top of page

Footloose Commuters

Chicago sidewalks as transit system

See Illinois (unpublished)


When I did business in Chicago, I took the el or commuter train into the city. Once she alights at her el stop or Loop train station, every rail traveler becomes a pedestrian for at least part of the rest of her trip. The sidewalks downtown are thronged during the work week, yet sidewalks were seldom talked about seriously as an indispensable leg of Chicago’s public transit system.


This little piece—taken from my never published guide to Illinois history and culture—deals with sidewalks as a means of conveyance. I took up the experience of walking in Chicago in separate pieces here and here.


Sidewalks are not usually thought of as a transit system, perhaps because history is usually written by people who can afford to ride where they want to go. Until well into the 1800s, Chicago was a city in which the poor and working class commuted on foot. Factories and slums went together in the 19th century like fast food and highways. Poor people flocked to where the factories because they needed to be within walking distance of a job; commuting by streetcar at a nickel a ride each way six days a week—more if the ride required paid transfers between lines, as many did—would have drained too much of a working person's wages.


Chicagoans of all classes also  found it easier to navigate the early city by foot than by wheeled vehicle. The condition of the streets was notorious, they being seldom paved, much less paved well. Pedestrians were better provided for, if only because the city could fob the cost of doing so off on property owners. As early as 1839 the city government required property owners to either provide sidewalks or stand having the city do it for them at their expense.


Compliance with the sidewalk ordinance usually took the form of wooden plank walkways. This form of paving would make a liability lawyer lick her lips today, but these planked sidewalks were the closest thing much of Chicago had to a paved public way, and they were so superior to the streets they bordered that city officials were obliged to ban horsemen and teamsters from using them.


A sidewalk that is better than mud is still not a good sidewalk. Beneath the most pristine plank sidewalks lurked rats and stagnant water, both of which contributed their fair share to making Chicago a notoriously unhealthful place. The plank sidewalks endangered the public health in other ways; the wood in them acted as the urban equivalent of underbrush in the Great Fire of 1871. Their combustability did not deter their continued use, however; as late as 1900, wood was still being used for nearly three-fourths of the city’s nearly 6,000 miles of sidewalks, since wood was cheap and construction simple.


Plank sidewalks remained in poor districts long after the posher parts of the city were able to walk on stone pavement. Botanist Edward Peckham who visited in 1857, wondered, “How persons can navigate this dirty city in a dark night without a broken arm or neck is a mystery to me.” The fact is, many did not. Four decades later the wood sidewalks were still there, as was the danger. English reformer Sydney Webb complained that sidewalks in slum streets were “nothing but rotten planks” whose great holes made it dangerous to walk in the dark. That provision of such a basic municipal amenity should vary by class outraged the old socialist.


Walking an early Chicago sidewalk of any material was a workout. When the streets were ordered raised to accommodate new sewer pipes, many buildings were left where they stood, which meant a sidewalk that delivered passersby to the front door of one building might drop a story to reach the front door of the unraised building next door. The sidewalks eventually were raised to the same level (leaving pedestrians to stroll past the second-floor windows of unraised buildings) but until then, one had to trudge up and down as if competing in a slow-motion steeplechase.


Many of the newer, post-elevation sidewalks were built atop brick vaults, with the space beneath being used for privies or to store coal. As late as 2001, there were still over 2,000 vaulted sidewalks left in Chicago, but by then the supporting brickwork was becoming decrepit, and the city was obliged to add filling the resulting voids at the surface when the vaults collapsed to its inventory of services .


Sidewalks may be routinely disdained by traffic engineers, but urban planners have learned to take them very seriously indeed as traffic systems. Since the 1970s, planners and architects have brought to bear on Chicago accumulated wisdom about how sidewalks work. The sidewalks on North Michigan Avenue’s “Mag Mile” always been a crucial ingredient in the success of that boulevard. Planters add color and soften what is otherwise another concrete canyon; less often noticed is the way the presence of these planters push passersby close enough to the shop windows to be vulnerable to the temptations there displayed.


The 1970s conversion of the Loop reach of State Street into a “bus mall” failed in no small part because of the failure to grasp the role that sidewalks play in a business district. North Michigan Avenue works because while its sidewalks are quite wide, the space available for walking is quite limited. The malling of State Street saw sidewalks widened to 40, even 50 feet in some spots, changes intended to speed pedestrian movement and create the feeling of suburban spaciousness.


The result betrayed the promise. The wide-open spaces provided more room for idlers and panhandlers but they made shoppers feel unsafely exposed; the change also left strollers distant from store windows, and vitiated the bustle that make a city street attractive place to be. By the time came for a 1996 renovation, State Street had come to see that its future lies in re-creating the past, and the runway-scaled sidewalks were pared back to a width of 22 feet.


If the city once had to assert itself to keep teamsters off its sidewalks, these days it has to accommodate nearly everyone else. Chicagoans are crowding onto their sidewalks—not just to walk on them but to eat and socialize there. Chicago reached a new stage in its social evolution when, in the 1990s, began to evolve something like a European-style sidewalk culture of sidewalks cafes.


Alas, this convergence of populations had led to traffic conflicts of the sort (if not the scale) that used to plague downtown Chicago streets. Not only must Chicago sidewalks accommodate trees, planters, dining tables, trash receptacles and newspaper kiosks, they increasingly are the venues for art exhibitions. The Cows on Parade in 1999 was a roaring, or rather mooing success, thanks to the dozens of brightly decorated fiberglass cows pastured mainly on sidewalks. So widespread is the appropriation of sidewalks as quasi-commercial space that the city has had to step in; a 2004 ordinance requires sidewalk cafes to leave six feet of clear space for pedestrians between their tables and the curb.


The other drawback of sidewalks as a transportation system is that they are outdoors. Mall designers from the start realized the appeal of putting sidewalks out of the weather—under continuous canopies at first, as did the designers of such pioneering outdoors shopping malls as Old Orchard in Skokie, later under roof altogether; the faux Main Street sidewalks of the successful enclosed suburban malls offer the variety of the original without the panhandlers and litter or the rain and cold.


Pedestrians can get out of the weather in downtown Chicago too, thanks to the Pedway. The Pedway is a cobbled together system of underground concourses, skybridges, and tunnels that form a pedestrian circulation system linking CTA and Metra stations and more than two dozen downtown government and office buildings and stores—modern Chicago’s own Weather Underground. Development of the Pedway began in 1951, and it is offered as a weather-proof amenity rather than a full-blown transit system. Laid end to end, the Pedway stretches nearly 40 city blocks, but the network is not completely interconnected, and it is generally open only during daylight hours. The Pedway nevertheless moves a lot of people off the sidewalks of the Loop; in the winter months, those segments linking busy transit centers are used by as many as 400,000 people a day.


The Pedway spares downtown pedestrians exposure to Chicago’s often unfriendly weather, but they do not relieve them an even more burdensome aspect of walking—the act of walking itself. For that, one needs a system in which the sidewalk moves, not the pedestrian. A moving sidewalk was one of the wonders on display at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Borrowing conveyor-belt technology developed to move coal, the world’s fair’s moving sidewalks carried visitors to and from the steamship landing on the grounds at a cost of a nickel per trip.


Moving sidewalks in airports have become ordinary but Chicago still has one that stands out. Passengers at O’Hare’s United Airlines Terminal 1 must move between Concourse B and the remote Concourse C via an 815-foot-long tunnel—sorry, "below-grade pedestrian corridor." Most of its length is graced by Michael Hayden’s "The Sky's the Limit," a computer-manipulated kinetic neon sculpture whose effects are synchronized with electronic music. Moving sidewalks carry people through what is reputedly the largest light sculpture in the world—a 744-foot light walkway. Just as the recorded announcement to “Mind the gap” on London tube stops seems to lodge in the brains of international travelers, so what many people remember about Chicago is the  disembodied voice in Helmut’s Tunnel constantly intoning, "The moving sidewalk is about to end. Please look down." The overall experience is often described as “psychedelic” by those old enough to remember what that word means. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page