Why Was the State Street Pedestrian Mall a “Failure”?

View of State Street Mall with bus stop and Marshall Field and Company
The State Street mall in 1982. Photo by C. William Brubaker from the UIC Digital Collections.

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

When I was a bicycle messenger in the early nineties, the State Street pedestrian mall, a car-free, bike-free zone between Wacker and Congress, was the bane of my existence. In 1979, under Mayor Jane Byrne, the city closed the Loop’s main retail corridor to all forms of traffic except buses, taxis and delivery vehicles in an effort to bring back customers who had been drawn away to suburban shopping centers and the burgeoning Magnificent Mile. That meant I had to detour around State and access addresses along the strip via intersecting east-west streets.

When done right, pedestrian malls can be safe, thriving public spaces that encourage human interaction and economic activity, but the State Street mall was widely deemed a failure, blamed for reducing the amount of shoppers and sales revenue. In 1996 under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the wide sidewalks were jackhammered to make way for private automobiles once again. That renovation, the $24.5 million State Street Renovation Project, which included attractive Beaux Arts street lamps, ‘L’ entrances and other fixtures, is credited with turning the historically prosperous street back into a bustling retail strip.

State Street Chicago - Beautiful Subway Entrance
Beaux Arts subway entrance on State Street. Photo by trueself2000.

Laura Jones from the Chicago Loop Alliance provided background on the rationale behind removing cars from State Street. “When downtown started to empty out in the early seventies, business leaders from the Greater State Street Council went to the city with the idea of creating the pedestrian mall. They wanted to make State Street more like a suburban shopping mall, and also people were becoming more energy conscious, so they decided to try a transit mall.”

State was redone with the jumbo sidewalks and bumpouts to make bus loading easier, plus octagonal asphalt pavers, which tended to come loose. There were large bus shelters with bulbous Plexiglas roofs, info booths, carts selling popcorn, doughnuts and Italian ice, and several monumental abstract sculptures.

View of State Street from Washington Street
State and Washington in 1987. Photo by C. William Brubaker from the UIC Digital Collections.

But Jones said many people felt that removing car traffic and widening the sidewalks made the street feel deserted and unsafe, which only seemed to hasten the economic decline. It didn’t help that the business mix at the time included a motley assortment of discount stores, theaters showing exploitation flicks, adult bookstores, strip clubs and flophouses. During the seventeen years the mall was open, seven major department stores closed, including Montgomery Ward, Baskin, Wieboldts, Bond’s and Goldblatt’s.

View of State Street from Congress Parkway to Van Buren Street
400 Block of South State in 1982. Photo by C. William Brubaker from UIC Digital Collections.

“In hindsight, it’s tempting to say, ‘What were they thinking?’” said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the city of Chicago. “But in the context of their time, urban planners were working in uncharted territory, and genuinely hoped that transposing successful attributes of outlying malls to older downtown shopping districts would give them similar vitality.” He thinks the tacky design of the street furnishings was part of the problem. “The 1970s modernism of the mall was quickly doomed to looking very dated and was never a comfortable fit for the surrounding buildings.”

View of an Elevated Station over State Street at the Intersection with Lake Street
State and Lake in 1982. Photo by C. William Brubaker from the UIC Digital Collections.

Randy Neufeld, director of the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, now the Active Transportation Alliance, during the eighties and nineties, argues that State Street never had a chance to flourish as a truly smog-free shopping district. “My main observation is that State Street never was a real pedestrian zone,” he says “It was a bus mall with all the fumes and stress that go along with it. So it wasn’t a pleasant place. In Europe you have plenty of ped streets with trams or light rail but not buses. Trams work partially because you don’t need to define street space and sidewalk space.  You can create a street where you can walk and hang out on any portion.”

He cited State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, as an example of a more successful U.S. transit mall, and Boulder’s Pearl Street as a true pedestrian street.  “Look at real pedestrian shopping streets like Broadway and Times Square in New York, and every major city in Europe. We’ve never tried that in Chicago.”

Car-free Times Square. Photo by John Greenfield.

Madison’s State Street, which runs from the Wisconsin State Capitol to the University of Wisconsin, is a transit mall (with biking allowed) for six blocks and then a pedestrian mall for two blocks near the campus. It’s a vibrant area with plenty of theaters, shops, and restaurants and bars with sidewalk cafes. Arthur Ross, the city’s pedestrian and bicycle coordinator, said the mall, which opened in 1974, is still successful because there’s activity day and night due to the mix of uses. “It has stood the test of time,” he said.

Pearl Street, which opened in 1977, is an even more lively district, which is completely pedestrianized except for the cross streets. It features multiple sculptures, including statues of Colorado fauna like bears and mountain lions, fountains, carts selling knickknacks and food, massage therapists and street performers like acoustic musicians, jugglers, acrobats and fire eaters.

Pearl Street, Boulder, CO
Pearl Street in Boulder. Photo by Jon Ferry.

City planner Molly Winter said Boulder went into the project with eyes wide open. “It was done very carefully and really well designed with excellent materials.” Since four blocks of car parking were removed, the city built five strategically placed garages over the next thirty-five years. Parking revenue is used to provide free yearly transit passes for some 6,000 downtown workers, which in turn frees up spaces for shoppers.

Now that Chicago’s State Street is thriving again, could a true pedestrian mall work there? After all, Lincoln Square’s Giddings Plaza is a very successful car-free space. The city is also proposing to create new “People Streets” pedestrian districts in Andersonville, Lincoln Park, Wicker Park and Pilsen.

The Polkaholics perform at Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square. Photo by Vera Gavrilovic.

“No,” said Neufeld bluntly. “You’d have to move the buses. You could do something more like State Street in Madison, but not a real ped street.” He thinks Oak or Rush streets in the Gold Coast, or Clark or Broadway streets on the North Side, would be much more suitable.

Jones doesn’t write off the possibility of fewer automobiles on Chicago’s State Street in the coming years. “There’s a whole new crop of people who do not remember the mall who are talking about doing congestion pricing [charging a toll for driving into the Loop to discourage unnecessary car trips],” she says. “Everything old is new again. But the old-timers would be horrified.”

  • Anonymous

    An obvious street to turn into a plaza is Lincoln on the block where Giddings Plaza is. Parking would be lost, but there’s already a big lot at Leland/Western just behind the buildings on the west side of the street.

    Naturally, the horrific parking meter deal would make this prohibitively expensive.

  • It does seem like the 4700 block of Lincoln could work as a completely pedestrianized street. Talking the merchants into it would be a challenge, but many of them seem to be pretty progressive. It would be cool to try this on a temporary basis some time.

  • Beta Magellan

    “It was a bus mall with all the fumes and stress that go along with it. So it wasn’t a pleasant place. In Europe you have plenty of ped streets with trams or light rail but not buses. Trams work partially because you don’t need to define street space and sidewalk space. You can create a street where you can walk and hang out on any portion.”

    OH PLEASE! The next two examples Neufeld cites, Madison and Boulder, are likewise tramless cities. And the main transportation benefit of using State Street as a bus hub is that it serves as an amenity for people all over the city—unless you’re willing to pay for trams down State, Archer, Broadway and every other major route that uses State Street in the CBD, there’s little point in bringing trams into the discussion. And there have been successful malls with buses—Madison’s is one, and I believe Portland’s transit mall only carried buses until fairly recently.

    I’d also question the inclusion of Boulder and Madison—not only are they an order of magnitude smaller than Chicago, have very different demographic, economic and morphological characteristics. I’ve never been to Boulder, but I recall Madison’s Mall being very narrow, and even if Madison’s a small city the mall does connect two big concentrations and employment (unlike State, which goes across the eastern half of the Loop). It’s a much cozier environment physically than State Street, and its retail environment is quite different as well. Broadway and Times Square might be a better comparison—like State Street, Broadway and Times Square are flashy and touristy, though State Street still gets a lot less activity.

    I’d guess the State Street Mall’s failure was partly due to the economic condition of the city of the time—if it hadn’t been turned to a mall those department stores would have still closed. I’d also argue there’s a mismatch between pedestrian activity and size on State—take away the traffic and it’s too big for the amount of pedestrian activity it gets (I’ve never felt crowded on a State Street sidewalk south of the river, and if I’ve felt crowded north of the river it’s because that sidewalk’s in terrible shape). A lot of the stuff described in this article won’t change that—Chicago’s not a small, affluent city dominated by a big research university. Looking to places like Boulder to draw lessons reminds me of when I hear Chicago’s transit should be more like Portland’s. On the whole, it’s a ridiculous assertion: our transit mode share’s several times higher and service here is far more frequent. It speaks more to a yearning that Chicago were culturally closer to a smaller city out west than a real attempt to grapple with our transportation issues.

  • Anonymous

    Much higher population density, transit mode share several times higher, service far more frequent. How come we can’t upgrade our busiest bus routes to tramways? Are buses and cars the best choice for every street in town?

  • Dever’s 16th Street mall, with environmentally friendly shuttle buses, might be a better model for Chicago: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2013/02/11/a-denver-omelet-of-transportation-options/

  • Beta Magellan

    It’s expensive (~$40-50 million per mile, if not more) and offers only marginal benefits relative to buses unless you radically reorient the streetscape and engage in stop consolidation—otherwise it’s basically the same sort of service, only with different vehicles. Furthermore, trams cost more to operate than buses. Although some lines likely have high enough passenger loads that trams could still be run at a decent frequency without an undue hit to operating budgets—79th and Chicago, which have frequencies of under three minutes during peak hours, come to mind (Ashland and Western get higher ridership numbers than Chicago, but it’s spread over a wider corridor), routes like the 29, 36 and 62 aren’t even close to being in the same category. Our transit ridership is impressive by American standards, but bush league by European ones.

  • The Denver Mall seems like a good compromise between a Euro-style ped district with trams and the State Street mall. The buses are cheap but they don’t put out smog, and there’s no differentiation between the sidewalk and the street. BTW, they have ambassadors hanging out in the mall reminding cyclists and skateboarders not to roll down the street, greeting tourists, doing outreach to homeless people, etc.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. What I’m talking about, the high-capacity modern streetcar, is not “basically the same sort of service” as the local bus stuck in traffic. Where ridership is high, it costs less to operate than the bus service it replaces. It sparks transit-oriented development and boosts local business in a way buses simply don’t. While transit ridership varies widely across the city, there are certainly several places in Chicago where ridership is better than the many small and mid-sized European cities that rely on cost-effective tramways.

  • If there’s an impetus to make it car-free, it would be to provide more space for people walking and biking, and to allow biking in the reverse direction.

    I think there might be opportunities to reduce the presence of cars while still allowing people to attempt to find parking in front of their destination (which would primarily be for pickup/dropoff).

    I would like to see the curbs removed and give pedestrians priority over the entire space, forcing people to drive at or below a walking speed. To ensure this happens, you’d also have to reduce demand by eliminating half the parking and replacing it with more pedestrian space and bike parking space (there’s a distinct lack of it).

  • Alan Robinson

    Thank you for saying this. I’ll add that removing buses (or other forms of transit) from State Street removes a large number of potential customers on this strip that would otherwise have to make State St. their intended destination. This has certainly been my primary motivation for shopping on State. Some people reading this thread may not like the sound of an engine interrupting their Sunday stroll, but that is the best way we presently have to bring people in.

    ChicagoStreetcarRenaissance, there is a benefit to using trams to improve the atmosphere of State St, but I’m definitely siding with Beta Magellan that the cost and loss of frequency for providing this service far outweigh the benefit of a smooth ride and quiet operation. I already wait 20 minutes for a 6 to arrive on Sundays.

  • I agree. Denver’s 16th St. mall is a much better comparison.

    I think that CTA’s transition to hybrid buses, which greatly reduces the diesel fumes and noise, is a very positive change compared to the technology in use during the State St. mall years.

    The design of the State St. mall was very tacky and became dated very quickly. I’d forgotten about the pavers until seeing them mentioned above. I remember the pavers and their installation being of poor quality, crumbling after a few years, and having corners stick up and trip people. The mix of stores wasn’t as nice as what’s on State now. The fact that some major department store chains went under during that time period didn’t help. I think the combination of losing major businesses and the poor quality of design and materials used on State St. were major factors in the ped mall’s decline.

  • Bruce

    This makes me think about two European pedestrian streets I’ve seen that were amazingly vibrant and why I haven’t really seen it yet in the U.S.

    They are Sauchiehall St. in Glasgow which is 100% pedestrian and Leidseplein in Amsterdam which is pedestrian and tram w/ restricted vehicle deliveries.

    In my experience, it seems like a requirement for a street like this to work is lots of boutique shops, restaurants/cafes, and nightlife. I’m not sure State St. meets all those requirements. Maybe portions of Milwaukee, or Clark, or Division might be better candidates.

  • Anonymous


  • EndlessMike

    One big difference is that on 16th Street is that the buses as a shuttle that only run on the road. They are used to service shops along the road or ride across downtown. The buses routes that are on State St go all through the rest of the city and are used by commuters quite often. One other significant difference is that 16th Street is a very tourist-friendly area of Denver (it almost has a Navy Pier vibe to it). It more resembles Michigan Ave-Streeterville than State St which is used more my actual Chicago residents.
    If i were to do a pedestrian mall in Chicago I would close Clark between Waveland and Newport. And Clark between Diversey and Fullerton. It has good transit access, a good deal of shops.

  • John Greenfield

    Randy Neufeld said much the same thing. He feels pedestrianizing a shopping district is less likely to improve it unless it’s already a bustling shopping, dining and nightlife area. State Street isn’t quite there yet.

  • Anonymous

    “Furthermore, trams cost more to operate than buses.”


    I suppose one could create a scenario where that would be true, though I believe the real test of the question involves looking at routes that need the capacity and then examining operating costs on a passenger miles basis. At the upper end of the ridership portion of the equation, bus can’t possibly offer the the same benefits or the operating cost efficiencies. At the lower end, you probably have a reasonable argument, but I suspect there isn’t much interest in placing higher capacity assets on low ridership routes.

  • Beta Magellan

    Yes, operating costs for trams and LRVs are more than buses—according to Portland Transport, a bus costs around $120/hour to operate, an LRV around $330/hour; a tram would lie somewhere in between. Although you’re right that trams and LRVs have economies of scale, there is a lot of interest in putting high-capacity assets on low ridership-routes—witness pretty much any small-scale streetcar circulator project (Portland, Seattle, &c.) and light rail extensions to exurbia (Dallas being the prime example).

  • Anonymous

    Operating costs can’t be reasonably compared simply on a per-hour basis, nor is one example necessarily a good one. here’s what others say in response to the question.

    Honolulu wrote in their alternatives analysis, which included consideration of BRT and rail: “The Busway was considered in detail in the Alternatives Analysis and was deemed an unsuitable alternative for Honolulu because of construction and operating costs, design considerations and operating inefficiencies.”

    Also, think of this, which is from NYC transit officials: Two operators can carry lose to 2,000 riders on a single heavy rail train (CTA-type), whereas in a BRT system, 24 operators are needed to carry the same number of riders. More operators = big bump in operating costs.

    Hamilton, CA, analysis titled “Operating and Maintenance Costs for Selected North American Cities by Passenger Miles Traveled and Unlinked Passenger Trips”, and the data source was the United States National Transit Database. the info below is in this format: City, State; Population; Per PMT (BRT/LRT); %Diff* ; Per UPT (BRT/LRT); %Diff*.

    *Negative value is advantage LRT over BRT, noting that HRT carries even more people, so greater savings than depicted, not to mention that wind is constituting an ever-increasing portion of Illinois power and our existing baseload capacity is non-coal already.

    Denver, CO: 588,349; $0.67/$0.34; -49%; $3.60/$2.17; -40%
    Houston, TX: 2,208,180; $0.55/$0.53; -4%; $3.18/$1.29; -59% Minneapolis, MN: 377,392; $0.72/$0.42; -42%; $3.20/$2.41; -25%
    Pittsburgh, PA: 311,218; $0.90/$1.23; -37%; $4.29/$6.00; 40% Portland, OR: 550,396; $0.93/$0.39; -58%; $3.27/$2.04; -38% San Diego, CA: 1,266,731; $0.71/$0.27; -62%; $2.62/$1.59; -39%

  • Adam Herstein

    Forget State Street. What about Michigan Ave. north of the river? That area gets far more foot traffic than State.

    The sidewalks are far too narrow for the amount of pedestrian activity that the Mag Mile gets. There is also no reason Michigan needs to be six lanes. With shops lining each side of the street, crossing can be very treacherous. Oh, and forget about biking. Remove a lane of travel in each direction, widen the sidewalks, and add BRT service.

  • Now three years later we are getting a test of the removing the curb idea on Argyle.


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

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 […]

Would NYC’s Midtown Biz Leaders Write Off the Idea of a Car-Free Mag Mile?

Yesterday’s Active Transportation Alliance announcement submitting 20 streets for consideration as partial or total car-free spaces has already sparked a lively dialogue. Stories in the Tribune, Sun-Times, ABC, and DNAinfo have all examined whether or not the automobile-dominated status quo represents an appropriate allocation of public space. The boldest proposal on the Active Trans list […]