games, parades, protests, Navy Pier, and so forth to see how they could handle the humans on a pedestrianized Mag Mile.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Its fine to ride the coat tails of the Argyle Night Market and call it a car free event, however, that was never the intention. My problem with the ATA, a civic group that has deep connections with the city, can throw a dart on a map and say, hey these are the streets we want to shut down auto traffic on with little or no understanding of neighborhoods.

    The Argyle Night Market is a once a week summer time event which was never designed with the intention of being a car free event or a bike friendly event. It took a lot of behind the scenes work with the business owners and coordination to get vendors and entertainment. These things just don’t fall out of the sky. The fact that it is car free is collateral. Its more of a local neighborhood event to encourage neighbors to socialize and explore.

    The ATA has very little skin in the game for these street closures. It costs them nothing and they can sop up all the kudos it wants, but remember it is the people and the neighborhood businesses that make these events successful.

    And its the neighborhood people and businesses that will push back when outside organizations like ATA and downtown bureaucrats comes calling with plans that do not suit them. If there is not a serious purpose for closing a street other than to make it “car free”, it will eventually be a miserable failure for the neighborhood and its businesses.

  • ATA isn’t calling for “shutting down auto traffic” on these 20 streets. They’re calling for the current auto-dominated status quo on these roadways to be reconsidered to see if there might be a more productive street mix. Sure, totally car-free streets are a possibility, but there are a lot of other options. Would it make sense to turn the street into as transit mall? Would a street closure on summer afternoons make sense. Could there be a shared street layout like Argyle? Or would it simply make sense to narrow the car lanes a bit to make room for wider sidewalks and seating areas? All these things are worth discussing.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    “Their plan is a list of possible places to find space for things other than cars,” Spielfogel said.

    I just find shutting down a business street permanently to auto traffic to be crazy bad for business. Like I said, ATA has nothing to lose, doesn’t make a serious investment in the long term health of a neighborhood and relies on other people’s money to get what they want. And lastly with the economic troubles the city has, I would think there is very little money available to start ripping up sidewalks, moving sewers and utilities for a very risky economic benefit.

    And the Argyle Street plan, that’s been a stop and go proposition for years. I’ll hold my breath if it ever gets funded.

  • Mishellie

    You find that. You find it how? Where is the found evidence based on multiple other similar attempts? Otherwise it’s just an opinion that you’ve found.

  • duppie

    Willie is stuck on the idea that the proposal requires all 20 projects to be completed over the entire suggested area, removing all parking and car privileges 24/7/365, including crossing streets.

    The fact that this is a discussion piece, of which at best a few plans may be implemented partially or in modified form, has not crossed his mind.

  • BlueFairlane

    I think humans should be free to wander in gigantic herds as nature intended.

    Nature didn’t intend humans to wander in giant herds. At most, we evolved to live in small, isolated groups of no more than 20 or 30, separated by vast territories. It wasn’t until we stopped wandering and figured out agriculture in the last 7000 or 8000 years that we could gather in herd-like groups. A city is a very unnatural thing.

    Of course, I fully admit this comment has nothing to do with anything, especially the topic at hand. It’s just where that sentence sent my brain.

  • MarytM

    It’s kind of silly to invoke “as nature intended”. I doubt nature intended us to ride bikes either (whatever that phrase even means). I’m just going to slowly back away now.

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Yes, haha! I was mostly responding to the implication in MarytM’s comment that humans should not be enabled or perhaps allowed to gather by the thousands and wander around in gigantic herds. I was sort of thinking about the Ancient Romans’ desire to gather up to 80,000 humans in the Colosseum, to gather together around 5,000 humans and up to 600 horses in a military legion, and to build military roads like the Appian Way to move and supply those herds – without automobiles. However, as you rightly point out, it’s only been in the last 7000 or 8000 years that humans have gathered in groups like this, and I should consider the previous 2.5 million years of hunting and gathering. Perhaps cities, like two-car households, are just a phase we’re going through.

  • The problem with a daytime closure on Mag Mile is that it is utterly key to the commutes of an awful lot of people.

    My mother raised me to view taking a car into downtown when you don’t absolutely have to as the height of insanity — with 1980s traffic, not what we have now! — but clearly others think differently.

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