Pedestrianize the Loop

November 15, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Looking west on Adams Street from Wacker Drive, Chicago. Credit: Google Maps.

This is an intersection I cross every day on my way to work just above Union Station. Wacker Drive is a large, six-lane, high-speed (informally) street in Chicago’s Loop that has been under construction in parts since 2001 (but Part 2 started in 2010).

Since I started my job in September, the southern part of this particular intersection has been under construction and access restricted to construction vehicles. That means most of the time, the intersection was OK to cross at all times. And pedestrians did cross it at all times.

Tonight, that southern part of the intersection is back open to auto traffic to the next intersection at Jackson. This took most people I was walking around by surprise, and I’m sure it surprised thousands more walking to Union Station for a train ride home tonight. Some people still decided to cross despite cars obviously trying to get through. It was a little amusing to watch.

But then it got me thinking more about an idea I’ve had before when walking downtown. A lot of the sidewalks in the Loop aren’t much wider than one traffic lane, and these streets are 3 or 4 lanes wide (or 6, like Wacker Dr). That means that twice the space is given to people in single-occupancy vehicles (and buses too, though) than pedestrians who make up a huge portion of the sidewalks in the Loop in the morning and evening rush as well as lunch. So why don’t we change that and make walking downtown a little easier for all of us – especially out in the cold this time of year?

A concept would be restricting traffic on certain streets at certain times – perhaps those with L stops or that connect to regional train stations (which is most of them). This would certainly increase traffic on many streets and would have to ensure that traffic leaving parking garages could still get to their destination. But such a restriction could also lower the amount of people that want to drive downtown anyway.

Another idea that really wouldn’t cost anything and wouldn’t create too much extra traffic is timing intersections for a “pedestrian scramble”, where all lights for drivers are red, but pedestrians can cross diagonally or across the street as they do already:

Credit: Protect Sheridan Road.

And perhaps a final, expensive, probably-a-pipe-dream idea is to completely pedestrianize some streets in the Loop, all the time. State Street comes to mind. This summer, State St was the scene of a pedestrian mall-esque event called Open Streets Chicago (another one happened in Wicker Park) where several blocks of State St were closed off to vehicles. State St used to be a pedestrian mall from the 1980s until 1996. While some argue that the pedestrian mall hurt the department stores along the street, it is unfair to attribute their decline solely to pedestrianization. Other factors, socially and economically, were afflicting development in urban cores.

The Open Streets events were fun and drew a lot of people, and State St has many shops, limited parking, and is mainly a thoroughfare to get somewhere else. I have a hard time making the case that the automobile saved State St retail. So why not try making this street, and another east-west street (Madison?) pedestrian malls? The streets are wide now, so to fill in space, add something in the middle. Take a look at the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA:

3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA. Credit: New Retail.

Streets in the Loop might be wider but the 3rd Street Promenade is already pretty narrow given what goes on there. There are cafes/delis, benches, and decorations lining the middle of parts of the street, making it feel more intimate and comfortable. If a street in the Loop were suddenly closed to auto traffic tomorrow, the majority of people would still probably walk on the sidewalks because there’s really nothing in the streets except pavement and paint. There needs to be something else in the middle to break up the nothingness the streets would become. That’s not to say pedestrianization would make the streets useless, it’s just that there would have to be more to make the street feel more livable and not post-apocalyptic.

Opening up some streets would also create new economic opportunities and destinations in the Loop, which is largely empty during the evenings all week long, when businesses that are open to serve the white-collar, 9-to-5 workforce have no customers to serve because nobody’s at work.

There are a lot of things we could do to permanently make walking easier on the congested sidewalks of the Loop. If you know of any or have another idea, leave it in the comments!