Chicago is just about the only major blue-state city not doing open streets

A Slow Street in Oakland. Photo: Jeff Chu
A Slow Street in Oakland. Photo: Jeff Chu

We just got word from out friends at Streetsblog Los Angeles that the racially diverse Del Rey neighborhood in the Westside of LA is rolling out an Oakland-style Slow Streets program tomorrow. The initiative will prohibit through traffic on side streets to make room for safe socially-distanced walking, running, scooting, skating, skateboarding, and biking during the pandemic. Drivers will be permitted to access local destinations.

LA joins New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Boston, Madison, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Portland, Oakland and San Francisco as a city that is doing an open streets intervention during COVID-19. In addition to Slow Streets, other strategies include opening main streets for pedestrian activity and biking; opening park roads; and temporarily creating new bike/ped space by separating parking lanes or travel lanes with barriers or markers.

Chicago is essentially the only major blue-state city with a sane mayor that's not doing open streets. Map: John Greenfield via Google Maps
Chicago is essentially the only major blue-state city with a rational mayor that’s not doing open streets. Map: John Greenfield via Google Maps

Along with Chicago, Las Vegas is another example of a major city in a state that went Democratic in the 2016 election that’s not doing open streets. But Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman recently suggested immediately reopening her city without social distancing rules as a sort of experiment to see what happens.

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So that leaves Chicago as essentially the only major city in a blue state with a rational mayor that’s not doing open streets. Why is that? For starters, up to now Mayor Lori Lightfoot has shown zero interest in doing such a program, favoring a punitive “stick” approach for promoting social distancing by shutting down major trails and parks, rather than the “carrot” strategy of providing people with enough space so that they can travel and recreate on foot and wheels with enough room for safe spacing.

But at least as important has been the Active Transportation Alliance’s complete absence of support for open streets. Compare that to the strategy of their peer advocacy organization the San Francisco Bay Bicycle Coalition.

San Francisco, recently called “The city that has flattened the curve” due to its proactive pandemic measures, is also doing 12 Slow Streets, opening other park roads, and has even turned nine golf courses into public parks. In many cases city governments aren’t doing forward-thinking initiatives like these of their own volition, but rather because advocates have suggesting and pushing for these programs.

That’s historically been especially true in meat-and-potatoes Chicago. When smart transportation stuff happens here, it’s often because Active Trans has proposed and lobbied for it.

But Active Trans has previously spoken negatively about promoting open streets during the pandemic, arguing that such programs are difficult and resource-intensive, that it’s inappropriate to push for them during the pandemic because there are other pressing needs, and that street closures would require adding more cops to already-overpoliced communities. There’s some validity to those concerns, or rather there was, before Oakland showed that Slow Streets can be done cheaply and quickly, with no additional policing and minimal hassles for drivers.

Still, Active Trans’ anti-open streets perspective is influencing the national dialogue on open streets. For example, the group’s statement that “the context of a pandemic does not seem like the most appropriate moment to be pushing forward this vision” was recently quoted in an article about an open streets proposal in Austin, Texas. Active Trans reps have also been going on various online panels to discuss the organization’s POV, including one this evening with #TheSquad member Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. (We’ll have a writeup tomorrow.)

So what do Active Tran members think of this policy? That’s hard for us to gauge, but we’ve seen plenty of posts in our comments sections and on Twitter from members expressing frustration with the lack of support for open streets. For what it’s worth this, admittedly unscientific, Twitter poll we conducted yesterday showed that the vast majority of participants want the advocacy group to join the open streets movement.

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Yesterday’s Twitter poll.

Active Trans declined to comment on the poll, or to discuss whether the group’s position on open streets has evolved in light of recent developments, such as the growth of the Slow Streets movement.

However, at a press conference today, Lightfoot offered a tiny glimmer of hope. A reporter noted that, with the nearby Lakefront Trail closed, North Michigan Avenue has had lots of foot traffic on recent nice days. They asked whether the mayor could consider opening Michigan or another street like Dearborn or Clark, so that people can safely walk, run, and bike in the street, similar to what’s being done in cities like New York. Lightfoot responded that the question has come up a number of times (yep!), and that Chicago is keeping an eye on what’s going on in other cities. “We haven’t ruled it out, but we also haven’t ruled it in,” the mayor said. “We just wanna understand what the impacts are gonna be on travel.”

So feel free to reach out to the mayor and Active Trans to make your voice heard about open streets, sign essential worker Kyle Lucas’ petition for open streets and reopening the Lakefront Trail, which currently has 1,090 supporters, and keep your fingers crossed.

Here are some recent tweets from Streetsblog Chicago readers on the open streets question.

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