Pedestrianized vision for Michigan Avenue

December 24, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Update: Please see this post for a follow-up on the pedestrianization concept, including a Chicago success story, and the news from the Active Transportation Alliance regarding public plazas in Chicago.

The Magnificent Mile, or Michigan Avenue from the Chicago River to Oak St, is one of the most-visited attractions for visitors to Chicago and a generally popular street to visit, as well as fairly well-known.

It drives me crazy.

Not because I can find all of the other stores elsewhere (and avoid a trip downtown) or because it’s full of people on many weekends. It drives me crazy because it has so much undeveloped potential.

When I was in Frankfurt am Main this past summer I stayed in a hotel just a few minutes’ walk from the Zeil, a pedestrian mall full of shops, trees, and places to sit and watch the world go by.

The Zeil. Credit: Wikipedia.

Bike parking and places to sit in the Zeil.

Bike parking and places to sit in the Zeil.

The Zeil.

The Zeil.

As it turns out, the Zeil is about as wide as Michigan Avenue, storefront-to-storefront. 100 feet.

Michigan Ave is full of cars that do not need to be there. There is nowhere to park along Michigan Ave. There are no parking garage entrances on the street itself. The only need for auto traffic is for taxis and buses – all other traffic is mainly either 1) hotel guests who drove in or 2) thru traffic. Parking garage entrances and street spaces are along the perpendicular streets. These streets which intersect Michigan could remain open, but I would strongly argue that traffic not be permitted to go east/west across Michigan Ave. This traffic should be funneled south to Grand and Illinois, where it can cross under Michigan on existing lower-level streets, or north to Walton where the pedestrian mall would end. The beauty of the grid system is that it permits parallel streets to absorb some of the traffic for the same trips.

Don’t worry too much about the cars and where they’ll go*. This is a chance to put pedestrians first.

Cars get the lion's share of Michigan Ave, but contribute nothing to the street.

Cars get the lion’s share of Michigan Ave, but contribute nothing to the street.

Where would all of the buses go? They could be rerouted to State St. which could get its own bus lane (there is not a lot of metered parking on State). If the Lake Shore Drive reconstruction results in some form of BRT or light rail, it may connect to Michigan Ave or State St – if it were light rail, you could run it down Michigan Ave. But with pedestrianization, it would really not be optimal to run buses down it.

Michigan Ave is a mess and it’s because of the car traffic. The traffic chaos that occurs is because of other drivers, not pedestrians. And it holds up the express bus traffic, too.

A town car and someone’s private car hold up 3 lanes of traffic, including 2 full articulated buses, on Michigan Ave.

Except for IDOT’s death grip on some of the city’s streets that could most benefit from some redesign, I feel there would be little rational opposition to pedestrianization. Merchants can’t possibly believe that their customers are arriving by automobile and parking on the street. There are likely concerns with other nearby institutions that would be addressed during a formal planning process.

Filling in the center with restaurants (like the Dunkin’ Donuts on the Zeil, see below), cafés, pop-up stores, outdoor seating, bike parking, Divvy stations, seating, fountains, statues, performance areas… the list goes on. It’s an improvement over what’s there now: 6 lanes of honking, impatient drivers.

A fountain and gourmet pastry shop in the middle of the Zeil. Image: R.F.Rumbao.

Every time a pedestrian mall idea is brought up, Chicagoans bring up the same story: The State St pedestrian mall of the 1980s, which was deemed a failure. With careful planning, I can confidently assume this would not happen on Michigan Ave for several reasons:

  1. The State St mall had a mix of “shady” stores that were not the types of stores that attract all people.
  2. It was during the 1980s, around the peak of suburban shopping centers and high crime.
  3. The street was not paved over to create a continuous pedestrian walkway, did not contain retail infill, or seating.
  4. Michigan Ave is already a destination for Chicagoans and tourists, even from the suburbs where the same stores are present in enclosed malls. People willingly expose themselves to the elements to shop here when they could do it at home!

I would not want to walk on the State St pedestrian mall either. Image: UIC Digital Collections via Streetsblog Chicago.

With proper policing, permanent infill along the center of the street, seating areas, and other fixtures, the pedestrianization of Michigan Ave would not fail like State St. It’s a great economic development opportunity.

We can have this. We just need to want it.

*UPDATE: I have the Census data for the Streeterville neighborhood, east of Michigan Avenue. Please see the data at this post.