Atlantic Cities

New Chicago Plan: Pedestrians Come First

New Chicago Plan: Pedestrians Come First
Reuters

Tucked inside the new Complete Streets Design Guidelines that the city of Chicago is about to debut, pasted onto page 10, is a reproduction of a Chicago Tribune news blurb from May 6, of 1913 with this irresistible headline: “SPEEDER WANTS ALL STREET: Motorist Complains to Judge Because Pedestrian Gets in Way.”

Pedestrian advocates exactly a century later will be happy to know that our 19-year-old anti-hero, Harold Bracken (son of a saloonkeeper!), was fined by the court $200 for knocking over a pedestrian on Michigan Avenue with his speeding car. An equally awesome detail: Our injured pedestrian got up, jumped into a passing car, caught up with Bracken and had him arrested. In doling out the fine, a municipal judge declared, "The Streets of Chicago belong to the city, not to automobilists."

This is, in short, the guiding philosophy for how Chicago’s Department of Transportation is now planning to look at all of its projects. A local judge may have expressed the sentiment a century ago. But in reality, in the Second City – as in just about every American metro – autos have long dominated city streets and how we think about who uses them, why they exist and what defines them as successful. This summer, though, Chicago is planning to roll out a small-sounding but seismic policy shift: From now on, in the design guidelines for every effort from major streetscape projects to minor roadside electrical work, transportation work must defer to a new “default modal hierarchy.” The pedestrian comes first.

"My feeling is that we have to swing the pendulum in the other direction," says Gabe Klein, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation. "The fact is that the transit user is also a pedestrian, a cyclist is also a pedestrian, an auto user is also a pedestrian. You may not chose the other modes every day, but every day you’re a pedestrian."

Lest modern-day Harold Bracken sympathizers jump to any wild conclusions, this does not mean that Chicago has declared the pedestrian the victor in the "war on the car." The reality here is much more arcane, embedded in the checklists and procedures that agency departments and outside contractors will have to follow, as of July 1, in planning to repave roads or rework intersections. Real change, however, takes place in the bureaucratic details.

"We’re not talking about necessarily closing roads down, making them just for pedestrians," says Janet Attarian, the department’s complete streets project director. "It’s about really understanding how you layer safety and placemaking and supporting economic development into this process of designing your roadway."

For the past decade or so, forward-thinking cities have hired pedestrian or bicycle "coordinators" to advocate for amenities like bike lanes and better crosswalks. But the resulting strategy can be scattershot; if a given project manager happens to know the ped guy, maybe he’ll be wrangled for input. The big idea now is to integrate the perspective of all modes of transportation into everything the department does.

That means that road crews heading out to resurface a street might consider ahead of time striping new bike lanes. Electrical engineers optimizing streetlights for car traffic will also think about crosswalk times. And construction teams rebuilding an entire boulevard may have to pause to consider pedestrian islands in the roadway, or bike parking on the sidewalk.

In all of these changes, the new complete streets guidelines sketch out in-depth data collection and analysis, revealing the complexity of shared streets that we more commonly think of as the sole province of cars. Here, for instance is a set of pedestrian and bike "crash maps" from the guidelines:

And this is a sample "volume diagram" of traffic at a set of intersections tracking the flow over time through an area of pedestrians (in blue), bikes (green), transit (purple) and vehicles (yellow):

All projects won’t be required to produce precisely that type of schematic. But it gives a sense for how planning for pedestrians requires better understanding them.

And, in theory, better accommodating pedestrians could be good for everyone.

"There are misconceptions out there that when you put in a bike lane, you’re taking a traffic lane away from the car, or that when you put a curb extension out there, you’re affecting parking," Klein says. In some cases, he admits, this will be true. But in other cases, whole roadways will be better rationalized for everyone, as a new bike lane creates the opportunity to re-time traffic lights, or as pedestrian islands finally enable the city to correct those traffic lanes that don’t properly align through an intersection.

"What we’re saying is this is a complex environment that we live in in a city," Klein says, "and the national and state standards that we’ve been using for a long time aren’t necessarily complex enough to meet the needs of our constituents."

This new 138-page document is about breaking down that complexity for all the people in city government who will be charged with touching city streets and public spaces. But it’s also intended for consultants and contractors who want to work with Chicago going forward. "It indoctrinates them," Klein says, "to how we want to look at our city."

All images from Complete Streets Chicago Design Guidelines, courtesy of the Chicago Department of Transportation.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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