Saturday, July 9, 2011

Clark Street Needs a Road Diet

The section of Clark Street from North Avenue to Armitage Avenue needs to be made safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

South of North Avenue, Clark is a nice two-lane street that runs through the Sandburg Village/Gold Coast area. There are plenty of stop lights, each one with pedestrian crosswalks. Since it's only one lane in each direction, with parked cars on each side, it feels narrow to drivers, who therefore roll along at moderate speeds. There was even a pedestrian island at Clark and Germania installed a few years ago.

A pedestrian island at Clark Street and Germania Place helps pedestrians cross safely.

That calm feeling all changes at the intersection of Clark and North Avenue. A motorist heading northbound suddenly notices between the Chicago History Museum and the Moody Church that there are now four lanes for moving traffic, plus additional lanes on either side for loading. This wide-open feel is an invitation to step on the gas, and usually, the driver does.

Clark Street suddenly widens to a six-lane "superhighway" at North Avenue.

Sometimes the vehicle is "caught" at the red light at LaSalle Drive. But after that, it's hit the gas again. Now there are four wide lanes for moving traffic, no median, and no marked bike lane. There is a pedestrian crosswalk at Menomonee, but given the speeds taken and the width of the street, motorists barely take notice.

The crosswalk at Clark Street at Menomonee is treacherous for pedestrians.
(Photo: GoogleMaps Streetview)

Motorists will drive as fast as the road "tells" them to drive. On this stretch north of LaSalle, I've seen taxis and other vehicles reach speeds I would guess to be 40 or 50 MPH. Sometimes they blow through the red light at Lincoln, nearly taking out pedestrians at the crosswalk.

Bicycling on this portion of Clark is not enjoyable, as you can imagine. There's not even a shared bike lane, and with the high speeds of passing cars sometimes inches away, it's no wonder that many bicyclists choose to ride (illegally) on the sidewalk for this entire stretch. That, in turn, endangers pedestrians.

There is a marked crosswalk at Wisconsin, but it's not even a "zebra stripe", just two thin, barely visible lines.

Clark Street at Wisconsin Avenue, looking south. There is a crosswalk just in front of the van, but it's so thin and faded as to be invisible in this photo.
Besides, any pedestrian who wishes to cross there has to go traverse six lanes of street to make it to the other side. It's a marked crosswalk, so under Illinois law, all drivers must stop for pedestrians who are crossing, but what are the chances of having three for four approaching vehicles all stop? Next to nothing. So, no sane pedestrian crosses until all four lanes of moving traffic are completely clear. This takes a long time. Pedestrians deserve more respect.

Luckily, at Armitage, things improve for pedestrians and bicyclists. Most importantly, two lanes for motorized traffic disappear -- although motorists don't even notice this -- and therefore cars reduce speeds naturally.

For bicyclists, traffic is calmer, and a stripe appears at Belden that gives them either a continuous full or shared bike lane, all the way up to Wilson Avenue at 4600 North.

North of Armitage, pedestrians have to cross two fewer lanes at crosswalks. Some of the crosswalks even have red brick stamping, which visually cues drivers to slow down and watch for pedestrians. Clark Street becomes safer and more charming.

Stamped brick crosswalks on Clark Street at Dickens Avenue.

So what can be done to help the half-mile of Clark Street from North Avenue to Armitage? The Clark Street Road Diet.

We should remove one lane of traffic each way. If you're unfamiliar with "road diets", I recommend that you watch this four-minute video by Streetfilm that introduces the concept. Importantly, it addresses the common concern that removing a lane of traffic will "clog up" a road. In fact, it has the effect of doing the opposite.

Removing a lane of moving traffic on each side gives our city's Department of Transportation planners plenty of room to improve the street for the better for all users. For pedestrians, we could have pedestrian islands. For bicyclists, we could have a protected bike lane. For all users, we could add planters or other features to enhance the beauty of the area. This half-mile is the de facto gateway for pedestrians to the green fields of southern Lincoln Park; shouldn't its Clark Street border be human-scale and inviting?

Veggie burgers and pickled asparagus at the Green City Market.

There are many stakeholders who would benefit from increasing the safety and livability of this part of Clark Street. Wouldn't it be nice if visitors leaving the Chicago History Museum after learning that our official motto is "City in a Garden"could step out onto a beautiful street instead of a barren expressway? I think patrons of Equinox health club would appreciate not having to play Frogger to cross the street to go work out. Green City Market could enhance their mission of sustainability by encouraging more people to bike to the market instead of driving. Perennial Virant would benefit by having more pedestrians and bicyclists visible to those enjoying their dinners, and fewer cars racing by at 45 MPH.

Everyone would be safer. The possibilities are endless. Do you agree?


  1. I ride Clark Street in the winter when the Lakefront Trail is iced over. Clark St. is a wonderful bike commuting street, with the exception of this stretch. I try and take the right lane through here when I can. Thanks for your efforts. Please keep us informed and let us know what we can do to help the cause of getting this reconfigured with bike lanes.

  2. Thank you! We will certainly keep you up to date.

  3. A very similar situation exists on Foster Avenue (5200 North) between the Chicago River and the Edens Expressway.

    It's only 42-feet wide, not really wide enough for 4 lanes. Yet there is little parking, so the parking lane is used by traffic, many passing on the right.

    There is a lot of pedestrian traffic along this stretch - two universities, three Park District parks, several neighborhood schools close by.

    A street diet is needed for Foster Avenue, to make it safe for pedestrians, children, senior citizens, bicyclist and anyone who uses the street without a car.

    1. Yes, I agree there are many sections of street that could use some redesign to make them calmer and safer for everyone. -- MS