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.”However, Burke sees Denver's 16th Street Mall as a better-designed example of the form. "Like the State Street pedestrian mall, Denver's has buses running down it, as well, but it's much better designed than State Street. There's a very narrow, curbed street for the buses to go down, so it's relatively easy to cross as a pedestrian. The buses don't go very fast, and you've got these nice, broad sidewalks with shops and restaurants. State Street, on the other hand, was and still is a very wide street. So as a pedestrian, you had to cross a relatively vast expanse, dodging buses that were going very fast, because the lanes were wide."
Since the State Street pedestrian mall was wiped out in '96, Chicago's downtown has changed significantly. The Loop has been rejuvinated by the ramped up theater district and Millennium Park, the back-to-the-city movement and the growth of public-transit use and cycling. Could the State Street experiment work today?
"Most of the experts we talked to didn't put State Street high on their list for a complete car-free street," Burke says. "The types of shops, like department stores, don't lend themselves well to [the pedestrian mall] kind of treatment than do smaller shops and restaurants."
That's not to say the street couldn't be improved under the complete streets philosophy. "There are proposals for a more modest treatment to make State more inviting," Burke says. "It's overly wide for traffic; there's that space in the middle where police park their cars. You could narrow the street and make it more inviting with wider sidewalks and a curbside plaza," he says. "I could see some really innovative things happening there, while still having cars and buses."
Realistically, Burke envisions the expansion of car-free spaces in Chicago as happening gradually—unlike the sudden nine-block downtown takeover that was the State Street pedestrian mall. He's inspired by the Bloomberg administration's efforts along Broadway in New York. "You take a travel lane and convert it into a protected bike lane with a nice, linear plaza seating area next to it. That's creating a car-free space out of street, but it's not a pedestrian mall. We need to think beyond the pedestrian mall."