Chicago’s Path to a Pedestrianized City Center

Chicago’s history of pedestrianization is mixed. The troubled State Street mall still haunts contemporary efforts in spite of a handful of successes. Recently a number of transportation efforts and proposals have re-ignited a conversation about where, when and how to pedestrianize Chicago’s streets. The seedlings for a bigger pedestrianization have already been planted. A dense, concentrated core and flat landscape with transit access are important ingredients for pedestrianized cities and to an extent Chicago has it all. Now is the time for advocates and planners to really start putting concrete ideas forward; actual proposals that can get off the ground.

Most recently, John Greenfield over at Streetsblog Chicago reported on the government of Oslo’s proposal to pedestrianize its city center. While he makes it clear that he isn’t “advocating for an Oslo-style ban on private vehicles in downtown Chicago” he does discuss the need for a well-rounded and impactful conversation about a decrease in car infrastructure in the Loop.

“The city has already made some positive steps in that direction by repurposing asphalt in [the Loop] to make room for forward-thinking transit and bicycle projects [like the Loop Link],” Greenfield said in the article about Oslo’s plan. By converting even some traffic lanes to non-car uses makes streets safer and encourages more cycling and walking.


A transit mall in Angers, France. Source:

This includes the under construction Loop Link BRT, which is converting car lanes to bike and bus lanes as well as planning other concepts to lower car use in the Loop such as a congestion charge. That aside, it really shouldn’t be all that difficult to effectively pedestrianize part of Chicago’s Downtown in the next few years, even if it doesn’t include transit malls or pedestrian only streets (although those should be considered).

I have my fingers crossed the Loop Link and new bike lanes are well received. In the case they are, I firmly believe the city could ride that wave and therefore rapidly increase the number of bike lanes and bus rapid transit paths  downtown.


The under construction Loop Link BRT will introduce new BRT and barrier protected bike lanes to Chicago’s Loop. These new transit improvements will increase travel times east-west along Randolph, Washington and Madison and north-south along Clinton and Canal.

To start, new routes should be built on Adams and Jackson between Michigan and Clinton/Canal in addition to the Washington and Madison bus lanes. Both streets connect the east side of the Loop with Union Station and support 10 bus routes at various points. The same must be done along State (which supports 9 bus routes) from Roosevelt to Division (at least) and also Dearborn between Congress and Walton. Painted bus lanes like that along Dearborn, much like painted bike lanes, have limited efficacy, because they neither command respect nor have the infrastructure to prevent other road users from blocking them.

Not one of these projects should go forward without including cycling infrastructure either. The model to follow is the one being used along Washington, which features barrier protected bike lanes (BPLs) between the bus lanes and the sidewalk.

Bike infrastructure shouldn’t be dependent on bus infrastructur though. Downtown Chicago has numerous streets that could support new BPLs. Using anecdotal experience on Chicago’s downtown streets, I estimate that upwards of 20 miles or more of new bike infrastructure (and specifically BPLs) could be successfully introduced.

Yes, there are costs to these ideas, but they are more manageable than the costs of building new rail or road infrastructure. For example, 25 miles of BPLs would cost around only $3.5 million using an estimate from the Chicago Tribune that BPLs costs about $125,000 per mile. It would costs $150-$450 million to build 15 miles of new BRT paths in downtown Chicago based on average per mile costs estimates from Daniel Kay Hertz and the Amateur Planner blog. Some of these costs could be lowered by coordinating infrastructure construction projects and funding from downtown congestion charges. Building all this over 5 years would costs about $30.8-$90 million per year. Considering London earned over $222 million with its congestion charges in 2008 revenue can clearly be found.

These are accessible changes that serve ambitious future plans from Greenfield’s suggestion to pedestrianize portions of Washington to ideas to pedestrianize North Michigan Avenue or a return of the State Street pedestrian mall. BRT would complement these changes well, provided needed transit access. A new transit mall along State, a pedestrian and bike zone with center running BRT paths has more chances of success now than when it was first attempted. I’d even suggest turning Monroe into a two-way transit mall from Michigan to Wacker, thus better serving the Jeffrey Jump BRT.

Although some minute segments of roads might get pedestrianized, it’ll probably be quite some time before Chicago sees major pedestrianization. In the interim getting a large system of bike and bus lanes is vital to pedestrianizing Chicago’s downtown core. Financially, this is a tenable solution for the city and can easily be implemented. It’s also pretty much agreed upon, that this is the best and most practical solution for Chicago at this time. Now it’s a matter of making these ideas a reality and fleshing out what this new Loop will look like.