Woonerf in the West Suburbs Offers a Sneak Peek at Uptown Streetscapes

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Gateway to River Street in Batavia. Photo: John Greenfield

On a recent bicycle trip, I came across a Dutch-style woonerf or “living street,” in the western suburb of Batavia, where Streetsblog Chicago reporter Steven Vance attended high school. The street layout blurs the line between pedestrian and vehicle space, encouraging drivers to proceed with caution, creating a more pleasant environment for walking, biking, shopping, and relaxing at sidewalk cafes. It’s a good preview of the proposed layout for “shared streets” in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

Batavia, population 23,618, is a quaint town along the Fox River, nicknamed the Windmill City because, in the late 1800s, it was the world’s largest producer of windmills. Today, it’s best known as the home of Fermilab, which once had the most powerful particle accelerator in the country. The town is also well served by bike paths: the Fox River Trail and the Batavia spur of the Illinois Prairie Path bring plenty of cyclists, who spend money at two bike stores near the Fox, plus numerous restaurants, taverns, and a trailside ice cream parlor.

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A sign reminds users that this is a shared space. Photo: John Greenfield

Since Batavia has already seen the positive economic impact of good facilities for biking and walking, it’s not surprising its leaders decided to give the woonerf a spin. It’s located on a a one-block stretch of River Street, on the east bank of the Fox, between Wilson Street — the main downtown river crossing — and a pedestrian bridge.

Construction of the River Street woonerf, largely funded by tax increment financing, took place between May 2012 and June 2013. The block now features a large, wood-and-steel gateway arch, and is paved with red-and-cream bricks that are set at the same height across both the pedestrian zone and the roadway. Instead of curbs, the walking and driving spaces are delineated with stripes of cream brick parallel to the street, as well as street furniture like concrete flower planters, trash and recycling cans, lit bollards, and bike racks.

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There were few cars parked on the street when I visited, but there is a garage. Photo: John Greenfield

Benches and drinking fountains help create a welcoming environment for people visiting on foot or by bike. “Self-Made Man,” a sculpture of a figure chiseling himself out of a block of stone, by local artist Bobby Carlyle, adds interest to the block. The Congress for the New Urbanism has taken notice of the redesign. Shortly after the woonerf opened, the it won the Best Street Award from CNU’s Illinois chapter.

There was originally a proposal to add chicanes to the street, which would have further calmed traffic, but this element was removed from the design after the local fire department opposed it. As it is, this downtown block, which includes a few restaurants and taverns with outdoor seating, seemed quite tranquil. It’s possible things are a bit too low-key on the street: when I visited at lunchtime on a Monday, there were only a few people eating at the restaurants, but perhaps it was an unusually sleepy afternoon.

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A sidewalk cafe on River Street. Photo: John Greenfield

Lack of foot traffic shouldn’t be an issue on Chicago’s “New Chinatown” district on Argyle Street, between Broadway and Sheridan Road, where the city is planning to build a similar type of shared space. The retail strip is already fairly successful, with a dense mix of Asian shops and restaurants. As suggested by last year’s bustling Argyle Night Market, which pedestrianized the easternmost block on Thursday evenings during the summer for a street fest, creating a more ped-friendly environment has the potential to bring even more business to Argyle.

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CDOT rendering of the proposed cross section.

Like River Street, the Argyle Streetscape Project would feature a uniform street level, blurring the lines between the space for people on foot and people in motor vehicles, with the spaces delineated by street furniture. Unlike on the Batavia woonerf, where I saw almost no cars parked on the street, and there’s a small parking garage on the strip, there will continue to be plenty of parked cars on Argyle, which will further separate pedestrians from moving vehicles.

Sidewalk space would be widened, providing room for café seating. The speed limit would be lowered to 15 mph, and renderings show that the “curb line” would undulate somewhat, forcing motorists to slalom a bit, further encouraging slow speeds. The city of Chicago has cited studies from London which show that shared-space streets decrease traffic injuries and deaths by 43 percent, and that motorists are 14 times more likely to stop for pedestrians on these kind of streets.

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A rendering showing the gently slaloming curb line.

According to the 48th Ward website, the Argyle streetscape is currently in its design phase, and construction is slated for this summer. However, since there haven’t been any announcements about the project for several months, it’s likely that the project will be postponed somewhat.

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Rendering of the Clifton “shared street.”

Meanwhile, earlier this month at a town hall meeting about plans for the Uptown Entertainment District, city officials announced that a similar configuration is planned for an alley-like stretch of Clifton Avenue between Broadway and Lawrence Avenue. Located between the Bridgeview Bank Building and the Red Line tracks, this one-block stretch will also feature a uniform street level, with colored, stamped asphalt. A path at the south end of the bank building would allow pedestrians to cut the corner of the pointed land parcel to Broadway, where a pedestrian island will facilitate mid-block crossing

  • The Argyle project will be split into two phases. Phase 1, from Broadway to CTA, is still scheduled for this year. Phase 2, from CTA to Sheridan, will take place next year. http://48thward.org/your-ward/48th-ward-construction-2014

  • Fred

    Correction: “Today, it’s best known as the home of Fermilab, which HAD the second-most-powerful particle accelerator in the WORLD.” It was shutdown September 30, 2011 due to budget cuts and the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland coming online.

  • Pete

    Why is it a good idea to eliminate curbs and sidewalks? Imagine how many drunk and elderly drivers will be mowing down pedestrians, now that there is no more meaningful separation of street from sidewalks.

  • duppie

    I’m curious to hear what the thinking behind Clifton street is. I have not found a reason to ride down Clifton since I live in Chicago. There is no retail or residences on that block.
    That money would be better spent on a similar project on a different block

  • It’s a more reasonable way to access the train station by foot if coming from or going to Broadway south of Lawrence — but right now it’s precariously narrow and has cars cutting through fast without looking. The existing sidewalk is a total joke.

  • Studies show that if there is no “meaningful separation of street from sidewalks,” drivers get nervous and slow way down. Street designs that make drivers feel confident, lead to speeding and collisions and disregarding the rights of pedestrians.

  • HJ

    Since when has a six inch curb ever stopped a 4000lb motorized vehicle?

  • duppie

    Instead of imagining, lets look at the facts:

    “studies from London which show that shared-space streets decrease traffic injuries and deaths by 43 percent, and that motorists are 14 times more likely to stop for pedestrians on these kind of streets.”

    Cut and paste verbatim from the article, btw

  • Thanks for the heads-up; edit made.

  • Based on what CDOT reps explained at the streetscape meetings, the goal is to slow down car traffic on this street while not completely closing the street.

    The key improvement will be to Broadway/Clifton intersection, which currently is designed to allow for high speed turns from Broadway onto Clifton. With the new design, this intersection will essentially be eliminated and replaced with a continuous sidewalk and a narrow curb cut for cars.

    Current conditions: http://cl.ly/2I062A0V1p3B
    Proposed conditions: http://cl.ly/image/083J1w302E1n

  • The primary issue with shared space is that it’s not an adequate substitute for defined, separated spaces: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2014/04/shared-space-revisited-hype-continues.html

    Now it looks like there’s no traffic on this particular shared space (which is itself a problem). But I share David’s doubts that the shared space as implemented in Batavia, would scale to Argyle-level traffic counts.

  • Renee Patten

    I feel a main point that helps the example project and is not a part of the proposed section of Argyle is that it’s located on a a one-block stretch between “the main downtown river crossing — and a pedestrian bridge.” That pedestrian bridge has to help a ton of the traffic calming with no thru drivers. Argyle won’t have that with traffic between Sheridan & Broadway still being allowed. In any case, as a regular user of that street, excited for the possibilities. Even the basic proposal will be better than what it is like now.

  • Aron

    Please don’t call this wide brick paved road without curbs a woonerf, cause it’s not. A woonerf would never have a section this long without any narrowings or sharp curves. This is just a calmed street. Not a woonerf. Also the grid pattern is one of the worst thing you could do here. It makes visual lines, so it looks like there is (because there is) a defined roadway, but with horizontal stripes on it. Without the pattern cars would be more intimidate by the lack of curbs. And if you have to have a pattern.. then choose one that visually narrows the roadway, like this pattern http://i00.i.aliimg.com/img/pb/136/110/375/375110136_487.JPG

  • Looking at the facts is a great idea. David Hembrow did just that and ‘shared space’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That’s why the Dutch have already basically shelved any further implementations of ‘shared space’ and are having to retrofit existing ones to better delineate space between cars and everyone else. The British example might seem great compared to the status quo, but it’s still not optimal. The key to a good shared space is for it to not be a through route for cars. Otherwise, the cars have de facto domination even though the space is supposed to be “shared”.

  • Unless I’m really missing something, what’s shown in the pictures and described is NOT a woonerf. The lack of chicanes or other traffic calming certainly doesn’t help the case. But most damning of all is the “SPEED LIMIT 20” sign. Speed limits in woonerven are never that high. That’s generally the speed limit in an entire city period, unless specifically signed higher. A woonerf has a much lower speed limit of 15 KPH. Also, the woonerf concept is generally not applied on through streets, which this is. So while this might certainly be a forward design, it’s not a woonerf and to continue to call it one is misleading at best.

  • Nathanael

    This works pretty well on “dead end” or neighborhood routes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well on through-routes, where drivers tend to get aggressive. You have to signal to the drivers that this is local-delivery-only.

  • It’s very walkable!

  • John McLinden

    Marven – My name is John McLinden with StreetScape. We are a development company and are thinking about incorporating a woonerf in a upcoming project in Chicago. We envision our woonerf to run adjacent and parallel to a canal. We want to get a “woonerf” right! Looks like you have some strong thoughts about doing so. We would love to engage in a discussion with you. I can be reached at jmclinden@streetscapeusa.com.

  • The idea is not to stop it but to discourage it. In that sense it works very very well.

  • Thanks for the link. David seems to have come to the conclusion that the only way to really reduce accidents between cyclists (and I assume pedestrians) is to get rid of the cars. It’s hard for me to judge his conclusions from his blog post. He seems to say that the decreases in accidents were due to the newnesses of the shared spaces and that once drivers caught on and became jaded then the accident rates returned to higher numbers. Again it wasn’t clear if there were still fewer accidents than before the shared space.

    Still a nice contrary point of view. thanks.

  • They’re not so much David’s conclusions as they are those of the Dutch government. They’ve developed it into a principle known as duurzaam veilig (‘sustainable safety‘; PDF): where people are, motor vehicles should not be going fast and where motor vehicles are going fast, people need to be provided a separate space to move about.

  • Yes, that would be the ideal, even if it is in fact able to be used as a through route through some roundabout way.

  • Doug Wedel

    I haven’t heard any recent updates on how well Argyle is working. Can anyone give some feedback? Thanks!

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s still a work in progress, but sidewalks have been doubled in width, street has been narrowed and made one-way. they still need to raise the street to sidewalk level and make other changes, but it’s already much easier to walk there, and traffic has been calmed.