Push for car-free spaces still haunted by failed State Street pedestrian mall

As the Active Transportation Alliance advocates for more car-free space in the city, the group can't forget Chicago's ill-fated attempt at a pedestrian mall

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  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

  • Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

    The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.

Photograph: Courtesy of UIC Digital Collections

The State Street pedestrian/bus mall closed off the arterial road from private automobile traffic from 1979 until it was ripped up 1996.


The Active Transportation Alliance today called for more "car-free spaces" in a city that traditionally has favored an automobile-centric view of its roads over a "complete streets" framework, which accommodates all modes, including walking and cycling. The transit advocacy org submitted to the Chicago Department of Transportation suggestions for converting 20 streets and locations around the city into pedestrian plazas and ped-friendly zones, which "can make communities more attractive places to live and shop, generate more biking and walking and thus improve mobility and health, and reduce traffic crashes."

The list includes proposals for the Magnificent Mile, Monroe Avenue between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, and "one or more streets near Wrigley Field." In Lakeview, there is a suggestion to make Broadway from Diversey to Belmont Avenues "a car-free greenway with landscaping, seating [and] restaurant patio space." Parts of bustling Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park and Logan Square would be altered. In Pilsen, there is a recommendation to "dead end Carpenter, Miller and/or Morgan streets on the north side of 18th Street to create a pedestrian plaza." Streets around Humboldt Park, it is suggested, could be closed in the summer "to effectively expand park space and give people a safe place to walk and bike."

The ATA cites Times Square in New York City and Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall in Boulder, Colorado, as examples of successes. Navy Pier and Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square are popular, but Chicago's most radical effort at implementing a car-free space failed. The ill-fated State Street pedestrian mall experiment cut off private automobile traffic and opened nine blocks of the downtown artery to foot traffic and city buses from 1979 until 1996. As the above photos show, vendors hawked popcorn and donuts, busking mimes and clowns drew crowds, and concertgoers headed to see Dionne Warwick at the Chicago Theatre had no trouble finding room to walk.

The pedestrian mall foundered, due in large part to the fact that State Street was not always such a great street—at least economically. In the middle part of the last century, the disinvestment precipitated by white flight took its toll on the Loop. By the 1970s, downtown businesses shuttered as people continued to head to the suburbs to live and do their shopping at malls. To compete with the pull of the 'burbs, the State Street stunt attempted to mimic the feel of a mall.

"[R]ather than make the street snazzy again, the mall worsened the slump by giving State a quiet, deserted, even dangerous feel," the New York Times reported in 1996, when the city decided to reopen the street to regular traffic. "Now, the pedestrian mall is getting what retailers say it has long deserved: jackhammers."

That was almost two decades ago, yet the flop still dogs new efforts to establish car-free zones in Chicago. "Any time you talk about converting some street space to car-free space, State Street is the question that always comes up," says ATA executive director Ron Burke. "People say, 'Oh, State Street was a mess!' But, surprisingly, no one ever says to me, 'Man, Navy Pier is so successful! Why aren't we doing more of that?'"

"Creating more unique, livable public spaces means looking beyond the so-called ‘pedestrian mall’ concept to newer, more innovative ways to reprogram the public right-of-way,” ATA policy and planning director Amanda Woodall says in the group's press release. “It’s time to drop our grudge based on the poorly-designed State Street mall, develop better strategies and lay the groundwork for healthier, more livable neighborhoods.”

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