Since I first wrote about better utilizing Chicago’s boulevards for biking much has in Chicago: new rails-to-trails projects are being planned in in Pilsen, Little Village and Englewood, Divvy is expanding, and curbed protected bike lanes are finally making an appearance. Additionally, the city announced plans for 50 miles of new “low stress” bike lanes (often the same as barrier-protected bike lanes, or PBLs), thus swapping quantity for quality. In spite of all this though, the boulevards still don’t seem to be getting any love? Progress is being made in terms of biking, but then again, just focusing on this mode undercuts the potential for the entire boulevard system.
Chicago’s boulevards are an amazing piece of infrastructure that are sadly under utilized. Beginning in Logan Square at Western Ave. on the North Side, the system of boulevards and squares connects some of Chicago’s most important parks and numerous neighborhoods and the lakefront at Jackson Park while creating an arch around the city’s core.
The product of Daniel Burnham’s vision for Chicago and archetypal urban design of the city beautiful movement, the boulevards currently fall flat. Unlike in European cities like Paris or Vienna, which also have famous boulevards, Chicago’s are a quiet affair with light traffic of all kinds, even in popular neighborhoods like Logan Square where the focus is Milwaukee Avenue.
Aside from the incorporation of the boulevards into some transportation plans such as the Active Transportation Alliance’s Bikeways For All or the Chicago Department of Transportation’s (CDOT) Cycling for 2020 as well as smaller, localized concepts there is currently no guide specifically addressing the boulevards.
A plan for the boulevards is overdue.
The boulevards are one of the best, overlooked assets in Chicago, but they offer so much more. They can’t be treated as mere elements of other plans and projects though, because that undercuts the potential for how the city can utilize them. What makes the boulevards unique is how well they can be used as public spaces, green space, and corridors of active transportation. This needs to be viewed in a way that takes in the boulevards’ full extent. A complete program could radically change the character of the city.
Although over time piecemeal changes to the boulevards could change a lot, a master plan would help bring about cohesive change to how they’re used in a way that allows for more radical ideas to be examined and potentially carried through. This includes everything from road diets along the boulevards to improving recreational spaces along the system, building kiosks for cafés and other small businesses to developing an advanced boulevard based transportation system like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or streetcars.
What such changes would look like varies depending on the segment of boulevard in question. Humboldt Blvd between Palmer Square and Humboldt Park is a good candidate for conversion to green space for example. It’s wide, but underused express lanes are little more than speedways, while the local lanes serve real purpose. Converting these four lanes (approximate width 10 feet per lane and about 0.7 miles long) into green space would add 147,480 ft 2 or 3.4 acres (or, two and a half football fields) of new parkland to the city.
This is only one segment of the boulevard system though and is a project that functions in relative isolation from the rest of the system. As a transportation corridor, the boulevards still hold real potential both unto themselves and as parts of other city projects. On Western Blvd. for example, the double-wide layout from 31st to 55th streets could be used for building out a BRT network that would eventually extend the entire length of Western Ave. (in addition to an Ashland BRT route of course). This roughly three-mile long segment has potential other redesign options, but would be a good place for a starter BRT route.
Another example of this is the potential of the boulevards to be used for reintroducing the streetcar to Chicago. A route following Garfield Blvd./55th St. from Hyde Park to Midway has great potential for success for multiple reasons a particular one being the ability to build dedicated lanes due to the available space on the boulevards. Four miles of a 9 mile route from the Museum of Science and Industry to Midway could easily be built with dedicated lanes (critical for developing a successful streetcar network) and another 1 mile of dedicated lanes could be shared with BRT on either Western or Ashland avenues.
This doesn’t even speak to the ability to build a “Circle Line” along the boulevards using streetcars rather than a new ‘L’ line, which would be significantly more expensive. It’s too bad discussing the boulevards’ future isn’t part of a very active conversation about Chicago’s future. The boulevards and streetcars are not included as part of the Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Future campaign and Chicago Streetcar Renaissance has focused on starter lines along Clark St., Lake Shore Drive, and in the Loop. A 55th/63rd Hyde Park to Midway streetcar would be a huge asset to the South Side and probably a heavily used route considering it would connect three ‘L’ lines, the South Shore Line, Metra Electric and all of it to Midway.
Regardless of what’s included a plan for the boulevards is necessary. All of the boulevards have the space to facilitate the easy and unobtrusive construction of better bike and pedestrian infrastructure and transit infrastructure not to mention improve accessibility to public green spaces also. Such types of complete streets and seamless modal connectivity is what advocates are calling for in Chicago, but the conversation keeps overlooking a critical asset in establishing these things. Fundamentally, the boulevards are not being capitalized on.
Stepping back and acknowledging what the boulevards can be in Chicago alters the role they play in the city’s structure. Not only are they visually lovely elements of early American urban planning, they’re spaces ripe for improved infrastructure and experimentation with projects so far unseen in the city.