Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pedestrians v. cafes: Sidewalk space has to be balanced

by Michelle Stenzel

Chicago’s Department of Transportation released its first-ever Pedestrian Plan recently (download it from the Peds Plan website). I had planned to write a highlights post on it, but it’s 124 pages long, and chock-full of goodness for people walking; in fact, far too much to fit in one post. So, I’m going to borrow a page from the award-winning sustainable transportation website Grid Chicago and do a series of posts highlighting items that are particularly interesting or applicable to Lincoln Park.

First up: Sidewalks that don’t have enough room for people to walk on need to be better planned!

On page 64 of the plan, the initiative is “Ensure clear pedestrian routes on sidewalks” and the description of the problem is:
Sidewalks, like streets, must provide the proper balance of space to allow pedestrians to safely and comfortably use them. Pedestrians share sidewalks with a number of objects, such as bus shelters, newspaper boxes, tree pits, sidewalk cafes and signage. To ensure a clear pedestrian route, policies need to balance the free flow of pedestrian movement while accommodating pedestrian amenities.
This is a big issue in Lincoln Park and Old Town. Of course we all love things like flower planters and sidewalk cafes because they add an element of liveliness to our neighborhood. However, space is at a premium, and the current standards only require a few feet of room left for people walking by a cafe.
People walking on Wells Street have to dodge an obstacle course on the sidewalk, which is already narrowed by
cafe fixtures. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
When you combine the narrowed space created by an outdoor cafe with the presence of trees and tree grates, sign posts, parking meter pay boxes, newspaper boxes and other items, the effective width is often barely enough for two people walking in opposite directions to pass. When it gets to that point, the sidewalk cafe is beginning to detract from the street's walkability. 

Of course this problem exists in many lively, walkable neighborhoods, including the Loop. Here’s a sidewalk on Adams. The restaurant’s fencing is probably the requisite number of feet from the curb required under the ordinance, but the presence of their planters hanging off the fencing as well as light poles make it difficult to pass smoothly without bumping shoulders with strangers.
People can barely pass each other without bumping shoulders on the sidewalk along Adams Street due to combined the presence of cafe fixtures and light poles. (Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
What’s remarkable is that even on an ueber-wide sidewalk, this squeezing out of people walking can be a problem, if proportions aren’t taken into consideration.

Here’s an upscale restaurant on Michigan Avenue that has obtained a permit that allows it to fence off about 15 feet of the sidewalk for its own private use. Since a large planter along the curb takes up another eight feet of effective space, it only leaves about 20% of the sidewalk for people walking by. 
People walking down Michigan Avenue near Monroe are only given about 20% of the sidewalk to use.
(Photo: Bike Walk Lincoln Park)
On a street like Michigan Avenue with thousands of people walking on the sidewalk every day, this proportion is not equitable. (For fellow data geeks: In 2007, 16,500 pedestrians were counted on this block of Michigan Avenue, on this side of the street only, during a ten-hour weekday period. I would feel safe predicting the number has only gone up since then.)

The only people enjoying plenty of elbow room here are the diners who can afford to eat behind the spiky wall. To add insult, this particular restaurant chooses to plant blackish-green rubber plants that are cold and unattractive. They're planted so thickly as to form a wall of fauna that is obviously there to keep the people walking by from looking at the seated patrons. So, the restaurant is not even adding to the liveliness of the public space here, which is the benefit that the citizens are supposed to get from allowing a private entity to use public space for commercial purposes.

The Pedestrian Plan’s action items on this issue include developing standards that take into account pedestrian volume and sidewalk width to determine sidewalk cafe permits. Factoring in pedestrian volume will be very important in neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, which enjoys the presence of masses of people walking. We recognize the need for certain on-street fixtures and support sidewalk dining as well, but it can't be at the expense of the quality of our shared public space. The goal is pleasant sidewalks with a happy balance of space for everyone.

Don't forget: We're going to be going on a bike ride to scout potential People Spots in Lincoln Park this Saturday, Sept 22, and you're invited. Please see this previous post for the details. Hope you can join us!


  1. Allowing 'eateries' and retail-shops to take up 'additional' space on sidewalks without careful thought for their intended original users (pedestrians)- and/or 'diligent' control after (permission or) licences are granted seems to be a 'universal' and (re)occuring problem in some cities/places I have visited.

    Thanks for posting this.