Been a little while since I posted anything, due to things like … life.
Anyway, I thought I’d go on a little soapbox and share some recent observations about the driver-pedestrian relationship in the Chicago Loop and offer some ideas to make downtown Chicago (and the Mag Mile) safer for pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and even drivers.
Let’s start. Every main street (not including those like Post and Calhoun) in downtown Chicago has at least three lanes. Two-way streets (Wacker, LaSalle, State, Michigan) are wider. Parking garages are common, particularly on Wells St.; cars are cutting in and out every day, mostly with polite drivers but many others disregarding adjacent people on the sidewalks.
Michigan Avenue, particularly the Mag Mile, is teeming with cars. It’s also teeming with pedestrians. I find it unusual that the most visited street in the city is terribly unfriendly for the many people who come to the city sans automobile. Buses always get stuck in the crowded traffic (which itself is bad news for–or maybe the effect of–people taking a taxi or rideshare), and when traffic is open, cars zoom by. The sidewalks are too narrow for the volume of people and there is nothing to calm traffic but other cars. Forget safely riding a bike on the street; there are no bike lanes either. I have witnessed the immediate aftermath of a biker who got hit on Michigan at Randolph (he lived), and then a memorial at Michigan and Oak of a biker who didn’t.
But it’s not just Michigan Avenue; it’s all of downtown. Like most places across the country, the car is king.
Like with my previous commentary, I’m not anti-car. I’ve driven in the Loop many, many times, got stuck in traffic, parked my car in a garage, etc. But I’m pro-measures to improve the urban transportation experience and create a better place so that pedestrians and cyclists can seamlessly travel around an urban setting and not worry about getting killed.
Chicago Loop Improvements
The city has improved in some areas in recent years in a few areas.
- The bike likes on Dearborn, Randolph, and Washington streets give cyclists a moderately safer right of way to traverse downtown.
- The Loop Link bus lanes improve the pedestrian experience on those streets by removing a lane of traffic and also providing better bus service.
- The pedestrian crosswalks, such as those around City Hall, also are nice improvements.
- The intersection of Jackson and State now has an all-way crosswalk (all cars have a red light while pedestrians cross), which is a smart move considering the multiple colleges and law schools (hence, thousands of students) in the immediate vicinity.
Issues With These Improvements
But these have their issues, too.
- For the bike lanes, cyclists still play second fiddle to cars and trucks that stop in the lanes. I’ve also seen cars not observing when bikes on these streets have the green light.
- For the bus lanes, like with the bike lanes, cars and trucks still often block the right-of-way, disregarding buses that come up behind them blowing their horn. This negates the traffic-free purpose of the bus lanes. And as John Greenfield recently wrote about, due to several factors the Loop Link is underperforming it’s target times since its implementation a few years ago.
- For the pedestrian crosswalks, like with elsewhere in the city, not all drivers observe them. I’ve seen it many times, but most recently I was about to cross Washington mid-block next to City Hall, along with other pedestrians. After waiting for multiple cars to stop, one finally did, which forced the others behind it to stop–the other lane of traffic was open, so an SUV driver not understanding the purpose of the crosswalk, turned into this open lane and floored it right by me and the few others about to enter the intersection.
- For the all-way crosswalk, these are very uncommon in the states, and create problems when impatient drivers don’t fully understand the purpose of the intersection.
So, what are the solutions? I have a few, many of which can be tactical in nature.
One, add bike lanes to every street using temporary bollards. Tons of cyclists commute into the Loop every day. Why relegate their safety to just three streets downtown? Also, get rid of that absolutely terrible sidewalk-bound bike lane on Randolph at Canal. It’s terribly dangerous for bikers and unwitting pedestrians; meanwhile, all cars keep their lanes at that spot.
Two, like with the bike lanes, add bus lanes to every street where there’s a bus, which is most of them. This can be done by eliminating street parking, and, again, adding bollards. While I understand the street parking benefit to drivers, with all of the parking lots and garages in the city, available parking is not big enough of an issue that people should be allowed to park on main downtown streets like Clark and Franklin. Create free space for buses to travel so they don’t get bogged down in traffic and improve the experience for the CTA riders. For cars and trucks that need to pull over, create designated spaces for that, and enforce it. This would open lanes for buses to move at their scheduled pace, and, more specifically, mark a huge improvement to all of the buses that travel down Michigan Ave., which are chronically delayed during the evening rush.
Three, add electronic signals to the pedestrian crosswalks. As I’ve seen in other towns, crosswalk signs flash (though, the person has to press a beg button) when a pedestrian wants to cross the street. In other countries, there are crosswalks with lights that flash continuously alerting drivers that people might be there. This would mark a huge improvement to the crosswalks, not only in the Loop, but across the city, and be a step up from the crosswalk “Stop” signs in the middle of the road that cars hit and just keep going.
Four, add all-way crossing at most intersections in the Loop and other busy intersections away from downtown. Myriad pedestrians cross many intersections citywide each minute, not just at State and Jackson. Enforcing all-way crossing at numerous locations improves the pedestrian experience, eases risk of car-pedestrian incidents, and allows drivers to become more familiar with them across the city rather than at a small location sample. As everyone who is regularly in the Loop knows, cars often think they can make it through the intersection on a yellow light, only to fall short and be stuck in the middle of the intersection (blocking traffic, including buses going the other way) as pedestrians then cross in front of them.
All of these measures (albeit with some accommodating growing pains) could eventually ease some of the chaos that is omnipresent in the Loop each day. Cyclists would be able to calmly cruise down the streets rather than weave around cars. Buses wouldn’t be hindered by traffic in their lanes and have more thruways. And pedestrians will feel safer knowing they can cross intersections without getting hit by an unwitting driver making a turn or simply driving through a dinky three-foot-tall stop sign by accident.
I’m not alone in these sentiments. As any pedestrian or cycling advocate and they’d say the same thing. Plus, Conde Nast Traveler readers just voted Chicago the best big city in the country. Let’s show visitors, many of whom don’t have cars when they visit, that we care!
Uncertainty Until Next Mayor
Of course, nothing is going to even remotely be done as the mayoral race is up for grabs after Mayor Emmanuel announced he will not seek reelection. How Chicago’s next Chief Executive will treat urban planning goals is entirely unknown. The transportation and traffic guidelines for the next mayor (created by transportation experts Steven Vance, Linda Lopez, and Yonah Freemark) are excellent and will improve the experience of being in the Loop as a whole. But the caveat is that the next mayor needs to be on board with the plan.
I think will some long-standing Chicago politicians, there’s an aversion to making roads go on a car diet or make things more pedestrian-oriented, as they may point to State Street pedestrian mall as a failure, though it wasn’t executed perfectly.
An even harder task will be having drivers catch up with new rules of the road. But considering how fast many of them drive downtown, I bet a few of them would have no problem catching up.