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Reopen Our Crosswalks, Please!
by itakethetrain | 07/20/2007
A crowd of pedestrians crosses illegally on the wrong side at Madison and Michigan. Note how the sidewalk continues across the street.
You've probably noticed that some of our crosswalks around Grant and Millennium parks have gone missing over the past couple years. The crosswalks were closed in the name of improving traffic flow. The idea is that if we can get some of those pesky pedestrians out of the way, cars can move more easily. Of course, if we really wanted to improve traffic flow, we should close down Millennium Park -- with it's over 2 million visitors a year, it's a constant source of traffic congestion.
This is, of course, sarcasm. But it is indeed this strain of logic that justifies destroying public spaces in an attempt to "improve traffic flow." And sadly, in its attempt to improve traffic flow, the city is actually causing even more traffic by trying to pack even more cars into downtown.
But they've just closed the crosswalks, you say? They haven't actually destroyed the places, you say? Well, they have indeed destroyed Queen's Landing, designed as a grand gateway between the city and the shore of Lake Michigan. That gateway is now closed. The landing used to connect to Buckingham Fountain via a large promenade that continued on to Congress Parkway. Visitors to Buckingham Fountain, glimpsing our great Lake Michigan for the first time, would walk down a wide stairwell, cross Lake Shore Drive on a wide crosswalk, and enjoy the view from the water's edge. I did just this along with crowds of other people on my first visit to Chicago years before I moved here.
The crowds of people at Queen's Landing are no more. Now visitors are greeted with a glimpse of the lake from the fountain, but should they actually try to walk down to the water, Lake Shore Drive will welcome them with bollards and chains blocking their path. This of course doesn't stop everyone from crossing the eight lanes of traffic. They're supposed to know that if they want to get to the other side, they should walk a block away, cross there, then double back -- but that's a long way out of the way. The park was designed to lead pedestrians to the water's edge at this specific point -- so when they're led to a dead end, they're going to be confused.
Millennium Park was also damaged by crosswalk closings that make crossing Michigan Avenue unwelcoming, confusing and sometimes dangerous. The pedestrian paths through Millennium Park fall on axes with Washington and Madison -- where Madison ends at the park, the sidewalks on each side of the street continue into the park, welcoming pedestrians, while the width of the street turns into garden planters. You can see how this works by looking at this aerial shot of the park. The park is essentially designed to tell pedestrians on both sides of the street to cross Michigan Ave. into the park. We spent millions of dollars on this park so that it would be welcoming like this. But the city has now posted signs telling pedestrians exactly the opposite of the design -- do not cross the street here even though the design tells you to. This is why confused pedestrians end up caught in the middle of Michigan Ave. with a look of surprise on their face when cars start honking at them. Design will trump signage when the two are in conflict, as you can see from the pictures on the right. Pedestrians don't want to waste time crossing the street in two directions when they could cross just one direction. And if they miss the first light to get to the side of the street where they're allowed to cross, then they're likely to just decide to cross illegally rather than have to wait through another cycle. There are examples of this all over Grant Park -- pedestrian paths that cross a street, but the crosswalk is strangely absent. Some even have accessible ramps to encourage disabled pedestrians to venture out into the street.
Do we want Chicago to be a place where we can conveniently go anywhere by car, but there's nowhere left worth going to? Do we want it to be a hassle to walk in our city? The closing of these individual crosswalks may seem small or insignificant, but small steps like this have been leading the way toward the destruction of our public spaces for decades now. It's indicative of a deeper problem of misplaced priorities and a lack of understanding about mobility and place-making. We've been sacrificing pedestrian mobility and public spaces in the name of an unattainable dream of perfect auto-mobility. Even if our city did have room for everyone to drive everywhere, would we want to live in that kind of city? I have confidence that Chicagoans will demand better and that poor decisions like this will become an anomaly.
Below is a video of two tourists having a kodak moment in front of Lake Michigan, while two other visitors risk their lives cross the highway in the background.
The good news is that the overzealous closing of crosswalks may have just been a hiccough -- a short burst of idiocy that will be over soon enough. ArchitectureChicago PLUS reported in June on a Friends of Downtown forum where new Alderman Brendan Reilly addressed the issue of the Queen's Landing Crosswalk. Reilly said he is discussing it with CDOT. From my understanding, it was the Traffic Management Authority (headed by now CTA president Ron Huberman) who closed these in the first place, and I can't imagine CDOT would make the same mistake given the opportunity to rectify the situation -- as DOTs go, CDOT is pretty good at considering all modes of transportation, including pedestrians.
But just to be sure, why not encourage Reilly, CDOT and Mayor Daley to make the right decision? Send them a letter, email or give them a call. Below are addresses and a sample letter you can feel free to use.
Alderman Brendan Reilly
Mayor Richard Daley