Open Streets: A Better Use for Roads

September 24, 2012

Chicago is known worldwide for its streets. The collective ambiance and activity make the city streets destinations unto themselves – the flagship shops on Michigan Avenue, the historic theaters and department stores on State Street, and the lake and skyline views on Lakeshore Drive. There’s only one small problem with these streets; they’re packed with cars on most days.

The Active Transportation Alliance believes that the city could be even more vibrant if more people walked, biked, and used public transportation on a daily basis. To promote this agenda, they’ve managed do the unthinkable: close the streets to traffic. For four hours every spring, a 15-mile stretch of Lake Shore Drive is closed to vehicle traffic. Approximately 20,000 cyclists annually take the opportunity to Bike the Drive.


Open Streets Chicago, Wicker Park


This year, the Open Streets movement was carried into the neighborhoods. Now, there is a rich history of street closures in Chicago for neighborhood parties and cultural events. The Open Streets event in Wicker Park was a little different. Besides being totally free, it was notable for not being crammed with vendors, stages, and drunken frat boys. Instead, there were fun family events including a mobile skate park, yoga lessons, and relay races.

I biked to the event with my young daughter. First we stopped to watch a fencing demonstration. It was cool to hear the scoring system explained – too bad I’ll have to wait another 4 years to see fencing on TV at the Olympics. Next we learned some Bollywood moves and participated in a choreographed dance in the middle of the street. Both events made me consider how else we might use the streets. I think that was the entire point of the event!


Fencing Demonstration


It is striking how much real estate is devoted to roads. There is an even more extreme preponderance of pavement in the suburbs. All of this discussion about city planning made me pick up a book that had long been on my ‘to read’ list Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.

Suburban Nation is reported to be the quintessential critique of modern suburban sprawl. I’ve just started reading, but already I’m hooked. The most intriguing insight so far is in debunking the notion that sprawl was an unexpected accident. In fact, much of what we dislike about sprawl – huge empty parking lots, garish signs, unused sidewalks, etc – is actually codified in planning codes and zoning maps. In focusing on the needs of the automobile, citizen’s needs have been overlooked.

If you’re interested in understanding the causes of sprawl and finding solutions that lead to better communities, consider signing up the Journal of Leadership and Management in Engineering (one of the free journal options available with your ASCE membership). Sprawl will be the focus of two special editions in April and July of 2013.

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