The idea of car-free streets might seem pointless to some, but if selected thoughtfully they are just the kind of peaceful havens that are in too-short supply in Chicago, a civic group says.
That group, which for years has advocated pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly Chicago streets, is releasing a proposal Wednesday for 20 car-free areas and public plazas across the city.
The Active Transportation Alliance's objective is to make downtown and the neighborhoods more attractive places to live and shop, and to help residents get around easily and safely by promoting more bicycling and walking while also reducing traffic accidents, officials at the alliance said.
"Chicago's shortage of parks and playgrounds away from the lakefront is well documented," said Ron Burke, the group's executive director, "but the city also comes up short for open space in the form of car-free public plazas and streets."
The group has shared its proposals with the city and contends they can be brought to life without imposing extreme hardships on drivers.
Some of its ideas would:
•Convert a regular traffic lane on Clark Street downtown into a protected bicycle lane and develop a landscaped seating area next to it between River North and the South Loop.
•Make Monroe Street completely car-free between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive. The plan would expand the existing park space and replace the crossings at Michigan and Lake Shore Drive with wide, well-lit underpasses.
•Close Humboldt Drive and/or Luis Munoz Marin Drive in Humboldt Park to car traffic during the summer to temporarily expand park space and provide a safer environment for walking and biking.
•Create pedestrian plazas with minimal impact to drivers by creating dead ends on lightly used streets. A concept that the alliance proposes in Pilsen calls for putting dead ends at Carpenter, Miller and/or Morgan streets on the north side of 18th Street to create a pedestrian oasis.
•A landscaped greenway that includes space for restaurants and patios is proposed for segments of Broadway in Lakeview, between Diversey Parkway and Belmont Avenue.
"We are not saying all 20 streets on our list should go car-free, but we want to encourage the city and others to undertake some analysis and think a little bigger about what Chicago could look like," he said.
The group provided its list to the Chicago Department of Transportation for consideration, Burke said.
"CDOT agrees with the concept of sharing the roadway among all users, not just cars," spokesman Pete Scales said. "That's why we developed a complete streets policy. But I don't know that we would venture an opinion on any one of the alliance's ideas yet."
The 20 locations were selected by planners and other staff members at the alliance and included input from the community, Burke said. He said inspirations for the proposals included Navy Pier, Times Square in New York City and the Pearl Street pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colo.
Denver's 16th Street Mall is an example of a car-free street that has been integrated with a narrow bus lane for public transit. Burke said it is a far superior design compared with Chicago's failed experiment with the State Street pedestrian/bus mall from 1979 to 1996.
The Active Transportation Alliance proposes that the city consider traffic changes to portions of the Magnificent Mile from the Chicago River to Oak Street, perhaps even moving all vehicles, including CTA buses, off Michigan Avenue and onto State Street.
Chicago already has an initiative called Make Way for People that converts parking spaces, alleys and underused land into temporary or permanent public plazas.
One of the city's most popular car-free spaces is Kempf Plaza in Lincoln Square.
"We need one of those in every neighborhood in Chicago," said Michelle Stenzel, a longtime Lincoln Park resident whose idea for a car-free zone on segments of Webster Avenue in the neighborhood is among the 20 the alliance lists.
"Let's take a few streets and give them back to the people, places where the citizens of Chicago can truly relax, destinations to walk to, sit and people-watch," said Stenzel, who is a co-leader of Bike Walk Lincoln Park, a neighborhood committee promoting bicycle and pedestrian safety in the 43rd Ward. "There currently is a mismatch for how much space is allocated for people versus moving and storing motorized vehicles."
Streets in their sights
The group's proposals for car-free locations would target, but not take up all of, the following locations:
Dearborn and/or Clark streets, River North to South Loop.
Monroe Avenue between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.
Segments of Oak Street and Rush Street in the Gold Coast.
Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile.
One or more streets near Wrigley Field.
Segments of Broadway in Lakeview.
Segments of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
Simmonds Drive between Lawrence and Foster avenues through the lakefront park.
Segments of Clark Street in Andersonville.
Milwaukee Avenue through the square of Logan Square.
Bryn Mawr Avenue between Broadway and Sheridan Road.
Segments of Webster Avenue in Lincoln Park.
Segments of 47th Street in Bronzeville.
Segments of East 53rd Street in Hyde Park.
Segments of 18th Street in Pilsen.
Ellsworth and/or Payne drives in Washington Park.
Taylor Street in University Village between Racine and Ashland avenues.
Segments of 26th Street in Little Village.
Humboldt Drive and/or Luis Munoz Marin Drive in Humboldt Park.