Argyle Night Market

Argyle Street: A Model and Lesson for the City

Ask many Chicagoans about “Argyle Street,” and they’ll likely comment on the numerous Vietnamese restaurants in the area. While Argyle Street itself starts and stops across Chicago’s entire north side, the Argyle St. synonymous with the restaurants has taken on a new look in recent years.

Last week, I attended a presentation and tour of the relatively new Argyle streetscape in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. I used to live not too far from here and regularly come back to the area, yet it was my first time visiting the redesigned street. Some neighbor I am.

Of what I learned during the tour, a few things stood out to me.

  • Traffic is comparatively calmer versus what it was before, as drivers previously used Argyle as a short-cut to speed down to Marine Drive and eventually Lake Shore Drive.
  • Many businesses have embraced the pedestrian-friendly sidewalks by adding outdoor seating and their own horticulture touch to the planters along the sidewalk.
  • The Argyle Night Market, the weekly Thursday-night summertime event that began prior to the redesign, has become an even more popular neighborhood draw during the summer.
  • The street in general has grown from just a local destination to one that attracts people from all over the city, suburbs, and even out of state.
  • The street is all one level with the sidewalk, meaning it is fully ADA-compliant and allows people to seamlessly cross. It is indeed a street designed for pedestrians.

Yet, the Special Service Area (SSA) provider – Uptown United – and the landscape design firm that led the project – Site Design Group – were quick to point out some of the unanticipated consequences and learnings from the project.

  • The joints for the permeable pavers on the sidewalk were just wide enough for cigarettes to get stuck in, a sore sight considering the high volume of smokers along the street, according to the SSA.
  • Drivers had difficulty understanding how to parallel park because there was no physical curb that most people are used to seeing on streets. Drivers would either park too far into the street or literally on the sidewalk. The problem was compounded by the fact that the Chicago Department of Transportation, keeping within its own structural guidelines, aligned the street’s concrete drainage gutters evenly along the sidewalk in some parts of the street (making for a smooth demarcation area between street and sidewalk), but not in others. The SSA and Site Design said it took a lot of educating drivers how to park. When I asked how exactly they educated people, they pointed to the signs at the beginning of the street, and they said they handed out many, many fliers over time. Drivers have seemed to catch on, however, from what I saw in person. That said, the tour guides pointed out how they had to move bike racks farther inward along the sidewalk from the street because with the original redesign, locked bikes literally protruded into the street and drivers would hit them while parallel parking.
  • One comment that stood out to me was they invited an owner from a local pharmacy on the street to discuss the new design. She said the construction and aftermath of the redesign actually hurt her business because many customers couldn’t park their cars as easily as before. She said business is slowly improving but wanted the design firm and SSA to keep in this in mind for their next project.

The business owner presented a slightly different perspective of the redesign, implying that reconfigured streets aren’t always a panacea for neighborhood problems. It was also surprising to hear these comments about drivers because that portion of Argyle St. (and the surrounding neighborhood) generally seems to be a very walkable area. But it also made me think about how much people drive in the city, no matter the purpose or short distance. And how frustrated they can get when street capacity is reduced.

Changing City Street Design

Consider another redesigned streetscape, less than a mile from Argyle: Lawrence Ave., between Ashland Ave. and Western Ave. This was a project different from the Argyle St. redesign in terms of size and scope, but, like Argyle St., it was conducted with the pedestrian in mind.

Previously a four-lane stretch, this portion of Lawrence was an anomaly compared with the rest of the street in the city, where it is only two lanes wide. With four lanes, it was just a loud, treeless, pedestrian-unfriendly road that I seldom would walk down unless I needed to go to a specific store. It reminded me of walking down four- or six-lane roads in the suburbs. Ameya Pawar, the 47th Ward Alderman, spearheaded the project to improve the streetscape and calm the corridor of traffic. Hearing his comments (about what others said of the project) and also the vitriol spewed in reader comments on DNAInfo and EveryBlock about the project, I could see that drivers were less than happy. That’s a broad understatement. They hated the redesign and didn’t understand it’s purpose.

Yet, visit Lawrence Ave. now, and it is indeed much quieter now as a result of the reduced (as opposed to induced) demand. Yes, there is traffic at typical rush hour times or weekend afternoons, but for the most part is a much quieter main street, similar to its intersecting street in the area, Damen Ave. Now the mile-long stretch features on every block: pedestrian crossings, bump-outs, permanent medians, pavers, trees, and dedicated turn lanes. I see more pedestrians than before project and even a bunch of strollers as families visit the concurrently redesigned Vogle Park along Lawrence.

For several years, Chicago has been active in improving its streets for pedestrians, as evidenced by its comprehensive Complete Streets design guidelines of prioritizing pedestrians, public transit riders, cyclists, and automobiles, in that order. If you look around certain parts of the city, you’ll see redesigns similar to Lawrence Ave., or even simpler modifications, such as the separated bike lanes or the removal of “slip” turn lanes.

However, I wonder if it is entirely incumbent on the alderman to spearhead the project rather than the directive come down from the city. I should probably ask Pawar, as he’s been to my house! (Side note: I know certain neighborhoods (and the city itself) would benefit from redesigned streets, along with new housing options, but a vocal minority, or lax alderman, prevent it from happening. There has been a lot of press lately on aldermanic prerogative, so it’s not just streets where things can improve but don’t because of Chicago’s local politicians. Such is life in the Windy City).

Need for Speed

I understand the pushback when streets are redesigned. When everything is optimized for a car, even in dense urban environments, it can be difficult for drivers to adjust when the car is forced lower on the mobility hierarchy.

When first moved into Ravenswood over a decade ago, near the yet-to-be-redesigned Lawrence Ave., I drove because I could. For something that was a 10- to 15-minute walk (which is pretty easy for me to do in that area), I would still drive, even for a five-minute errand. When my wife and I moved to a new place in the area, we walked a lot more, and then definitely embraced the new Lawrence streetscape. Many drivers are good at understanding the lower priority cars now have on street, but there also have been many, many, many times when I’m at a pedestrian crosswalk (on Lawrence and elsewhere, even with a stroller), where drivers still speed right through the stop sign, either oblivious to the rules of the road and unaware of pedestrians, or give me that wave of “Hi, I know I just broke the law, but I’m driving through anyway.”

This brings me back to the pharmacy on Argyle. Many people in Chicago (and of course throughout other dense cities in the U.S.) are used to driving as the only form of transportation. For many people, it is the only form, but for others, it may be simply the fact that the country has built a car-friendly system and suddenly many cities are trying to change that, forcing many people to change their lifestyle. Change of any kind is hard for most people, so forcing someone to walk 10 minutes to get pills rather than drive two minutes is a net loss of 16 minutes round-trip on the day. This is not a whole lot of time but doesn’t make the trip as quick as using a car, and this is a problem for some people. I also sometimes fall into the camp of still using a car for quick trips or not being fully aware of street modifications. Again, change can be hard.

Keeping Up With the Joneses, Internationally

Still, the majority of the residents in dense global cities (which is the majority of the global population) don’t live like this. They walk, bike/scooter, or take transit everywhere. I love how making streets more friendly for pedestrians is gaining more traction across the U.S.

As any dense (and even non-dense) European city proves, people can get around a city without a car and still be happy. The times I’ve lived/visited in Europe, I’ve been impressed with how motorists recognize people on the sidewalks far more readily than what happens here. They’ve always had a pedestrian in mind because they’ve built into infrastructure hundreds of years old.

U.S. cities are retrofitting their streetscapes to do this, and I’m glad to see projects like Argyle St. happening. Again, as the business owner and Uptown United/Site Design alluded to, not everything was positive, and there will be other learnings from this particular redesign and street redesigns to come. But it’s a solid start and should be embraced elsewhere in the city.

Photo source: Site Design Group



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