Norway or the Highway? Oslo’s Car-Free Plan Should Inspire Chicago

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Madison Street, part of the Loop Link network, might be a good candidate to be a car-free street. Photo: John Greenfield

[This article also runs in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, and Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they’ve accomplished,” socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said recently. That statement surely gave the Republicans hives.

One area where U.S. cities like Chicago should definitely look to Scandinavia for inspiration is traffic management. Last month, the newly elected city council of Oslo, Norway, announced that it plans to make the central city free of private cars by 2019. It’s part of a plan to cut greenhouse emissions in half within five years, as compared to 1990 levels.

“We want to make it better for pedestrians and cyclists,” Lan Marie Nguyen Berg from the city’s Green Party told reporters. The party won the September 14 election along with its allies from the Labor and Socialist Left parties. “It will be better for shops and everyone.”

European cities like London and Madrid charge congestion fees to drivers entering their downtowns, and others have car-free days in their city centers, like Paris did last September. But Oslo’s plan is said to be the first total and permanent ban of private cars in the center of a European capital. Streetcars and buses will continue to provide downtown access, and accommodations will be made for deliveries and people with disabilities, the three parties said in a statement.

The politicians hope to reduce overall car traffic in Oslo by twenty percent by 2019, when the next election will be held, and thirty percent by 2030. “In 2030, there will still be people driving cars but they must be zero-emissions,” Nguyen Berg said.

The initiative involves a “massive boost” in transit funding, subsidies for the purchase of electric bicycles, and the construction of at least thirty-seven miles of new bike lanes by 2019. In comparison, Chicago has installed 103 miles of bike lanes over the last four years. But since Oslo has less than a quarter of our population, their goal is the equivalent of the Windy City installing 154 miles of lanes.

While I’m not suggesting that Chicagoans will be swapping Italian beef for lutefisk any time soon, we would do well to consider a similar strategy for reducing congestion and pollution. I’m not proposing that private automobiles be immediately banned from all streets in the entire central business district, or even the Loop proper. But, along with Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, I’ve brainstormed a few ideas about how car-free and car-lite roadways could make downtown travel safer, more efficient and more pleasant.

The city has already made some positive steps in that direction by repurposing asphalt in the CBD to make room for forward-thinking transit and bicycle projects. Two of the travel lanes on Madison and on Washington in the Loop have already been converted to bus lanes, island stations, and a protected bike lane as part of the Loop Link bus rapid transit corridor, which should debut early next year. The transportation department has also swapped car lanes on Dearborn and Clinton for two-way protected bike lanes. The city should continue to repurpose lanes for transit and biking, since these are much more space-efficient modes than driving.

Last winter, the Active Transportation Alliance floated a list of twenty Chicago streets that could be partially or fully pedestrianized to create more space for people to stroll, bike, shop, relax and congregate, including Michigan and Monroe in the CBD. The Mayor’s Office quickly poured water on the idea of a car-free Mag Mile, but the list got people talking.

Granted, banning cars from streets should be done with caution. The State Street pedestrian and bus mall, which existed from 1979 to 1996, wasn’t an abject failure, although pro-car types like to portray it that way. But due to the thoroughfare’s lackluster retail mix during much of that era, as well as tacky design elements, the mall wasn’t a big success either.

While pedestrianization may not be helpful for ailing business strips, it can make already-bustling retail and employment districts even more vibrant. Washington, which has two remaining travel lanes due to the Loop Link project, would be a good candidate to become completely car-free. The city’s last downtown pedestrian count, conducted in 2007, found that 31,600 people a day walked on Washington between Dearborn and Clark, while motor vehicle counts showed that this stretch only carries 14,300 vehicles per day.

Pedestrianization might also work well on Madison, as well as the LaSalle financial district between Jackson and Wacker. Of course, making just a block or two of each street car-free is a possibility, and access for buses, bicycles, cabs, people with disabilities, and deliveries should be maintained. Implementing a congestion charge for drivers entering the CBD would complement this strategy, and the revenue could be invested in better transit, walking and biking infrastructure.

Again, I’m not advocating for an Oslo-style ban on private vehicles in downtown Chicago. But while we can’t cram any more automobiles into the Loop, it would be easy to make room for people by converting more and more asphalt to car-free walkways, bus routes, bike lanes and plazas, so the city should boldly pursue this strategy. If we take a cue from the land of fjords, we won’t have to worry about traffic queues in the land of Fords.

  • southsidecyclist

    I guess this is a little different than Madrid’s total parking ban except in approved lots. Not car free but you can’t get out of your car unless you have a prearranged parking space. The effect has been similar. Far less traffic and crowded public transportation.

  • YogaSex Master

    Im excited about the Loop BRT system. When people see how well this will work, people will be clamoring for it to be rolled out city-wide.

    As far as Ashland BRT, I think the issue there was the configuration was wrong. Personally, if it were me, I would move the parking to the central lane (or the left lane) and have the BRT run in the right lane, where it needs to be, like the way it will be in the Loop BRT. So the new config would be: Sidewalk > Protected Bike Lane > BRT Lane > Parking Lane > Auto Transit Lane.

  • The Chicago Park District, to reduce the amount of car traffic clogging up neighborhood streets near the lakefront, should require parking space reservations for certain events.

    For example, the parking lot at North Avenue beach has about 100 spaces, yet it’s one of the largest and most popular beaches. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a spot and once you pull up and find a “no more parking” sandwich board blocking the entrance you’ve wasted your time and fuel, and added to unproductive traffic in the neighborhood and on Lake Shore Drive.

    Montrose Beach and Harbor is another place that has its access drives consistently closed during the day.

  • planetshwoop

    Close Lincoln Ave to cars btwn Lawrence and Leland. The little strip has parking moats next to and behind it, and the car traffic is horrible. Putting sidewalk cafes there would make Giddings Plaza even better, and replicate a German “Pedestrian Zone” that we desperately need.

    I find it so odd that outdoor dining has become popular yet there hasn’t been any reduction in traffic.

    As for the Loop, LaSalle Street would be a candidate for pedestrian only traffic. It’s narrow, and traffic moves so so slowly. Making some blocks of it ped-only (like Times Square) would be an amazing way to add open space in the Loop.

  • rohmen

    Maybe trends have shifted enough that it would work in the U.S., and I know the topic has been debated on here before, but State Street being closed to traffic in the loop is remembered largely as a failure. I live in Oak Park now, and Lake Street and Marion Street in the downtown area were also converted back to allowing cars after being pedestrian-only for many years.

    When I traveled in Germany, I loved the pedestrian-only city center areas, and I do think it would work here (Lincoln Square would be a perfect spot), but history is sadly not on Chicago’s side when this topic comes up and the detractors come out.

    Point being, I’d love to see more written about why State Street and Lake Street failed, rather than people just assuming shutting things down to car traffic automatically creates a vibrant pedestrian area.

  • YogaSex Master

    Agreed! I think with State Street, the failure had more to do with that era in general – people were 100% pro-automobile at the time, and the configuration they had at the time was not correct. If it were tried today, it might work, as long as it is configured properly.

  • cjlane

    “and access for … cabs, people with disabilities … should be maintained”

    You’re proposing giving cab medallions an advantage over Uber/Lyft that is very unlikely to stick. So, cars, generally, would still have access.

    Deliveries, yes (as in Europe), with limited hours. Buses, perhaps, if you have Looplink like laning. The balance isn’t especially workable as a restriction–if I were a daily Loop driver, I’d sign up as an Uber and put in the sticker for the purpose of access.

    As for individual blocks (as opposed to multi-block stretches) being shut down–that could actually help the flow of car traffic, if it’d smartly planned.

  • rohmen

    I don’t disagree with the idea that pedestrian areas just didn’t fly in the 70s and 80s, and that poor design/configuration played a huge role. John mentions those points (and has written on them before) in the article.

    The above said, there are some interesting perspectives floating out there that one thing that makes urban areas so exciting to people is the feeling of dense, heavily-trafficked spaces. That’s not to say spaces can’t be pedestrian-only and still maintain a dense, “urban” vibe, but creating wide-open spaces in an urban commercial district (like how State Street appears to have worked in the past) may not be the answer either.

  • southsidecyclist

    YSM beat me to it. I concur. IMHO State street would be vastly better and a different kind of place without cars. Much more festive. Back in the 80’s the city had no concept of how to take advantage of a mid-city mall. Chicago has excelled in creating public spaces over the last two decades. Now that the internet has killed big box stores and there are many more people living downtown car-free is an opportunity to increase livability as a feature.

  • neroden

    Madison *might* work, but you’d have to check whether there are any parking garage access points on Madison; those are stupendously expensive to move.

    Washington is full of access points to parking garages, including rental car companies; there is no way you could make the street car-free.

    As a compromise, you could make these streets local-access-only. Blocks with no parking garage access could have car access removed entirely, and those with parking garages could be reduced to parking garage access, perhaps only from one side of the block, either the east or the west (closing off the other side to prohibit through traffic) Eliminating through traffic would make a substantial difference.

  • YogaSex Master

    Totally agreed! But actually, what they should do, is get rid of the parking lots at the beaches altogether…require people to bike, or take public transit (or uber) to get there…turn the parking lots into Uber Drop Off Lanes, where uber cars pull up and drop off/pick up passengers. They can also move the Divvy stations to the front, right by the beach, to help shift the focus and priority.

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