Alderman Martin is putting out feelers about doing open streets interventions in Lincoln Square

Matt Martin
Matt Martin

While there’s many a slip between cup and lip, it’s safe to say we’ve reached a tipping point in Chicago on the issue of “open streets” interventions to make for room for walking and biking during COVID-19 and reopening. An idea that was formerly controversial, with some previously arguing that the context of the pandemic is not an appropriate time to push this vision forward, has now become mainstream. That was evidenced by this Friday morning tweet from Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In the wake of Lightfoot’s tweet, the Active Transportation Alliance, which previously declined to advocate for open streets, has officially gotten on board. On Friday afternoon the group told the Sun-Times, “The city needs to be exploring and implementing a range of things, which may include limiting traffic on residential streets so that people walking and biking feel more safe and comfortable. There also should include changes to arterial streets, where people are biking and may not feel safe.”

Here’s more evidence that the movement to create more space for walk/bike during the pandemic is picking up speed. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin published an open letter to Lightfoot Friday calling on her to rethink the full closure of Chicago’s lakefront. “Why… is it OK to close to the 18-mile Lakefront Trail to everybody, including essential workers who bike to their jobs, while allowing other essential workers to commute by car on Lake Shore Drive?” Kamin wrote. That sends a bad signal, suggesting that pollution-causing car travel should take precedence over energy-saving biking.”

The Trib also published on Friday an op-ed by Chicago Council on Global Affairs fellow Sam Kling calling for Chicago to adopt open streets and other pandemic transportation strategies to prevent a post-COVID traffic crisis. “The tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic brings new perspective on city life,” Kling said. “With new perspective comes new possibility and an urgent call for a healthier, more equitable and more humane Chicago for the long term. Let’s heed it.”

A Slow Street in Oakland, California. Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times
A Slow Street in Oakland, California. Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Need still more proof that things are getting real? Last week progressive 47th Ward alderman Matt Martin, whose district encompasses the Lincoln Square community area, as well as parts of North Center, Lakeview, and Uptown, told Streetsblog he’s been in talks with the Chicago Department of Transportation, other local aldermen, merchants, and residents, about piloting open streets strategies in the area.

“What I’m seeing in the ward is probably pretty typical,” Martin said. “People are going out for their morning or evening walk with a pet or taking a jog, they’re wearing masks and they’re trying to social distance, so they’re walking in the parkway or running in the street. It looks like more space could be helpful.”

47th Ward residents and Alderman Matt Martin, far right, listen to a presentation about a local community garden on a ward bike tour in August. Photo: John Greenfield
47th Ward residents and Alderman Matt Martin, far right in the photo, listen to a presentation about a local community garden on a ward bike tour last August. Photo: John Greenfield

The alderman added that he’s gotten feedback from constituents and merchants about policies and practices to promote social distancing as Chicago begins to reopen. “They’ve been pointing to what other cities around the country and the world have been doing.” Martin mentioned possible solutions like Oakland-style Slow Streets, prohibiting through traffic on side streets to make room for safe pedestrian activity; sidewalk expansions; temporary bike lanes; and converting parking lots, parking spaces, and/or travel lanes to cafe seating to allow restaurants to safely offer dine-in service again. (Suburban Hinsdale and McHenry are piloting the latter idea.)

Martin brought up the intriguing idea of temporarily converting some two-way streets to one-way roadways and using a travel lane to make more room for people. There’s a precedent for that in Lincoln Square, where the stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Lawrence and Leland avenues was converted to one-way southbound to create a semi-pedestrianized shopping zone and make room for diagonal parking. That in turn facilitated turning the block of Giddings Plaza east of Lincoln into Kempf Plaza, one of our city’s most successful public spaces. This forward-thinking street redesign was spearheaded by former CDOT acting commissioner John LaPlante, who was sadly one of the first people to die from the coronavirus in Illinois.

The alderman said he’s currently soliciting input from the community on these ideas, as well as talking to CDOT planners. Asked for an update on these discussions, CDOT provided this statement to Streetsblog.

Community engagement has been and will remain a critical component of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s process when creating new transportation policy, as CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi has said. Over the past few weeks, and in response community transportation concerns, CDOT has engaged both the general public and key transportation stakeholders, including aldermen, to better understand transportation issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods. Over the next few weeks, CDOT looks forward to working with these groups to create and rollout effective and meaningful transportation policies that help increase access and mobility for all of Chicago’s residents.

Martin noted that open streets interventions could take many forms, with open streets or Slow Streets potentially taking place only once a week, but they could also possibly happen 24-7 during the pandemic and recovery. These could be citywide interventions, or else just take place in neighborhoods like Lincoln Square where people are “raising their hands” to request them, he said. “We’re looking at the best ways to solicit community input. We don’t want people to feel like this is imposed on them.”

The aldermen didn’t have an estimates on when we might see open streets intervention in his ward. But he said that we could see some action once “we see [infection] numbers trending in a positive way, so that there’s some level of comfort with these initiatives.”

Martin added that open streets should be accompanied by outreach to make sure people understand what kind of behavior is acceptable (pedestrian activity, cycling, and other forms of mobility for transportation and recreation with six-foot-plus spacing) and isn’t (congregating in large groups.) “But we want to make sure that as people are spending more time outside, we are adjusting infrastructure accordingly.”