Where does the sidewalk end? Usually, much too soon. - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Where does the sidewalk end? Usually, much too soon.

From pandemic lunchtime strolls to racial justice protests, the extremes of 2020 were all connected by something quite literally underfoot: pedestrian infrastructure. The humble sidewalk is the great enabler, and it's greatly undervalued. On May 11th, MPC hosted a virtual conversation with three regional leaders to discuss how to build a more walkable region.

A sidewalk abruptly ends in a residential neighborhood.

Image courtesy of @mvjacobsen99 on Twitter

Sidewalks don't have to literally end to make a pedestrian trip unsafe. But sometimes they do, as shown in this submission from Victoria Barrett Jacobsen for the #Chicagosidewalkends social media campaign.

For many of us, 2020 was a year of reorientation. The stay-at-home order meant extra time on our neighborhood streets and sidewalksAs we slowly reopened, street space was repurposed for commerce, dining and recreation. At the same time, we closely watched or participated in the fight for Black lives as people filled the streets to peacefully demonstrate. And while these things have focused our gaze on our communities, we also watched in horror as fire, heat, and flooding ravaged the country and planet like never before. 

As the pandemic lifts, we have an opportunity to step back and connect the dots from the last 14 months. The overlapping tragedies of 2020 traveled along the well-worn paths of structural racism and white supremacy, but they also revealed other patterns. What do climate change, COVID-19, and racial justice all have in common? Unless you’re a transportation nerd like me, transportation probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But issues of access and mobility are central to understanding the last year. And if you’re talking transportation, we believe you need to start with that most basic building block of the entire system: the pedestrian.  

To highlight the pedestrian conditions people in this region experience, we launched a social media campaign focused on walkability. Whether it was getting stranded by a sidewalk that ended too soon, emphasizing the importance of compact development, or lifting up community voices, the #ChicagoSidewalkEnds campaign brought together our partners to share stories that centered on the plight of the pedestrian. And to bring it all home, we had a virtual conversation on May 11th with some of the region’s leading experts and advocates on how we can build a more walkable region.  

Click here to watch the full conversation.

We don’t have a walkable Chicago region yet 

To set the stage, we shared some analysis that shows that we’ve got our work cut out for us. The region’s sidewalk network is uneven, and many municipalities have sidewalks on less than half their streets. When you exclude Chicago, only 44% of the region’s streets have sidewalks on both sides. If you count streets with sidewalks on only one side, the region’s entire network is only about 60% complete.

One third of all auto trips in the region are less than two miles. How can we shift more of these to walking or rolling?

What would you do if 40% of the roads disappeared tomorrow? Would you be able to drive where you needed to go? Probably not. It’s no surprise, then, that only 12% of trips in the seven-county region are done on foot. The vast majority of those are in Cook County, where still less than 1 in 5 trips are walking trips. These low numbers mean we have a lot of room for improvement. According to an MPC analysis of CMAP data, the region’s average walking trip is 0.71 miles. Nearly 10% of the region’s car trips are that

So how do we build a more walkable region? The answer is complex. 

Transportation is connected to everything  

Victoria Barrett Jacobsen is a planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP). Working at a regional agency, she brought a regional and expansive view on walkability. Transportation is so highly correlated with everything else that you can’t just focus on one issue in isolation. That’s why CMAP’s work is guided by three cross-cutting principles: inclusive growth, economic and environmental resilience, and prioritized investment. That last piece sounds wonky, but it’s incredibly important.

“The more we make connections, the stronger we can take action to improve things.” 

- Victoria Barrett Jacobsen

 Redesigning our transportation system to be multimodal and safe for all road users will be expensive, and local governments will have to adopt policies that prioritize investments around high-profile pedestrian locations like transit stations so we can get the most bang for our buck. Victoria also mentioned how land use plays a huge role on creating places where people want to walk. Policy plays a role here, too, as communities must allow the kind of density that fosters walkability. To achieve real change, we also need to measure progress. That can be really hard – and expensive – to do, so it needs to be a priority as we start seeing more federal dollars flowing in. (As a side note, MPC is championing a bill that would require more transparency at the state and regional level in how we prioritize transportation investments.) 

The way we build equitably is by listening to marginalized voices  

Leslé Honoré is the Managing Director of strategy and communications at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, and a member the steering committee for Elevated Chicago, a community-driven consortium focused on building walkable transit stations.

“We are in the process of reimagining what public health looks like, and I am a firm believer that public art is a part of public health. When we walk on the Magnificent Mile, it feels beautiful because of the art. We see beautiful plants. We see things that are attended to. Our Black and Brown communities deserve the same.”

- Leslé Honoré

She helped us think critically about community investment and note the intersectional issues that impact walkability. It’s important to recognize that numbers alone don’t tell a whole story. Chicago has a very complete sidewalk network compared to the rest of the region, but that doesn’t mean all of Chicago is walkable. Areas on the South and West Sides that are less densely resourced have poorly maintained pedestrian infrastructure that’s unsafe to use, and a lack of destinations within walking distance. She pointed out that sometimes the solutions might not be what you think. For example, snow removal is a huge issue for walkability. In disinvested areas with a lot of vacant lots, none of those sidewalks get cleared because there’s nobody there to do it. If we made it easier for locals to invest in these places, and provide them the resources to do it, then a lot of barriers would disappear. But this kind of change won’t happen overnight. It will take a sustained effort to lift up voices that are often silenced. This is the work that Elevated Chicago’s Community Table does: giving residents a seat at the table where their lived experiences and local knowledge is honored and acknowledged.  

Competing interests for limited sidewalk space 

Rachel Arfa is the commissioner for the Chicago Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. She brought her considerable knowledge on city issues and the special role that walkability plays for the disability community. Since 2006, the city has installed over 100,000 curb ramps to become ADA compliant. They’re currently in the process of adding 100 new accessible pedestrian signals at locations identified through a community engagement process. These signals give audible warnings so blind and low-vision pedestrians know when it’s safe to cross. Commissioner Arfa noted, though, that it’s not just enough for the sidewalks to be accessible. You need to be able to reach your destination, so businesses and venues need to be accessible as well. We’ve also seen an increase in activity on sidewalks. From shared scooters to outdoor dining, it’s critical that we are not introducing new barriers to access as we adapt to new circumstances. And while sidewalks are often just a way to get to where you’re going, they’re also where the “life” of public space happens. Commissioner Arfa asked: what will the cultural norms look like in the post-pandemic world? And will those be inclusive of people with disabilities? Commissioner Arfa shared how, as a deaf person, masks made it impossible to read lips and therefore difficult to communicate. Or consider how a blind person asking to be guided through an unfamiliar space might get less offers in the age of social distancing. Walkability isn’t just about a physical act. It’s also cultural.

Now is the time 

We did not get the transportation system we have today by accident. It’s the result of careful planning and conscious policy choices. We now stand at an inflection point, where the future of mobility is up for grabs. If we heed the lessons of 2020, we can create a healthier, equitable, more sustainable, and happier region by prioritizing walkability. But it won’t happen by chance. Our conversation identified just a few of the many issues at play: spending limited resources wisely, acknowledging inequity, and protecting accessibility. It will take intentional effort by all of us to build the future we want.  


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