A proposed rendering of a “resilient street” redesign of West Palmer Street and North Pulaski Road in western Chicago. Developed by Street Plans.

Building Resilient Streets in Chicago

By: Debs Schrimmer (Senior Manager, Future of Cities) and Ron Burke, (Transit, Bikes, and Scooter Policy Senior Manager)

During the last few months, the city of Chicago’s transportation network has been transformed by COVID-19. At the peak of the pandemic, CTA ridership declined 80% and Metra’s rail ridership declined by 97%. While agencies are taking steps to promote social distancing and public health safety, such as reducing train and bus capacity by 50%, encouraging off-peak travel times, and disinfecting vehicles. Despite emerging evidence that the transit system was likely never a major vector for the spread of the virus in the first place, people are still reconsidering their transportation options.

As Chicago begins moving into economic reopening, early signs suggest a future of gridlocked streets with cars. As of June 2020, traffic was back to 77% of the volume recorded during the same week in 2019. In a recent speech, Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi put it best:

“With the challenge of social distancing … we’re certainly concerned about a carpocalypse.”

— Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi, Aug 2020

At the same time, biking has boomed as a socially distant form of transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally, Divvy has become a means for thousands of critical workers to continue getting to work, a tool for protest and public expression, and plays an important role in the city’s transportation network.

It’s more important than ever for Chicago to encourage sustainable transportation, and to make its streets a safe place for everyone using them.

In partnership with Sam Schwartz Engineering and Street Plans, we looked at how street design could further encourage Chicagoans to take more trips on foot and bikes.

Reimagining Our Streets

Before the pandemic, about 36% of all commuters in Chicago were making trips on transit, foot, or bike every day. Looking specifically at commutes to the Loop, 62% of people used transit and 8% of commuters walked or biked. This amounted to 400,000 sustainable commute trips each day.

Given this, public transit can and must continue to be the backbone of Chicago transportation networks. But with no vaccine in place yet and social distancing being widely practiced, transit simply will not be able to move as many people as compared to pre-pandemic times.

At the same time, Chicago streets cannot handle a potential influx of former transit riders turning to car ownership and driving alone. Our streets need to be redesigned to make it safe and comfortable for walking and biking.

To better understand the experiences of people living, commuting, working, and owning businesses along the corridors, Divvy hosted a design charrette and workshop with local community groups. During the workshop, the North River Commission, Metropolitan Planning Council, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Six Corners Association, West Town Bikes, Think Outside da Block, and Active Transportation Alliance shared feedback on local mobility needs and their ideas for the Division corridor.

Proposed Resilient Street corridor along Divison Street.

The hypothetical corridor we looked at spans western Chicago, an 8-mile corridor along Division Street, that helps people access trains that connect to downtown and the Loop. The corridor connects multiple neighborhoods and commercial corridors, including Paseo Boricua, the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community.

West Division at North Central Park Avenue (Western Chicago)

Most Chicago streets run north-south and east-west in a grid pattern, with major commercial corridors every half mile. Division is one of those east-west commercial corridors on the north side of Chicago, and it extends from the lakefront on the east to Chicago’s western boundary and spans a diverse set of neighborhoods. It is similar to many of Chicago’s commercial corridors, with multi-family housing joining small retail and some light industry on the street and a variety of housing stock is nearby. Many people work and shop on Division, and it’s a popular route for bus riders, cyclists and motorists to get around.

The Chicago street grid is intersected in places by diagonal commercial streets that often create complicated, dangerous six way intersections and islands between streets, as seen below where Division intersects Grand, North Monticello, and Central Park Avenues. We chose this segment of Division as an example of an important Chicago commercial corridor where the intersection with a diagonal street is especially problematic. The design treatments could be applicable at similar intersections in Chicago.

Before and After: West Division at North Central Park Avenue, West Grand Avenue, and North Monticello Avenue. Developed by Street Plans. Note: this image is a proposed rendering and not a final design. It is merely illustrative and is not intended to replace the full community engagement process.

Through workshops with local community groups, the following street design and infrastructure elements were proposed:

Zoomed in: North Central Park Avenue and West Division Street. Developed by Street Plans.
  • Implement a “neighborhood greenway” design for North Central Avenue
  • Add a pedestrian and bike median refuge that also serves as a northbound vehicular traffic diverter, preventing right turns movements for northbound motorists.
  • Offer the same treatment to prevent right turns off of West Grand Avenue for southbound vehicular driving along Central Park Avenue.
  • Add super sharrow markings, wayfinding and route branding signage, and crossbike markings to better align and make cyclists more visible as they cross West Division Street and West Grand Avenue.
Zoomed in: North Central Park Avenue and West Grand Avenue. Developed by Street Plans.
  • Add curbless “Shared Street” design on North Central Park Avenue between West Division and Grand Avenue.
  • Add trees, landscaping such as benches, bike racks, and a Divvy Station for increased placemaking and access.
  • Widen sidewalks along to support bus boarding and other pedestrian activity.
Zoomed in: West Grand Avenue and West Division Street. Developed by Street Plans.
  • Add curb-protected bike lanes along West Division Street.
  • Plant street trees and add other landscaping for increased placemaking.
  • Designate a ridesharing pick-up/drop-off spot for safe passenger loading.
  • Add curb extensions to support seamless CTA bus boarding.

West Palmer Street at North Pulaski Road (Western Chicago)

During our workshops, local advocates recommended that we also assess options for improving streets with less car traffic than commercial corridors like Division. Low-traffic streets are often more comfortable for cycling and walking. West Palmer Street was identified because it is included in the City’s bike plan as a Neighborhood Route, or “Greenway,” and it was about to become a temporary “Slow Street” during COVID restrictions.

A challenge for Neighborhood Greenway bike routes is crossing busy intersections with commercial corridors like Pulaski, shown below. The City’s bike plan sets a goal to expand its Neighborhood Greenways network. This location represents a typical Greenway/Commercial Street intersection, and has the serendipitous benefit of being near a former Schwinn Bicycle factory.

Before and After: West Palmer Street at North Pulaski Road. Developed by Street Plans. Note: this image is a proposed rendering and not a final design. It is merely illustrative and is not intended to replace the full community engagement process.

If West Palmer Street were to become a “Resilient Street”, community groups suggested that it might:

  • Create a median safety island preventing east-west thru-vehicular movement along West Palmer but allow and shorten the crossing distance for people bicycling and walking across North Pulaski Road; include green infrastructure to filter stormwater and add beauty to the corridor.
  • Add a planted vehicular diverter limiting right-turn movements from southbound North Pulaski Road traffic onto westbound West Palmer Street; maintain east/south bound vehicular movements so as to not impede existing loading dock access.
  • Introduce bold street art depiction of Major Taylor, a famous African American cyclist who lived out his final years in Chicago;
  • Add a bus bulb for in-lane boarding/alighting on CTA’s 53 route

Resilient Street Corridor: Division Street Case Study

Next, we studied the potential socioeconomic, mode shift, and environmental impacts of street design changes along the hypothetical Resilient Streets corridor. The corridor spanned the neighborhoods of Austin, Ukrainian Village, Humboldt Park, and Noble Square.

The analysis considered both a “No Action” scenario, where the corridor remained unchanged from its existing conditions, and a “Resilient Street” scenario, where the streets along the corridor were enhanced with street design and infrastructure changes proposed in the workshop.

When comparing the No Action scenario to the Resilient Street scenario, the Resilient Street scenario uses space more efficiently to serve more people. It has the potential to accommodate 14,000 walking and biking trips, expanding transportation access for nearly 52,000 low-income households near the corridor.

Local Community Demographics

The proposed Resilient Street corridor along Division Street is within one-mile of 320,000 Chicago residents. These residents are:

Data source: U.S. Census’ American Community Survey 2014–2018 5-Year Data

Car owners: Nearly 71% of households have access to a vehicle, which puts them at high risk of choosing to drive given COVID-19 conditions.

Mixed income: There are a range of income levels along the corridor, including 52,000 low-income households that may not have options to increase transportation spending and depend on access to affordable transportation options.

Racially Diverse: The community is racially diverse, with 25% of residents identifying as Black, 5% of residents identifying as Asian, 56% of residents identifying as White, 11% of residents identifying as some other race, and 3% of residents identifying as two or more races. About 24% of the residents ethnically identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Essential workers: 100,000 people work in education, healthcare, warehousing, transportation, and utilities industries, which represents about 62% of total workers in the study area.

Data source: U.S. Census’ Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (2017)

Findings and Impact

Looking at the corridor’s current commute characteristics, and given the impact of COVID-19 on transit ridership, Sam Schwartz Engineering estimates at least 7,000 morning commuters who previously relied on the CTA 70-Division bus which runs directly along the corridor, as well as nearby bus routes like the 66-Chicago, 72-North, 73-Armitage, 65-Grand, as well as the CTA Blue and Green Lines and the Metra Grand/Cicero and Kedzie stations have begun or will be looking for another commute option as Chicago reopens and more daily travel resumes.

If no action is taken and streets remain as they are today, Sam Schwartz Engineering’s analysis finds that only 1,700 of these displaced transit riders (about 19% of total transit riders along the corridor) would begin to walk or bike: potentially adding thousands of single occupancy vehicle trips to the transportation network.

The Sam Schwartz Engineering team then looked at the “Resilient Streets” scenario, which took into account a range of street design and infrastructure changes along the corridor to help support walking, biking, and transit — including new bike lane infrastructure, restricted vehicle access on certain streets, enhanced transit boarding stations, and the expansion of Divvy to include the western portions of the Division corridor not currently served by Divvy.

Adding infrastructure and “Resilient Street” design changes along the Division Street corridor would generate demand and accommodate nearly 14,000 daily walking and biking trips: saving 38,000 vehicle miles traveled daily, and removing 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

With COVID-19 disrupting traditional travel and commute patterns, Resilient Street designs can help guide people to choose sustainable modes like walking and biking.

Resilient Streets are the Future

As the City thinks about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on its transportation network, especially with the potential of thousands of former transit riders looking for new options, the City will need to take bold actions to provide sustainable transportation options for pre-COVID-19 transit users.

The City has taken some important steps like the creation of its Shared Streets program and expanded sidewalks for restaurants and retail to better accommodate walking, cycling, and outdoor eating and shopping during COVID.

Expanding these strategies in all neighborhoods during and after COVID is needed to create a diverse portfolio of transportation options that puts people first and isn’t overly dependent on owning and driving cars.

Local governments can’t do this on their own, especially with budgets decimated by the economic slow-down. In addition to emergency transit funding and relief for state and local governments, Congress should increase long-term funding for walking, cycling and transit as part of a new multi-year transportation bill currently being negotiated.

Moreover, last year the State of Illinois expanded local grant funding for walking and cycling that should make it easier to choose soles and spokes instead of a car. With support at all levels of government, Chicagoland can enter the post-COVID era with a more resilient, equitable, and sustainable transportation system.

To support local change on the streets, you can get involved:

Advocates at Active Transportation Alliance are working to make Chicago’s streets safer and better for walking, cycling, and transit. Sign their Action Alert to bring these changes to life!

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