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

Saturday shoppers
Maybe these folks could use more space? Photo: phandcp via flickr

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 — pedestrianizing the iconic North Michigan shopping district — was inspired by Transitized blogger and Streetsblog Chicago contributor Shaun Jacobsen’s call for a Mag Mile free of motor vehicles. “Michigan Ave is full of cars that do not need to be there,” he wrote, suggesting the removal of auto traffic from the strip, funneling all cross traffic under the avenue via Grand and Illinois and relocating the many bus routes to nearby State.

Another variation could preserve bus and taxi service on the street to provide access to stores and office buildings along the corridor, but there really is no pressing need for private cars to use Michigan. As Jacobsen pointed out, most cars on the “Boul Mich” represent people simply passing through on the way to somewhere else, not stopping to contribute to the local economy. The avenue might work quite well as a car-free transit boulevard. At the very least, a few of the roadway’s six lanes could easily be repurposed for dedicated bus lanes, wider sidewalks, seating areas, and/or protected bike lanes.

“The slog of vehicles divides the two sides of this shopping mecca where there are so many people on foot,” Active Trans director Ron Burke told the Sun-Times. “For these reasons, it’s a good candidate for further analysis.”

In the same piece, downtown alderman Brendan Reilly dismissed the idea. “I don’t think turning Michigan Avenue into a pedestrian mall makes sense,” Reilly said. “We saw that experiment fail on State Street. I’m not sure why we’d want to replicate that.”

And John Chikow, president of The Magnificent Mile Association, was also less than enthusiastic about transforming the street. “I’m looking out the window right now and everything is flowing pretty good,’’ said Chikow. “I don’t know what they are talking about.”

Pedestrianized Times Square. Photo: Aaron Naparstek

I’d like to think Chicago’s business leaders don’t have any less vision than their New York City counterparts. But that city would never have pulled off its game-changing public space transformations, such as the pedestrianization of Times Square, without the Midtown business district leaders spearheading these bold initiatives. Retail values along Broadway soared after the street was opened up to people on foot. Chikow’s constituents would presumably be thrilled to see similar results with their properties.

At a 2010 press conference announcing that the new public spaces along Broadway, which had been piloted for eight months, would become permanent, Dan Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership business association, lauded the change:

This is a 21st Century idea. The 20th Century idea was three lanes of noisy, annoying traffic going right past all these great institutions and stores. The 21st Century idea is seating and pedestrian life dominating and traffic being subsidiary.

The good news is that Chikow says he’s at least willing to listen to Active Trans’ pitch. “I’d love them to come to [our] monthly meeting and share their thoughts,” he said. Whether or not it makes sense to completely remove cars from the Mag Mile or simply turn over some of that space to other uses remains to be seen, but business leaders and the city government should definitely give the idea serious consideration.

  • jimsey

    Someone tell John Chikow that it flows good for automobiles and not pedestrians an cyclists.

  • Not even. Go stand at a corner along Michigan Ave on a weekend or any nice summer day. Inevitably someone will shoot through the yellow light when there isn’t enough room and it’ll jam up one or more lanes that get the green light. Often this is the lane closest to the curb, so it impacts the buses and taxis the most. And then there’s just a ton of honking.

  • I think the worst part of hearing what some have to say is that they immediately seem to dismiss the idea because of the State St mall! If at first you don’t succeed…

  • BlueFairlane

    That’s something BRT supporters should remember when they’re tempted to dismiss reasonable concerns out of hand. If the designers don’t do everything they can to work out every potential kink, you’ll be hearing about it for the next 30 years.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    Ideally Michigan Avenue would have a subway underneath instead of all the buses. Parts of Lincoln Park/Lakeview can be a mile plus from the L necessitating scores of express buses which in reality are express in name only. I swear it used to take nearly an hour to go from Lakeview to Union Station on these things.

  • I moved to Chicago just at the end of the State Street debacle and remember thinking that it was pretty much designed to fail, as if to prove a point; it truly had no charm or redeeming quality, and worst, was done at the wrong spot. If only the present nay-sayers took a trip to NYC, or took a look at the countless European cities that have created these public spaces, and get inspired. Perhaps then they’ll realize that the wheeled solitary confinement cages indeed have and bring no business or life to Michigan Ave., just noise, profound ugliness and stench.

  • Your comment totally makes sense. However, it would require visionary citizens, entrepreneurs and government that would be at ease with the huge investments required, ready to face and conquer the likely legal and practical controversy; perhaps people similar to the ones who created the original L back in the day. We live in a vastly more complex, regulated and (for better or worse) considerate society than in the early 20th century, so grand plans like the one that you propose, and which seem so logical, become costly and take forever to be realized. I’d say step one is to deflate the myth that the car has a(ny) positive role in a dense urban environment, and build a critical mass of citizens that supports investment in more efficient forms of transportation.

  • amen. As is, Michigan Ave. is Chicago’s Cinderella. She could be so beautiful were it not for her bad breath and ugly clothes…

  • Just to repost my initial reaction to Shaun’s idea… Streeterville is already somewhat isolated from the rest of the city, I wouldn’t want to cut off any E-W streets. However, closing Michigan avenue for peds & bikes is a great idea. I think a reasonable compromise solution, though, would be to eliminate one lane in each direction and then limit the type of traffic allowed to use the street.

  • Lynn Stevens

    New York is much more densely populated than Chicago and has shorter blocks, so I don’t think New York is a prime example. In general, people like to be around other people (even crowds). If you dispersed the pedestrians (Saturday holiday shopping crowd) to a much wider way that included the streets, you wouldn’t have the same sense of a crowd, and outside of the busiest weekend holiday shopping days, the Mag Mile would feel empty and not at all magnetic to pedestrians.

    Kempf Plaza is a good example of what might work, but I don’t think it’s productive to extrapolate that to much larger areas like the Mag Mile. Kempf Plaza took less than 200 feet of a narrower street. It does not translate to a one mile stretch of the much wider Michigan Ave.

    Closing Wabash between Delaware and Chestnut and expanding the plaza (not the sidewalk as there’s little of pedestrian interest on the west side) or closing the last block of Rush north of Bellvue to expand the sidewalk and/or plaza I think would work in the Mag Mile area.

  • Guest

    “New York is much more densely populated than Chicago”

    Sure it is, but we’re not talking on the scale of the entire city. Michigan Ave and Streeterville are probably just as densely built out as all but the most dense parts of NYC.

  • Mishellie

    No they would go an say “oh yes it’s nice here but Michigan Ave. is different. Chicago is different. We can’t do that. Carmagedon.”

  • Lynn Stevens

    I don’t think so. Some time ago, Lakeview was the most densely populated part of the city. That may have changed with recent South Loop residential development. While the built environment is “built out,” Mag Mile area is just not densely populated.

  • Fred

    I think you and guest are using different definitions of “densely populated”. Lakeview is, or was, the most densely populated community area in Chicago by the definition of “people who live there.” Streeterville is very densely developed, but many of the people there on any given day do not live there. Lakeview has more residents per square mile, but Streeterville has more people per square mile on any given day at noon.

  • Mishellie

    Yes – wider sidewalks would be nice. Especially for those of us who work near Mich Ave and would like to walk quicker than the tourists/shoppers. It’s great that they want to stroll leisurely… but I have an hour to run errands at lunch and I need to get things done. There’s currently no room for that.

  • Lynn Stevens

    Fair, and I’m probably guilty of conflating the two. I still don’t think Streeterville/Mag Mile has nearly as many people there on any given day as the Times Square comparison.

  • jeff wegerson

    Remember that New York Artist (group) that painted an express lane on a New York City sidewalk with signs directing tourists one way and natives onto the express part of the sidewalk? Funny. That’s what you want.

  • jeff wegerson

    Agreed. No matter that many people will feel pain for a long time over their loss of Ashland car space, the full blown magilla BRT needs to be built so there can be no excuses for failure. If after success there is room for compromise (more left turns) then fine. But to start with …

  • jeff wegerson

    Interesting street N Michigan. I haven’t walked it in ages. I now do drive it occasionally northbound at 3:30ish pm after picking up a Due’s to take home. I used to avoid it by driving north on Wabash until Rush and then to Oak and then to the drive. But since they mucked up Wabash I now head over to Michigan. It’s been lovely. I stay left until I need to shift right for the entrance to the drive. It surprisingly zips right along for me.

    But yeah, I could see squeezing the cars more. Foot by foot reduce their space. Yet on the other hand isn’t the space really too big for an effective pedestrian promenade. We have Navy Pier if you want to stroll and rub elbows with big crowds. I think the State Street Mall lesson is an actually pretty appropriate lesson of what not to do on Michigan Ave. But yes there are likely a lot of places bigger than the Lincoln Square plaza that could be made to work beautifully as pedestrian promenades.

  • There was also this New Yorker cover.

  • rohmen

    Great point, and the exact reason why I get so mad at people who simply dismiss the concerns over increased side street traffic and problems due to the left turn ban out of hand.

    Such concerns may be overplayed by the opposition, but if any of those concerns pan out, and no attempt was made to design around them from the start, we won’t see another BRT attempt outside of the loop for decades.

  • Mishellie

    Haha in a jokey way yes, I totally want that. But I’d be content with wider sidewalks. Itd be nice not having to squeeze between a gawking tourist and a wall to get to the post office :)

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Um no. Streeterville and the Gold Coast have nearing 100,000/square mile last time I looked, Lakeview has up to 50,000. Living there.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Michigan Ave already has resident and tourist walking lanes. Tourists walk outside the planters, and residents go flying by inside the planters along the curb. That’s how I’ve always done it, and everyone I’ve known who lives in this hood does the same thing.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    There’s talk of BRT lanes at least, if not potentially some sort of rail running on the New N LSD shortly in the future.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Yeah, Michigan doesn’t flow good for cars… I used to work on it, and cross it daily, and I Still walk on it almost every day. It’s gridlock most of the time. Send people out via wacker to LSD, which is where they’re going anyways, or send them via Wacker to Congress to 90/94, which is their other destination.

  • Fred

    Look again. According to the 2010 Census, the Near North community area of Chicago has a population of 80,484 in 2.78 sq/mi or ~30,000/sq mi. I’m certain the population has’t tripled in the last 4 years.

  • JDC

    Car-free streets tend to work when they’re implemented to accommodate high volumes of existing pedestrian traffic. Most (if not all) of the pedestrian malls that were eventually re-opened to vehicular traffic had one basic thing in common: They were originally created in an attempt to bring back the foot traffic that they’d already lost to (car-free) indoor shopping malls on the outskirts of town.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Hmmm, maybe I confused the income maps, though I thought there was more density in this neighborhood.


    That maps shows condierably higher pockets though in Streeterville/Gold Coast. Lakeview is also a lot more solidly/consistently residential than the near north as a whole.

  • Yeah but it’s not exactly and easy walk, sometimes (like when you run into a light pole or a hydrant) you’re forced onto the street.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    To be fair though, the two stations near Times Square on the subway see as many people per day combined as the entire red line – that’s got to count for something.


  • alexfrancisburchard

    hmmm, I’ve never had any obstruction that I recall except bus shelters. the sidewalk is wide enough inside the planters everywhere except at bus stops.

  • Deni

    I live about three blocks north of where Michigan Ave ends and I dream of a car-free Mag Mile. Turning an extra lane on each side to extra sidewalk space and letting only the buses run…the difference in transit time for people who take any of the express buses north (and the 151) would be amazing. And the length of the green lights for Michigan could be shortened cutting down on the infuriatingly long wait to cross for pedestrians.

    And yes, there should be a subway under Michigan (that runs above ground on what is now Lake Shore Drive in a six-track trunk line that breaks in to east-west lines on streets like North, Addison, Devon, etc. But that’s my pipe dream) as well as a street car that runs along Wacker and then Michigan from Union/Ogilve to north of Water Tower.

  • jennacatlin4

    car-free Mag Mile provide extra spaces to the pedestrians to find more spacious and smooth ways for parking whereas, it doesn’t suggest that any congestion in the car driving and parking spaces should be there, in fact, safe parking ways should be there to with Meet and Greet Heathrow


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