To spur conversation about expanding the number of car-free public streets and plazas in Chicago, Active Trans just released a list of twenty streets and locations with strong potential.
Car-free streets and zones can make communities more attractive places to live and shop, generate more biking and walking and thus improve mobility and health, and reduce traffic crashes.
As explained in the story in the Chicago Tribune, the list is inspired partly by places like Navy Pier, Times Square in New York City and local car-free plazas in Chicago.
There are many types of “car-free” streets. This can include closing an entire street or portions of streets year-round, like the popular transformation of Times Square in New York City or the Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall in Boulder, Colorado.
But there are other options as well, including seasonal (e.g., spring through fall) or periodic (e.g., evening and weekends) closings and using a portion of the street, rather than the entire street, such as converting one lane of traffic into a bike lane and plaza.
Nearly a quarter of Chicago’s land mass falls within a public right-of-way, but most of that space is dominated by cars. There's also an enormous amount of city space dedicated to private parking lots and parking garages.
We support the City of Chicago’s efforts to add more car-free spaces, such as the Make Way for People initiative that converts parking spaces, alleys and dead zones into temporary or permanent public plazas, including the plaza in the State Street median downtown.
The city’s People Plazas initiative aims to activate under-utilized city-owned parcels/plazas. And new protected bike lanes create a ribbon of car-free space for cycling.
Chicago has relatively few car-free public plazas and streets across its 234 square miles, and many are small enough to have limited benefits. This lack of car-free public places indicates a need to explore larger car-free spaces in addition to the smaller plazas the city is currently developing.
Some of Chicago’s best car-free spaces include Kempf Plaza in Lincoln Square, Sunnyside Mall, Ogden Mall and Englewood Mall.
Car-free spaces are more common in downtown Chicago, where there is a pressing need for car-free space with so many people getting around on foot and bike. Cars, nonetheless, occupy most of the public right of way. Downtown examples include Daley Plaza, Federal Plaza and some other modestly-sized private plazas; the expanding River Walk system; and the wildly popular Navy Pier, Illinois’ top tourist attraction.
Car-free streets and plazas won’t work just anywhere, and they have to be carefully studied and designed. Good candidates may abut existing or potential retail and dining locations, entertainment venues and community centers, and transit hubs.
In residential areas, they should be accessible from local neighborhood streets so residents can leave their cars at home for an afternoon out with family in a safe, car-free location.
With the right designs, plazas on existing transit routes can still accommodate bus service — the best example of this is the narrow bus way and slow bus speeds in Denver’s successful 16th Street Mall. This is a more sophisticated design than Chicago’s infamously failed State Street bus mall where people had to dodge fast-moving buses across a wide street.
Active Trans selected 20 streets and locations that deserve serious consideration for conversion into car-free space. Some streets like 47th Street in Bronzeville and Milwaukee Avenue through Logan Square have already been the subject of formal study. Active Trans selected the streets with input from community leaders.
These aren’t the only streets that deserve consideration, but they are among the best. Our hope is to jump-start conversations that lead to further study and the creation of car-free spaces. Let’s give Chicagoans more car-free zones to walk, bike, shop, socialize or just relax.