urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Archive for July 2011

How we cross streets: some Chicago examples

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Raquel Nelson — a woman in Georgia who was convicted of vehicular homicide for crossing the street with her son, struck by a drunk driver — will be be sentenced tomorrow, probably to a longer prison term than the one given to the driver himself.

Among the prolific discussion online, a number of commentators have wondered why she just didn’t walk to the crosswalk 0.3 miles away, implying that she is somehow lazy or a bad parent for not doing so. While crossing a busy arterial street at night is certainly risky, Raquel Nelson was just doing what pedestrians and people in general find instinctive to do: take the most efficient path to get to their destination.

A couple of examples from here in Chicago:

I’ve taken the Damen Ave. 50 bus northbound to the Damen Blue Line stop many times. The northbound bus stop, where you transfer to the L, is on the east side of the street, whereas the entrance to the station is on the west side of the street.

I’d say that about 90 percent of all riders transferring to the L turn right and cross behind the bus to the train station, a trip I’ve marked with a red arrow on both maps. In contrast, the distance from the bus stop to the crosswalk to the north is a mere 200 feet, a tenth of the distance that Raquel Nelson would have had to walk. Yet given this minimal distance to the crosswalk, most riders still continue to take this most effective way to get to the entrance.

People, pedestrians included, are hard-wired to find the most effective method to travel any particular distance. Sure, we know there’s a crosswalk 200 feet away, but we also know that it’s faster to just cross behind the bus. It does help that Damen is a relatively narrow two-lane street with traffic that seems to be either very light (at 6:25 am, when I am passing through) or chokingly heavy, both of which make it easy to cross. Nevertheless, we recognize the most efficient way to get there and we take it.

In an indirect way, drivers perform the same mental calculation, too. How many times have you circled endlessly to find a “good” parking space that reduces the amount of walking? I’d wager half the time it would have been just faster to park the car in the first easily available spot and then walk to the destination, even if the distance were slightly longer. Even when we drive, we look for the fastest and most efficient path.


In downtown Chicago, the neighborhood with the highest Walk Score in the entire city, at Randolph and Michigan there is no crosswalk between the southwest and southeast corners (shown with a red arrow below), so pedestrians crossing between the Chicago Cultural Center or one of the Millennium Station exits must use three crosswalks in order to get to Millennium Park.

The crosswalk was removed in 2004 (scroll down or search “removed crosswalks”) in order to facilitate foot traffic. It is one of the most frustrating intersections to cross in the entire city; I once was so resistant to taking the three crosswalks, thinking that there must be some way to cross through Millennium Station to the park, that I ended up getting lost underground for quite some time.


I’m not saying that the entire street has to be a crosswalk, as extrapolating this principle to the logical extreme would mean pedestrianizing the entire street; the fastest path between two buildings facing each other is always the direct line across the street, after all. Instead, what I’m trying to point out is that it’s important to consider pedestrian psychology when we design streets and zone land in our cities.

Particularly at high-volume areas — such as the Damen bus-rail transfer and the heavily patronized Loop — we should acknowledge our crossing instincts and design these places accordingly. Walking is, or it should be, a fundamentally legitimate way of getting around a city, and building infrastructure that ignores this is short-sighted and a denial of human instinct.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 25, 2011 at 10:36 pm

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Sidewalks: bad for the neighborhood?

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Not so nice in the burbs?

Does the lack of sidewalks make a suburban area feel more “high-end”?

A coworker mentioned yesterday that his suburban subdivision had no sidewalks; I speculated that it was a cost-cutting measure by the developers. He agreed, but then mentioned that it might also be because the developer wanted to project the image of a “high-end” area, adding that the subdivisions in the affluent northwestern Chicago suburbs to which he hopes to move also lack sidewalks.

It’s a curious thought. Most of the Los Angeles suburbs that are familiar to me have sidewalks, even if they are solely used for recreational purposes and cars are used for all essential trips. I’ve noticed that many of the lots in the newer, affluent favored quarter of the northwest Chicago suburbs lack sidewalks, though.

Perhaps a lack of sidewalks indicates that the residents of that subdivisions can all afford cars, and so they don’t need sidewalks to get around. Upon reflection, this is a little bit too involved and conspiracy-like for my thinking. It also seems strange that there wouldn’t be any sidewalks for young children — who presumably comprise a large part of the population — but perhaps the thinking is that the lawns, grassy areas and parks in the area suffice.

A lack of sidewalks could also create a sort of quasi-bucolic setting, which is what many suburbs aspire to anyway. I’m reminded of a 2009 Washington Post story that describes the controversy over the installation of sidewalks in an affluent northwest District community. Some were quoted as saying that the installation of sidewalks makes an area safer, because it forces drivers to slow down for children and other people in the street; they also argued that the installation of sidewalks would make an area more urban in nature, via replacement of greenery with concrete.

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these: developers don’t develop sidewalks because residents of these high-end suburban areas don’t demand them, subconsciously wanting to get away from an urban “feel.” Other developers aiming to create similar high-end subdivisions build similarly, and the sidewalk-less pattern replicates itself.

I’ll freely admit that it’s hard for me to see a sidewalk-less suburban area and think “high-end,” but that is probably a function of my urbanist leanings and my upbringing and its surroundings.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in Chicago, Land use, Pedestrian, Suburbs

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Fly around the city (literally)

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If you have anything at all to do with Los Angeles, then you know about Carmageddon, the closure of the 405 — 10 miles northbound, 4 miles southbound — between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley this coming weekend. One of my favorite airlines, JetBlue, ran today a ‘Carmageddon Fly-Over’ deal that has since sold out, offering four $4 flights between Long Beach and Burbank this Saturday. The two airports are about 33 miles apart as the crow (plane?) flies: roughly twice as far as O’Hare is from Midway, or one-and-a-half times as far as JFK is from Newark or Dulles from National.

Novelty aside — if I happened to be in the Los Angeles area, I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist the chance to take a 30-mile flight — JetBlue’s clever Carmageddon publicity stunt serves to point out the essentially two-pronged nature of the United States’ transportation system: auto and air. Americans are generally heavily to solely reliant on private cars for short-distance and planes for medium-haul and long-haul travel. It’s odd that in a transportation situation where cars are out — such as the 405 closure this weekend — we jump straight to air, a medium more suited to Long Beach, N.Y. to Burbank than Long Beach, Calif. to Burbank.

Of course, JetBlue’s 30-mile flight isn’t a practical form of intracity transportation and isn’t really meant to be anything more than a stunt (and a good one, too). The scheduled flight times are 30-40 minutes, but when you consider time spent getting to and from the airport and security, the time spent is probably about 60-70 minutes overall. The FAA and local authorities have had to specially coordinate the flights because they’re flying well below normal cruising altitude, and these flights would have to priced well above $4 to be profitable.

But while most of the Facebook comments on the Los Angeles Times’ article on the Fly-Over address their un-green nature or PR value, there are a couple who wish these flights were actually regular. Hopefully, some of these commenters — among the vast number of Angelenos not hopping on the next flight to Burbank this weekend — will instead take advantage of the improved LA metro transit service this weekend and realize that your transport choices don’t have to be just auto or air; that indeed there can be, and there are, other choices besides a gimmicky PR flight and an apocalypse-inducing closed freeway.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 13, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Ads in and of the city

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It is finally summer in Chicago, and in the course of walking around I encountered this ad on a bus stop, one of my favorites.

Get it?

(Apologies for the random strip of shade at the left, I took this picture late in the evening so the angle wasn’t ideal.)

It says something about the ubiquity of public transportation in this city that Leinenkugel feels confident in making this ad. After all, if you don’t get it, the slogan almost becomes a little bit inane. The L and the CTA are pervasive enough in the lives of most Chicagoans — and this ad is found on a bus stop at a major street intersection in a neighborhood relatively well-served by public transit — that the reference pays off. I’d wager that the Leinenkugel marketing group gambled that a a large number of Chicagoans would understand the reference and feel appreciative of the Chicago-centric ad effort; I certainly did. (It also helps that Leinenkugel is based in Chippewa Falls, less than 350 miles from Chicago.)

Bank of America also has similar Chicago-themed ads that feature public transit:

Granted, this one is more explicit because it’s for Bank of America’s mobile banking, and so you’d expect that it would be more likely to draw a connection to forms of transit or other places where you’d use mobile banking. (The red text at the bottom says “Chicago loves Mobile Banking”; the picture quality is poor because I snapped it on my not-very-advanced phone.) But again, you can tell that Bank of America has made a conscious decision to focus on references it thinks will be understood by Chicagoans, and it’s nice to know that public transit is one of these references. Some of their other ads are a little less direct, mentioning to lines and colors, thus referencing Chicago’s colored transit lines.

There’s another ad in one of the downtown subway stations, that I don’t have a picture of at the moment, which is similar and has something like Next Stop: Jackson; Next Stop: Jackson; Next Stop: Jackson. It’s an ad showcasing how many ATMs there are in the city, and plays on the fact that “Jackson” is the name of two separate and heavily-used Red and Blue line stops downtown.

Written by Andrew ACG

July 9, 2011 at 7:35 pm