The Pleasures of Walking
Getting around in Chicago’s Loop
I like to walk in the Loop, and one of the things I thought about was how I might sell articles about walking in Chicago. I did two pieces on the topic in 1989. One that ran in the summer issue of Chicago Times was about pleasure; this one—in spite of its title—was more of an explainer about walking as transportation, and no less interesting for that.
Mention is made here about the eventual growth of a Super Loop too big to walk. It took thirty years, but the Super Loop is here.
The number of walking trips in the Loop may be a function of population, but their length is constrained by the walker's age, the weather, and even local culture. William H. Whyte, the urban sociologist who wrote the recent much-praised City: Rediscovering the Center, has found that even New York City's peerless pedestrians seldom venture farther than half a mile. In other big cities the tolerable distance is even less, as little as a quarter-mile. An astonished Whyte found that in the suburbs the maximum distance people willingly walk is as short as 800 feet, which suggests that in time legs, like cash and the five-minute drive to work, will become mere vestigial features of suburban life.
When surveyors from the University of Illinois at Chicago interviewed Loop walkers in 1981, more than 9,000 people reported themselves to be embarked on trips at least a mile in length. However, the median trip length was only 900 feet, or about two and a half blocks. There are an enormous number of potential pedestrian miles in the unwalked increment between the average Loop foot trip and the practically-everybody-will-walk-at-least-half-a-mile maximum—roughly a quarter-million miles even workday.
Time as well as distance constrain trip lengths, with the shortish lunch hours of many Loop workers setting limits on how far they wander during office hours. Perceptions also shorten walking distances. Behavioral geographers have discovered that people compile personal mental maps of the cities in which they live. These cognitive maps often do not reflect a city's actual shape and scale, but instead reflect an individual's emotional geography. Sense of distance and direction, for example, can be distorted by anxiety; places we fear visiting are commonly perceived as physically more remote than they really are, while places in which we feel comfortable somehow seem closer.
Whether you walk it or imagine it, today's Loop is uncomfortably large. The original, el-bound Loop measures seven blocks by five (roughly three-quarters by three-eights of a mile)—distances easily covered by foot. Today's "Super Loop" measures a mile-and-a-half west from the lake to Halsted and two miles south from Chicago Avenue to Roosevelt Road. For decades the commuter's daily dilemma was getting to the Loop; today the problem is getting from place to place within the Loop. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Dennis Byrne no doubt found many sympathetic readers when he reported that it takes him longer to get from the commuter station to his office than it takes him to get from his home to the commuter station. Because of the traffic, buses move through the Loop as slowly as four or five miles per hour.
Getting by bus from North Michigan Avenue to the West Loop at rush hour can take half an hour, which is not much faster than the average adult (who walks at speeds from 3 1/2 to 4 miles per hour) can travel. Frustrated by the pokiness of the buses and the ballooning scale of the Loop, more and more people are taking their cars to make routine intra-Loop trips. Which makes traffic worse. Which slows down the buses even more. Which persuades even more people to drive their cars. Which . . . .
Buses, of course, are close to an ideal way to move people around the Loop. They can stop at any corner, pick up and deliver passengers on the sidewalks, and go anywhere there's a street. The problem is that three major modes of moving people—cars, buses and feet—usually share the same right-of-ways. The typical Loop street does not have four lanes but six (two for carrying motorized vehicles, two for parking them and two for walkers) and congestion on any one lane usually slows movement on the others. While the most notorious hoggers are double-parkers, standees, and delivery vehicles, walkers also slow down cars and buses, mainly at busy corners where vehicles making turns must wait for pedestrians to clear the intersection. Moses may have parted the Red Sea, but he would have no more luck weaving through the tides of rush-hour pedestrians crossing Wacker Drive than anyone else.
The dispute about whether cars or pedestrians are more of an impediment to bus traffic undoubtedly has ruined many a transit planner's dinner party. Whyte, for example, urges that cars are the culprit and urges removing the parking lanes from downtown streets; radical urban planners such as Louis Kahn and Victor Gruen have long argued for banning private autos outright from city centers. Such draconian measures are unlikely to be proposed, much less adopted, in Chicago.
Not that the city's planners are stupidly pro-car. Elizabeth Hollander, planning department director under mayors Washington and Sawyer, is proud to be known as a pedestrian planner. She had so many feet of new underground "pedways" included in zoning negotiations with Loop developers that tunnel excavators probably named their kids after her.
Joe Ligas, of the Chicago Area Transportation Study, in fact thinks that the walker is rather coddled in Chicago. Jaywalkers are seldom ticketed, he points out. And when a pedestrian looked the wrong way and was killed by a bus, a solicitous City Council killed the successful reverse lanes program, casting its vote for pedestrian safety over improved traffic flow. In a culture so dominated by the car, though, tolerance is easily mistaken for hospitality.
Riverwalks, for example, are made for strollers, not walkers; if a sidewalk doesn't go anywhere, walkers can't either. As for jaywalking, Whyte notes that aggressive pedestrian behavior usually is proof that downtown's transportation system caters excessively to cars, not walkers. Narrow sidewalks force people into traffic lanes, especially when they bunch up at lights. Walkers get impatient with long lights that accommodate turning cars and are tempted to cross without the green. And traffic jams make crossing between cars and against lights even more tempting.
In fact, say "traffic" to engineers and they will reflexively think of something that moves on wheels, not wedgies. They have created a world in which "walk" signs are too brief, sidewalks too cluttered, curbs too high, standpipes too menacing. An eight-lane street may look like perfection when you drive on it, but looking for oncoming traffic across the concrete expanse of a Congress Parkway in the shimmering summer heat is for a walker like watching Omar Sharif and his camel materialize from the distant horizon in Lawrence of Arabia.
One needn't look to other cities to find the pedestrian as unwelcome guest attitude. The city's 1982 pedestrian plan acknowledged only grudgingly that a busy sidewalk life in the Loop was "not undesirable." Indeed, Chicago's preferred solution for the problem of what are called vehicle-pedestrian conflicts is to get pedestrians off the street. Segregation is the ultimate aim of the city's ambitious pedway system of underground arcades and walkways. Particularly in the western Loop, the tunnels that eventually will connect workers in Sears Tower and nearby office blocks to Metra platforms in Union and Northwestern stations are intended to provide an alternate route to ease the rush-hour crush on Wacker Drive and Monroe and Madison streets—in effect creating a second street system below grade.
Pedways can ease some car-pedestrian conflicts, but they are no solution to the larger problems of cross-Loop transit. A multi-agency group has been examining the possibilities of a new transit distributor system (probably a light rail line) to serve the burgeoning Super Loop. While such a system would not offer every-corner service as buses do, it would have many more stops (via accessible sidewalk-level "stations") than do el lines. Such a system would provide an intermediate method for short cross-Loop trips, including connecting trips to el stops and Metra stations that most people find too long to walk.
Unlike pedways, such a system would complement rather than compete with the existing sidewalk system. "We want to encourage people to walk," explains Deborah Stone, who directs the Central Area Distributor Project from offices at the Metropolitan Planning Council. "To be successful, any new system needs to be part of, an extension of, and an amenity to the existing pedestrian system." Stone even sees a day when entire Loop streets might be closed to all but delivery traffic and converted into mainly pedestrian rights-of-way. Monroe Street—an urban Cumberland Gap through which thousands of workers trek west each morning from subway and el stops to make their fortunes along the river—is an obvious candidate; four of the six major Loop transportation reform schemes proposed since 1974 have specified Monroe as a transit-only passage exclusively for subways, trolleys, and pedestrians.
Ultimately, of course, jobs are at stake. While big companies seldom choose headquarter locations for the convenience of their suppliers, customers, or even lower-level staff, the convenience of management personnel is often crucial in such decisions. It is no accident that the prestige office addresses along Wacker Drive also offer the shortest walks from the commuter rail stations through which most of Chicago's executive class enters and leaves the city. Getting goods and data from one side of the globe to the other may not matter as much in relocation decisions as getting the boss from one side of downtown to the other.
Or getting the shopper from one side of the Loop to the other. Loop retailing is as dependent as ever on walk-in traffic; before you can get more people into your store you have to get more people onto the sidewalk. But how? Recent Loop redevelopment studies have all called for more pedestrian amenities. Such plans usually seek to create mall-like "people places" that convert sidewalks into plazas along the lines of the face-lifted State Street.
Retail arcades and similar schemes assume that people walk in order to shop. Whyte suggests, however, that many of the now-sovereign remedies for the dowdy downtown sidewalk actually hurt retailing. Sidewalks, for example, can be too wide. Window displays are useless, he says, if they are beyond the peripheral vision of the passersby. While trees and benches are attractive amenities, care must be taken that a shopping street not lose its street-like character. Crowded sidewalks don't put off shoppers, Whyte insists. In fact, nothing draws people to a store like other people. Even non-shopping walkers tend to stick to the more crowded sidewalks on their workday trips, partly because crowd speeds are faster, but partly because they pay back in diversion what they cost in travel time.
What is good for the walker, in short, is good for the retailer. But while a new transit connector no doubt would boost the numbers of browsers along State Street, especially tourists and those Super Loop workers whose commute bypasses the old Loop, it will not necessarily rescue traditional retailing in the Loop. The problem is that the new Loop has not only grown away from State Street, it has grown up.
Planners traditionally describe the Loop in terms of functional areas: retail zones on State Street and upper Michigan Avenue; office zones in the west Loop and Illinois Center; an emerging entertainment zone in River North; residential zone in the South Loop; the cultural zone along the lakefront. Arrayed on a map, the planner's Loop looks rather like the aftermath of an autopsy, with the heart here and the lungs there and the spleen lying near the edge of the table. The challenge to transportation planners thus has been to connect these zones into a single, functionally coherent entity.
The old Loop had its own coherence, of course, which was a function of its compactness. Geography, acted upon by history, explains its compact form, but culture also played a part. The ways humans perceived space, indeed their physical surroundings, usually were rooted in what people saw of the world while walking. Modern life has relieved us of the necessity of seeing the world as walkers but it has not substantially altered those instincts.
English planner Leon Krier argues that the natural limit to a town is the distance a person can comfortably walk in ten minutes—a distance, not coincidentally, that is close to the half-mile walking limit recognized by today's transportation planners. The cities of the ancient world, Krier says, were surprisingly small. Some town planners have derived from these historical examples a "natural" city size, an urban space in which food, work, rest and diversion were conveniently available and in which the individual can feel at home. Transportation technology stretches that model a bit—what the ancients knew as cities we call towns today—but these natural cities may be said to persist in the form of the self-conscious, self-contained neighborhoods that make up the larger mined ultimately by the distance its residents (including its daytime residents) are willing to walk.
The instinctual imperative to maintain walkable scale within the larger city becomes a marketing ploy: In speculative real estate development, the phrase "walking distance" has become as ubiquitous a come-on as "indoor toilets" used to be. The trend toward mixed-use developments in all parts of the Super Loop thus reflects an unconscious wisdom. The original Loop is not expanding, it is replicating itself. The result is likely to be not one general retail zone, but several specialized ones catering to shoppers of different means and tastes, not one great street but a half-dozen Main Streets.
Krier's ten-minute distance defines a space roughly 120 acres in size, only marginally smaller than the original Loop's 140 acres. Indeed, most of the constituent districts within the Super Loop are roughly the same size as the original Loop, making it less a congeries of single-purpose zones than a federation of urban "towns." Streeterville, River North, the emerging "East Side" (Illinois and Cityfront centers) have their own populations, their own local geography, their own personalities and (increasingly) their own social infrastructure of apartments, food shops, and services.
Making the Super Loop work thus may require us to think about transit not in terms of people walking to the L or the trolley or the train, but in terms of people taking the el or the trolley or the train to their walk. "If Americans would widen their walking radius by only two hundred feet," Whyte claims in City, "there could be a revolution in U.S. land use." If journeys of a thousand miles start with but a single step, how far might we go by walking half a block? ●