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!