Car-free streets not worth the hassle

As Chicago’s downtown population continues to grow, community groups have raised questions about how to balance city planning with residential life. The Active Transportation Alliance, an organization that lobbies for bicycle and pedestrian resources, has proposed shutting down portions of major streets to make way for car-free, bike- and pedestrian-friendly areas.

While the ATA may have residents’ best interests at heart, the infrastructure problems that would result from closing major traffic routes would not be worth the benefit of a few extra walking areas. Chicago already has a large number of accessible parks—580 parks enclose 8,100 green acres, according to the Chicago Park District—and adding more would be excessive.

The proposal identifies 20 roads that could potentially close, including the length of Clark Street from Division Street to Congress Parkway, the entire Magnificent Mile on North Michigan Avenue, a stretch of 47th Street in Bronzeville and a portion of 18th Street in Pilsen, according to a Feb. 12 ATA press release. While the organization admits closing all of these streets is unrealistic, it claims repurposing one or two would greatly improve the walkability of these neighborhoods.

Chicago’s urban planning is designed around a grid system, and nixing key veins could severely damage traffic flow and existing bus routes. The No. 22 Clark Street bus, for example, saw an average weekday ridership of 20,657, according to a 2013 CTA report, and a large portion of the route runs through the Loop. The bus would have to travel along Dearborn or Lasalle streets if Clark Street were closed off downtown.

Between traffic and parking costs, drivers already have a difficult time navigating downtown. Closing more streets would make their commutes more difficult and eliminate much-needed street parking, further clogging crowded streets.

The potential strain on businesses should also be considered. From 1979–1996, a large section of downtown State Street was a pedestrian mall. However, the businesses along that road suffered and many closed before the city eventually reopened the street to cars. Doing the same to districts such as 18th Street or 47th Street, which are up-and-coming areas, could devastate local businesses. The ATA points to the Lincoln Square pedestrian mall on the 4500 block of North Lincoln Avenue as an example of a successful implementation, but the reality is that the street is easily avoided when driving or taking a bus, whereas the ATA’s proposal includes fairly major streets.

If the ATA wants to add more parks to benefit more Chicagoans, it should focus on neighborhoods such as Little Village, which has expressed a strong desire for a new park, as reported Nov. 25 by The Chronicle.

Closing more major streets seems to disproportionately favor bicyclists while punishing drivers. Closing extensive stretches of major streets all over downtown and the North Side would not benefit the majority of Chicago residents and would create more headaches than benefits.