Pedestrianizing Adams St near Union Station

October 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm

The area around Union Station is in complete disarray. The Union Station Master Plan agrees that the streets directly adjacent to the entrances and exits are operating at an “unacceptable level” for nearly all transportation modes. Most train commuters spill out of the tiny auxiliary exits (in practice, they’re the most used exits) and head east into the central Loop, few using the main entrance. Taxis picking up and dropping off passengers as well as private vehicles mix with large articulated buses. There is little public space surrounding what is the most important train station for many commuters and visitors in Chicago.

Lots of space for cars, little space for pedestrians.

Lots of space for cars, little space for pedestrians.

Crowded, narrow sidewalk at the corner of Adams and Canal.

Union Station at Adams and Riverside Plaza, Chicago.

Union Station at Adams and Riverside Plaza, Chicago.

The Central Loop BRT program to be implemented over the next few years is supposed to make it easier to travel by bus in the Loop area and at Union and Ogilvie Stations. The Union Station Master Plan, composed of short-, medium-, and long-term plans, includes some traffic enhancements, specifically on Canal St. But two years after its release, nothing has been done – not even temporary measures – for pedestrian flows. CDOT’s projects around the station include two transportation centers (one for BRT), but nothing to accommodate the pedestrian environment.

Central Loop BRT map.

Improvements to Canal St. Image: Union Station Master Plan.

I have a tendency to think big, and none of the plans really stir my blood as an observer of the daily situation around the station. I believe a great enhancement would be to pedestrianize the two blocks + bridge of Adams St between Wacker and Canal.

Pedestrianized area in red. Future transit center in green. Click for interactive map.

Pedestrianized area in red. Future transit center in green. Auxiliary exits are blue pins. Click for interactive map.

There are many reasons this is a good idea. The bus routes that run on Adams nearly all terminate at the station or continue west and could be easily rerouted. Private automobile traffic and taxis could take advantage of the grid street pattern to reroute trips. Taxis dropping off passengers at the station would do so at Wacker and Adams. Bicycle trips could be rerouted to the new protected lanes on Madison St; trips that terminate at Union Station would require those on bikes to dismount and walk the two blocks to the station (it’s just easier for everyone). If you were to study the desire paths taken by people here, you’d notice a lot of people crossing Adams wherever when no traffic is coming (and even when it is).

Looking west on Adams Street from Wacker Drive, Chicago. Where the car is turning right is where the pedestrianized street would start.

Looking west on Adams Street from Wacker Drive, Chicago. Where the car is turning right is where the pedestrianized street would start. Image: Google.

There would be new public space directly outside the station and pedestrian trips wouldn’t involve dodging taxis in the crosswalks or waiting for the pedestrian crossing light to change. When the riverside plaza between Monroe and Adams is finished, it would link up with even more great public space. Union Station’s dearth of bicycle parking could be solved with new space for bike racks that doesn’t encroach upon the small existing sidewalks. The large space could be used for public events, just like Daley Plaza.

Amsterdam Centraal Station has a large plaza (currently under construction) in front of it, with pedestrians and trams inevitably mixed with bicycles. Image: Accessible Travel.

As far as the bus routes that run down Adams currently, I count 5: the 1, 7, 28, 126, and 151 routes. Three routes, the 134, 135, and 136, terminate just before Wacker on Adams. The 1, 7, 28, 126, and 151 routes could all be rerouted to Madison St, two blocks north, where the Central Loop BRT lanes will be built.

The Strasbourg SNCF station has lots of open public space in front of itself. Image: Frédéric Chateaux via Flickr.

Because Union Station is below ground and really cannot be made an open-air terminal, it makes sense to do the best possible and create a great public space above ground.

Union Station may never look like this, so it makes sense to take the placemaking outdoors. Image: Geoff Johnson via Flickr.

Screens outdoors can make the outdoors a more convenient place to wait for a train.

Outdoor train departure screens in Paris.

109,000 Metra commuters use Union Station daily. An overwhelming number of those commuters – 78% – walk to their trains at Union Station. 18,000 pedestrians cross the Adams St bridge during two peak hours alone – thousands more cross it outside of those two peak hours (7:30-8:30 AM, 4:45-5:45 PM). During those same two hours, about 300 taxis picked up or dropped off passengers. For a comparison, the average daily traffic counts show that about 14,000 vehicles pass Wacker Dr on Adams St (and thus the bridge). Aside from the merits of opening a street for pedestrians based on the health, placemaking, and environmental benefits, the numbers also show it should be done.


Pedestrian traffic counts over 2 hours (7:30-8:30 AM, 4:45-5:45 PM) around Union Station.

I wasn’t at the ThinkBike events held a few weeks ago, but I do know that dead-ending some streets for cars in the Loop was discussed as a way to redesign the streets of the Loop. While the street would dead-end for private vehicles, pedestrians and those on bikes could still get through. This is an excellent example of filtered permeability in street design: allowing some users through while others have to find another way. Right now, all Loop streets are for cars – none are exclusively for non-car users. It’s time that situation changes to reflect the massive amounts of people that live, work, and visit the Loop on foot. Initially, the street could just be temporarily closed with barricades; as time goes on, full pedestrianization and placemaking opportunities could be implemented.

Space for everyone on a pedestrianized Adams St. The "Union Station" Adams auxiliary exit is the blue building to the left.

Space for everyone on a pedestrianized Adams St. The “Union Station” Adams auxiliary exit is the blue building to the left.

Changing the Loop’s street dynamic is not a novel idea and CDOT is trying to make it better for bus riders and those on bikes. Aside from small improvements like new seating areas, no grand ideas have emerged for placemaking or pedestrian space enhancements – problems have only been identified. Foot traffic is enormous and usually the most efficient way of getting around downtown – not to mention the healthiest and least environmentally intrusive. We should be creating space that doesn’t only reflect this, but makes being on foot more pleasant. A great place to start is Union Station.