The Risks and Rewards of Building for People

Lindsay Bayley is an urban planner who lives and bikes with her family in Chicago. Today she's sharing a guest article about the risks and rewards of planning for multiple transportation options.

Milwaukee Avenue, in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago (Source: Lindsay Bailey)

Milwaukee Avenue, in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago (Source: Lindsay Bailey)

In thriving, vibrant neighborhoods, the personal automobile does not reign supreme. Successful transportation planning for economically healthy cities shifts the emphasis from cars alone to also consider  the needs of citizens who prefer walking, biking and transit­. Roadway changes that give more space to pedestrians, bicyclists, or buses may challenge the status quo, but multimodal communities are more resilient and can leverage greater economic growth in the long run.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but places with more people concentrated together need less space for cars than places with lower density and dispersed development. Space reserved for cars in an urban environment is space that is not generating tax revenue, and this creates a drain on the neighborhood’s economic engine. A neighborhood that is even moderately dense — anything over seven units per acre — can use space-efficient transit in order to move lots of people. More people walking and biking complete the multimodal neighborhood.

While cars are still the mode of choice for many, the transition toward more active transportation may result in backlash from people who continue to drive. Building strong, multi-modal communities requires persevering through that resistance and showing residents that transportation options create economic resilience.

Chicago’s bustling Wicker Park neighborhood has a density of about 28.5 people per acre. Milwaukee Avenue is a narrow street with all the action that cuts through the heart of the neighborhood. Bars, cafes and bookstores line the sidewalks and face out onto one driving lane and on-street parking in each direction. Milwaukee Avenue is also one of the most heavily trafficked on-street bike routes in the Midwest, with bikes making up as much as 40 percent of the vehicles traveling in peak summer periods. But the street is also notorious for bicycle and pedestrian crashes, especially “dooring” crashes that occur when parked cars’ doors swing open into a bicyclist’s path.

The City of Chicago has struggled to solve a transportation safety challenge while still recognizing business-owners’ desires for on-street customer parking. The street is not wide enough to install standard bike lanes — let alone protected bike lanes — without removing parking spaces. So the solution from the Chicago Department of Transportation was a “bollards and paint” treatment for curb bump-outs at intersections, closure of some turn lanes, a reduced speed limit (20 mph), improved crosswalks, and a dashed bike lane along parked cars.

Many in the cycling community feel ambivalent about this solution; the bike lane is not protected from cars, so bicyclists remain in the “door zone.” But overall, the project has been an improvement for people walking and biking.

Intersection of Milwaukee & Honore before reconfiguration (left) and after (right). (Source: Nearmap.)

Intersection of Milwaukee & Honore before reconfiguration (left) and after (right). (Source: Nearmap.)

My family lives near the epicenter of this recent project and we have welcomed the changes. In the past, we have had close calls with drivers at the Milwaukee Avenue and Honore Street pedestrian crossing (above) near our local bookstore. For example, a car would yield to let us cross and another would try to go around them, nearly running us over. We have a very independent three-year-old who is often walking in the crosswalk or riding her bike at a height that is not very visible to drivers, especially those in large SUVs. These close calls strike terror in a parent.

Now, with the bollard and paint bump-outs, a car cannot go around the car that stops to let us cross (or at least there is a strong visual deterrent to this behavior). We also travel along the route to take our daughter to daycare and have noticed that the dashed line has straightened out the cars, creating a clear opening for our cargo bike.

Could it be better? Yes. Is it an improvement? Definitely. Do some drivers hate it? You bet.

While it seems that people on bikes still have the short end of the stick, with less than one lane for bikes and four for cars, some drivers feel as though the project has taken too much of their space. They are upset with the brief delays created at certain intersections and want the City to strip the paint and uproot the bollards. While a trip by car may take a couple minutes longer than before, those delays cannot be measured against improvements to safety. One person’s time is not more valuable than anyone’s life.

As former Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian says, “If you design a city for cars, it fails for everyone, including drivers. If you design a multi-modal city, it works better for everyone, including drivers.”

Personal automobiles cannot be the sole priority in dense cities. With limited street width and the value-generating potential of the land, people and cars have to compete for the same space. People are what make cities great, and the more we prioritize accommodating cars — with parking areas and driving lanes — the less space is available for people to meet, mix, and spend money. 

Real improvements to walking, biking, and transit infrastructure will shift some trips out of automobiles as more people realize that a bike ride is quicker than an Uber trip and as more families discover the affordability and convenience of biking with kids. Those real improvements will involve infrastructure changes that won’t please everyone in the immediate, but making space for people is the choice that pays dividends in community building.

(Top photo of the author's husband and daughter at the intersection of Milwaukee & Honore. Source: Lindsay Bailey)

Related Stories

About the Author

Lindsay Bayley is an urban planner in Chicago. The views expressed in this article are her own and not necessarily those of her employer, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.