Talking Transit: Making way for people by rethinking the street - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking Transit: Making way for people by rethinking the street

Flickr user Steven Vance (cc)

Chicago's new State Street "Gateway" Pedestrian Plaza

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Did you know? Like many cities, Chicago devotes a huge percentage of its land to the public right of way—and most of that is reserved for motor vehicles. According to the Chicago Pedestrian Plan, 23 percent of the city is committed to uses like streets and alleys. Parking takes up a significant amount of room as well; a recent study by Michael Manville and Donald Shoup suggests that street parking in the Loop, including garages, accounts for 36 percent of downtown’s land area.

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Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Department of Transportation (CDOT) Commissioner Gabe Klein, Chicago is moving to convert some of that concrete into “people” spaces replete with benches and landscaping designed to attract pedestrians and encourage an active streetscape. The “Make Way for People” campaign, which began last year, will expand to at least 12 locations across the city this summer. It’s an enlightened approach to providing more space for pedestrians to relax, while expanding access to business and promoting economic development.

Oases in the concrete jungle

CDOT introduced Make Way for People in four locations in summer 2012 by repurposing parking spaces in Andersonville, Bronzeville and Lakeview into seating. The idea was inspired by similar programs in other American cities. In San Francisco, “parklets” began offering pedestrians aesthetically pleasing places to sit and enjoy the street in 2005; that city now has dozens of parklets all over town. Though San Francisco’s spaces are permanent, Chicago’s colder winter climate imposes a stricter timeline. The people spaces will be open only during the summer.

Chicago’s program was so popular last year that the city has decided to repeat it in 2013. This time, though, the program will not only incorporate refashioned parking spaces (“People Spots”), but also pedestrianized “People Streets,” new “People Plazas” in neighborhoods, and potentially “People Alleys.” Each site was chosen in consultation with area businesses and associations.

People Spots, which are being sponsored by Special Service Area groups in Andersonville, Lakeview and Bronzeville this year, are temporary decks usually about 50 feet long. Each spot has planters (which provide a barrier to the street), a wheelchair-accessible surface and chairs or benches. They are maintained by local businesses, not the city. Spaces selected cannot adversely affect traffic flow, and, if they are metered, the meter must be relocated to a previously free space.

New to the city is the concept of the People Plaza, a temporary public space that transforms previously underused street space into small new open spaces. With the help of the Chicago Loop Alliance, CDOT opened its first new plaza early in June at the intersection of State and Lake Streets downtown. This “Gateway” in the mediansports colorful flowerboxes, furniture, and banners. Similar improvements are planned for locations in Old Town and Woodlawn this summer.

Finally, a People Street is planned for Pilsen, after a successful experiment last year near DePaul University. CDOT will shut down traffic on a portion of a street there to allow shoppers to walk freely and congregate outside during the good weather.

In sum, the new space for pedestrians will only intrude minimally into the space currently devoted to cars, but also significantly expand room for people who want to sit and enjoy the urban street, all while boosting the bottom line for local businesses. In San Francisco, shops and restaurants near parklets have seen revenues increase by 35 to 40 percent.

Two years of inspiration in Andersonville

Brian Bonanno, sustainability programs coordinator for the Andersonville Development Corporation, had been working with CDOT since August 2011 to implement the People Spots program. With the help of a local landscaping company, Bonanno coordinated a popup park one summer day in 2011. “We had a lot of people come out and enjoy it,” he said – and so he wanted to develop something more permanent.

The Development Corporation sponsored a spot at 5228 N. Clark St. last year, in the heart of the Andersonville business district. The spot was maintained by Bonanno and the neighbors. Businesses “saw what the People Spot could bring to their location in terms of attracting foot traffic, in terms of creating a space for people to hang out,” Bonanno said.

This year, a second spot, expected to cost about $13,000, will open at 5624 N. Clark, a bit north of the traditional business community. “Part of the reason we want to put this space up there,” he said, “is that we wanted to make that part of the neighborhood just as pedestrian-friendly and inviting” as the part farther south.

Though Bonanno did not record any significant increase in traffic last year around the first location, he thinks the second location, in an area with limited street seating, could attract more pedestrians and shoppers to North Clark Street. He will be monitoring the project’s success over the course of the summer.

Historical precedent 

Chicago’s plans are an exciting improvement for pedestrians who, in many parts of the city, account for most of the traffic on the street but are only provided a small portion of it to get around.

Even so, this most recent incursion of pedestrians into the vehicular zone is hardly unprecedented. The medieval street was little more than an alley reserved for walkers and the occasional horse (and sewage). Only in the 19th century did broad, paved avenues explicitly for vehicles become pervasive—including in cities growing quickly then, like Chicago. The need to provide auto-only roads came into conflict with the demands of urban residents to walk, and planners began developing alternatives. Some cities responded by reducing sidewalk widths and expanding car lanes in an effort to adjust to the automobile age, which supposedly required quick travel to maximize economic efficiency. French architect Le Corbusier, notably, argued for a complete separation of foot and vehicular traffic in central cities. He argued that isolating traffic would reduce congestion and improve daily life for urbanites by ensuring their safety and greening their surroundings by removing cars.

Chicago's State Street Transit and Pedestrian Mall, 1982.

Flickr user University of Illinois at Chicago College of Architecture and the Arts (cc)

Following that logic, certain American cities converted major streets into pedestrian malls in the 1950s through 70s, hoping that people and businesses would be attracted to a calmer environment—though no city built out Le Corbusier's concepts more than along a few blocks. In Chicago, the city closed off State Street to private cars in 1979, leaving it to buses and walkers, hoping that downtowns would be able to compete more effectively with the suburbs if they had car-free “mall” spaces. It was an environment more pleasing in theory than in reality, and the city returned it to its present condition, with cars and all, in 1996. Downtown needed automobiles, it seemed obvious, because State Street had failed to keep up retail business activity, while car-oriented suburban malls were doing great.

Now, many of Chicago’s streets are crowded with pedestrians confined to too-narrow sidewalks. State Street is booming, attracting dozens of national and international stores and thousands of tourists and shoppers every day; other retail corridors around the city, like Clark and Lincoln streets, are experiencing similar infusions of walkers. Suddenly, it feels necessary to add more space for pedestrians.

The on-and-off-again nature of previous transformations of the urban streetscape may suggest that Chicago's effort to make way for people this summer is little more than a temporary experiment. But if People Spots bring a little joy to the lives of the city's residents and visitors by giving them a place to relax on a sunny day, and if they expand economic activity in the surrounding area, they’re the right choice. At a low cost and for only one season a year, there’s room for plenty more experimentation.

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