Pedestrian Scrambles and Traffic Calming Coming to Chicago

The Chicago Sun-Times reported yesterday that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, wants to install pedestrian scrambles in the Loop.

Klein is from Washington, D.C. which also has the street-crossing convention, as does Toronto, New York, London, Denver, and most famously, Tokyo.  Shibuya Crossing, for example, has been featured in many films and has become an iconic location in Japan.  Here’s a picture I took on my first trip to Tokyo:

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan

When I was in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, there was talk about having them installed there, too.

There are a number of intersections on State Street and Michigan Avenue that could benefit from pedestrian scrambles because of the huge numbers of people walking through the area, especially during the summer and winter tourist seasons.  Chicago and Michigan, and State and Washington leap to mind.

But there is another major problem in Chicago’s downtown — frequently the pedestrians and turning traffic are trying to occupy the same piece of asphalt.  Unfortunately, throngs of ignorant tourists, presumably from states without traffic lights, walk when they see fit, not when the lights tell them to.

Note to tourists:  The easiest way for a Chicago mugger to tell that you’re a tourist is to cross against the light.

Union Station, Chicago

Pedestrians already get a head start near Chicago Union Station

Taking a whack at that, Klein wants to change the timing of the lights at 100 city intersections so that pedestrians have an extra five seconds head start on cars.  There are already a couple of intersections like that in Chicago, among them the intersection of West Adams Street and South Canal Street in front of Union Station (210 South Canal Street).

A third proposal is known in some cities as “traffic calming.”  The streets are narrowed, either physically, or through the installation of diagonal parking spaces on the edges, so that cars drive slower.

Chicago has already embarked on a traffic calming program as part of the Congress Parkway reconstruction project we detailed in October of 2009.  The city is using wider sidewalks, parking spaces, landscaping, medians, and textured crosswalks all as visual signals to drivers coming off the Eisenhower Expressway that they’re no longer on an interstate, but in a city neighborhood and should adjust their speed and aggressiveness accordingly.  It used to be that commuters would treat that street as an extension of I-290 until they were forced to make a turn at the State Street intersection.

Whether Kline’s plans work remains to be seen, but it’s nice to see something different being tried.  Chicago doesn’t always innovate when it comes to solving life’s everyday little problems.  And toward the end of the former Mayor Daley’s administration, even when would bring back great ideas from other cities, they could  never be implemented because of the inertia of his own bureaucratic machine.  With a new administration taking shape, let’s hope that more good ideas get imported, and more innovated ideas are hatched right here in Chicago.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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  1. “The easiest way for a Chicago mugger to tell that you’re a tourist is to cross against the light.”

    Really? I always thought it was the opposite. People visiting from Kansas will wait at the light when no traffic is coming, while Chicagoans will jaywalk whenever possible.

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    • Editor

      Tourists think that just because the traffic light has turned green that it’s time to go. Chicagoans know that turning traffic has a protected green and wait for the walk signal.

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  2. Instead of diagonal parking, why don’t they add more bike lanes? Or wider bike lanes? Or shut the street off to traffic altogether?

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    • Editor

      Maybe diagonal parking freaks out drivers coming off a highway at interstate speeds more than a bike lane would. Even though I don’t own a bicycle, I’m with you — the city needs more bike lanes. But I don’t think they’re necessarily useful for every purpose.

      Closing the street altogether wouldn’t happen for a lot of reasons. First, that street exists so that traffic can be disgorged from the Eisenhower. Second, stores on and near Congress Boulevard rely on vehicular traffic for customers (though not as much as businesses in other parts of the city). And third, the pedstrianizing of State Street was a disaster. It’s not an experiment Chicago is likely to dabble in again. Though, if it did it, should do it with narrow streets like Quincy (already partially done), or Wabash. I hate to use other countries as examples, but most of the successful pedestrian zones I’ve seen in cities like Vienna, Salzburg, Amsterdam, Prague, Singapore, Tokyo, and Hong Kong have been on narrow streets. I think the malling of State Street was a bad idea because of its size. Oh, and the fact that CTA buses were still allowed to drive down the thing.

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