Chicago needs its first pedestrian street

July 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Spend an hour or two in any one of Chicago’s most vibrant retail districts and something doesn’t feel right: There isn’t enough room to be a pedestrian, especially on warm summer days (even weekdays!). Some neighborhoods are halfway there – Lincoln Square has a vibrant retail district with some room for pedestrians but falls short by allowing people to drive through it.

Lincoln Square

Lincoln Square.

There is plenty of sidewalk space but look at how much room is given to store vehicles. The vehicles are noisy, too, and while not a big deal, a driver laying on their horn is a nuisance and disturbs everyone using the public space without any benefit.

With any call for pedestrian streets and the removal of parking comes loud objections from residents and business owners alike, two stakeholders who would benefit from pedestrian-oriented streets. The former complain that removing parking on retail-heavy street X will lead to more people trying to park on their residential street Y, of course not realizing this is because parking is free and making any precious commodity free leads to overconsumption (basically, if it’s free, you can’t claim it for yourself). The latter believe that every parking space in front of their business means a customer for that business. It doesn’t work that way, though, especially if the parking is free or cheap and leaves the parked car’s driver reluctant to move the coveted cheap/free parking space, reducing the number of cars that will park and patronize the business.

A great pedestrian street can become a destination. Think of Carnaby Street in London. Pedestrianized in 1973, it is now a popular destination for tourists and locals that led to a 30% increase in pedestrian activity. The street has many chain and local retail stores and event programming; when I was there, a local music festival was occurring.

Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street, London.

Vehicle access is restricted between 11 AM and 8 PM, presumably so that delivery vehicles can access the street when it isn’t busy. There are enough diverse uses to keep the street lively most of the day and night; shopping during the day and pub drinking at night (and this being England, during the day as well).

The issue many streets in Chicago face is that our retail districts are also along major streets used by drivers and bus routes. The parking meter debacle notwithstanding, this is not a major obstacle to pedestrianization. Good transit connectivity and easy access by bicycle and foot means pedestrianized streets can be successful. Of course, long-term Chicagoans will point out the failure of the State Street pedestrian mall in the 1980s as evidence that they do not work, but this is for other reasons than it being strictly a pedestrian street. The street still allowed buses and taxis and was likely just too wide to function as an intimate pedestrian street. The Loop in general is not a very inviting place at night, with office workers back at home and very little to keep the area alive. It was also a period of American history where shopping malls were replacing downtown as shopping districts, a trend that is now reversing.

We shouldn’t let the mistakes of the State Street pedestrian mall prevent us from trying a pedestrian street again, especially in neighborhoods that are more suited to the task. Streets that already have round-the-clock uses are Clark St in Andersonville, Lakeview, Wrigleyville, and Lincoln Park, and Milwaukee Ave in Wicker Park, to name just a few that I’m familiar with (leave yours in the comments). These streets are small enough that their traffic can be shifted onto other arterial streets and have the range of businesses – clothing stores, restaurants, sandwich shops, bookstores, cafés, pubs, bars, and more – that keep a street lively from the morning until late at night.

Sidewalk sale on Clark St in Andersonville.

Sidewalk sale on Clark St in Andersonville.

With good event programming and a mix of businesses that attract every type of person, many streets are already equipped to handle pedestrianization. Look above at Clark St in Andersonville. The sidewalks are often crowded because of the sidewalk activity: Restaurants want outdoor seating in good weather and stores like to sell their merchandise outside. Ask the restaurant owner who brings in more money: Someone parked in front of the restaurant who buys one meal for $20 (and then potentially stays parked while going to other businesses), or the same parking space repurposed for 3 tables, each one spending $20. It’s not complicated to see the benefits.

Complexities like the parking meter issue unique to Chicago can make pedestrianization a tough sell. But in most other places, it isn’t difficult to see the benefit. These streets quickly become destinations designed for and frequented by local residents and visitors. Chicago ought to get a taste by, at minimum, pedestrianizing some streets on weekends and evenings only. With success, these streets can be converted to full pedestrianization, with the streetscape repaved and repurposed for permanent pedestrian access. Chicago shouldn’t be left out of the pedestrian trend and its benefits.