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See Illinois (unpublished)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. ●
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