Active Transportation Alliance: create car-free spaces in Chicago

Just before Valentine’s Day the Active Transportation Alliance gave all Chicago urbanite’s a wonderful gift: a list of streets with the potential to pedestrianized or closed. For what is the most comprehensive such proposal I’ve seen for Chicago yet, I applaud Active Transportation. It’d be a shame to see the city government not actively pursue some of the ideas presented. While some of the ideas are really great, this list still raises a lot of questions and honestly after some exploration of the city via Google Maps I was wondering why some ideas were presented at all and why others weren’t bolder or expanded on in more detail.

I think part of what make these proposals overall so attractive is Active Transportation offers a variety of choices for better street spaces around the city that are also more or less very practicle. One of the stronger proposals is the simple suggestion to cap three side streets (Morgan, Miller and Carpenter) along the north side of 18th Street in Pilsen creating dead-ends with small pocket parks or plazas. Traffic calming and expanded open space is especially useful along Miller, because the Jungman School is right there and would essential see its playground space doubled.

Miller and 18th

The corner of Miller and 18th in Pilsen with the side of the Jungman School in the middle ground, playground visible along 18th.

Active Transportation also lists Monroe Street between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive in Grant Park for pedestrianization. What a wonderful idea! One of the worst qualities of Chicago’s parks is how many of them are covered in streets and parking lots. Expanding parkland in Grant Park on Monroe Street could be a slow reversal. However, I don’t think this plan goes far enough. There are other streets in Grant Park that could be removed all together or turned into two-lane streets or broad pedestrian promenades that double as access roads. It is ridiculous to have six-lane roads crisscrossing a park, which is currently the case.

A plan to totally revamp Grant Park’s road infrastructure should be considered instead. Reducing Balboa Drive and Jackson Drive from six- to four-lanes and closing Columbus between Monroe and Roosevelt Road (including Congress between Columbus and Michigan Avenue) and turning it into a main north-south promenade (with pop-up cafés or spaces for food carts to liven up the sites) would make Grant Park more the city’s front yard and less its driveway.

Fortunately the plan goes beyond Grant Park and proposes to close Simonds Drive in Lincoln Park between Lawrence and Foster and Ellsworth and Payne Drives in Washington Park, Luis Munoz Drive in Humboldt Park as well as the short segment of Milwaukee cutting through Logan Square; I say away with them! Good for Active Transportation for putting these suggestions forward, but does it go far enough? Why weren’t Cornell Avenue in Jackson Park south of the Midway Plaisance or Marquette Drive west of Richards Drive considered for removal? What about the parking lots at Lake Shore Drive and Hayes Drive in Jackson Park or the many parking lots in Lincoln Park (those I would cut are at LaSalle and Clark, Cannon and Fullerton, downsize at Diversey Harbor, Addison, Simonds and Addison, and Simonds and Foster). Looking at the lots from on Google Maps they seem more like they are there for the rush of people heading to the park for a few special events a year and otherwise they just take up valuable park land.

LP Parking Lots

Above is one of the many parking lots that could be removed to open up more green space in Lincoln Park. 

Of the ideas proposed the strongest ones are the plan to close a lane of traffic/parking along Clark Street in the Loop and River North and near South Side and create a two-way protected bike lane and the plan to close Broadway to thru traffic between Belmont and Diversey and turn it into a pedestrian/transit mall similar to State Street in Madison, WI, which is only open to busses, taxis and some other permitted municipal and private vehicles. I only wish that Active Transportation went for the gold with this and presented a bolder plan for these two ideas (what could these plans look like!?). Get people more excited and show them what they could be in for.

Turning Broadway into a pedestrian/transit mall à la State Street in Madison, WI makes me giddy in fact, because it really could open up the entire street to pedestrians and cyclists and make a true people spot. State Street in Madison remains a key facet of the city’s identity and is always vibrant and busy. The surface parking lot between Barry and Wellington has the potential to become a small public garden or park expanding the open space already available along Broadway proper.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 1.13.58 PM

Visualization of changes to Broadway if it became a pedestrian/transit mall similar to State Street in Madison, WI; includes location of surface parking lot with potential to become public park or garden. 

Meanwhile the plan for Clark Street should and must be bigger too! Include the entire length of Clark from Roosevelt in the south to Howard in the north. The proposals already include closing off parts of Clark in Andersonville, why not then make Clark a major bike project and extend the protected bike lanes the entire length of the street?

Active Transportation certainly did give us all a lot to think about. Although I do think it’d be nice to see some more succinct ideas, I can’t help but think maybe this was a subtle way to get the city’s urban planners’ creative juices flowing. There are a lot of gaps in these proposals that can be filled. Questions need to be answered about what they would actually look like, where the financing to build them will come from, how do we avoid the folly of State Street in the 80s that lives on all too well in the minds of many Chicagoans, and what does and doesn’t get built and how does transit fit into these projects?

There is sure to be plenty of discussion in the coming weeks, but what I think needs to happen now is figure out which parts of the proposal have the most potential and which have are most likely to get completed and go from there to make real plans. Some of the proposals should be scrapped, I think they are just hopeful ideas with no real chance of happening, however others should grow and turn into better ideas to really improve the spaces at hand.

Cermak Green Line Station: Worth it, despite serving a select public

The last in a four-part series by writer Natasha Julius, which I discovered on the blog Urbanophile, outlined some really fantastic ideas to improve access to mass transit in Chicago. Some of the ideas are new to me, some are ones I’ve played around with in my head (more about that at a later time). In the last piece she discusses the need to put transit in places that are actually accessible and enjoyable (link), Julius asserts that constructing the new Green Line Station at Cermak near the growing McCormick Place complex is just the result of mayoral pet projects and ill-conceived.

I must disagree with her though. While she makes a strong argument citing the negative effects of political whims on long-term transportation projects, I think there is certainly a benefit to the construction of a new stop at Cermak along the Green Line.

First, the stop will more directly serve McCormick Place, which means more people will likely opt to take the ‘L’ to the convention center rather than drive. This is especially true for people who might be working there, but staying in the Loop. As of now, the center is only directly accessible by the Metra Electric station, which puts commuters at the mercy of Metra’s limited runs. Better access to an ‘L’ stop means shorter, better access to trains and the ability for more spontaneous transit trips.

A new stop will also be a major gateway to the new DePaul arena (posed to be a center of activity for DePaul University athletics amongst other things) for this site. Whether you like the arena or not, direct access to it from the ‘L’ is much better than indirect access that would discourage people from opting for the ‘L’.

Julius argues that this new stop is a just the result of Emanuel’s hand and that a new stop would be better further north (18th Street is one suggestion), because the Cermak Red Line stop is nearby.

Here’s the thing though: McCormick Place primarily serves tourists, conventioneers and other visitors to the city, would be less likely to take the Red Line to McCormick Place for a number of reasons: 1) it might not appear as close to McCormick Place as it does to locals who are more adept at moving around a city they’re familiar with. The Cermak Green Line stop will likely be advertised as the transfer point to the convention center; 2) a stop at Cermak cuts the walk to McCormick Place’s main entrance by five minutes, not to mention a shorter walkt to the to-be-built arena and secondary entrances;* 3) The area around 18th Street, the location Julius gives as a potential site for a new Green Line stop, isn’t that big, but it’s also very pedestrian and bike friendly area with many bus connections. Local residents can easily access other nearby ‘L’ and Metra connections already.

Making McCormack Place accessible via the Green Line is also a boon to Chicagoans and would help draw further development south of the Loop and hopefully allow that to begin sinking into Bronzeville and other parts of the South Side.

I simply don’t feel that the people going to McCormick Place are the type of people who will want to or have the know how to easily navigate the (yes,relatively short) distance to the McCormack Place complex from the Red Line, which necessitates a new ‘L’ stop along the Green Line. The Green Line stop is intended to serve this particular audience, albeit not always residents. However, if that still means getting people out of cars, that’s a good thing. 

*According to Google Maps, the walk from the location of the new Green Line Cermak stop to the main entrance of the McCormack Place is five minutes shorter than the walk from the Chinatown Red Line. It should also be noted, that the walk from the Red Line requires pedestrians to pass sparsely developed sites at the corner of Cermak and State, which makes for a more unpleasant experience.