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Top streets for creating car-free spaces in Chicago

 Released: February 12, 2014

Contact: Ted Villaire
Active Transportation Alliance
Communications Director
312.427.3325 x288
312.563—1118 mobile

Top streets for creating car-free spaces in Chicago
Navy Pier, Times Square in New York and Chicago neighborhood plazas demonstrate potential for success

(Chicago, IL) — Today the Active Transportation Alliance called for the creation of more car-free public streets and plazas in Chicago, and released a list of twenty streets and locations with strong potential. Citing the success of Navy Pier, Times Square in New York City and local car-free plazas, Active Trans said car-free streets and zones can make communities more attractive places to live and shop, generate more biking and walking and thus improve mobility and health, and reduce traffic crashes.

“We believe a Complete Streets strategy that accommodates all modes of travel, including cars, should be the standard approach to street design,” said Ron Burke, Executive Director of the Active Transportation Alliance. “But we should also look for those unique opportunities where converting street space into car-free zones really works to improve communities.”

There are many types of “car-free” streets. This can include closing an entire street or portions of streets year-round, like the popular transformation of Times Square in New York City or the Pearl Street Pedestrian Mall in Boulder, Colorado. But there are other options as well, including seasonal (e.g., spring through fall) or periodic (e.g., evening and weekends) closings and using a portion of the street, rather than the entire street, such as converting one lane of traffic into a bike lane and plaza. Some car-free streets are integrated with transit, like Denver’s successful 16th Street Mall. Car-free spaces can also allow vehicle deliveries and certain local car traffic.

“Nearly a quarter of Chicago’s land mass falls within a public right-of-way, but most of that space is dominated by cars — not to mention the enormous amount of city space dedicated to private parking lots and parking garages,” said Burke. “Let’s give Chicagoans more car-free zones to walk, bike, shop, socialize or just relax.”

“Creating more unique, livable public spaces means looking beyond the so-called ‘pedestrian mall’ concept to newer, more innovative ways to reprogram the public right-of-way,” said Amanda Woodall, Policy and Planning Director for the Active Transportation Alliance. “It’s time to drop our grudge based on the poorly-designed State Street mall, develop better strategies and lay the groundwork for healthier, more livable neighborhoods.”

Active Trans supports the City of Chicago’s efforts to add more car-free spaces, such as the Make Way for People initiative that converts parking spaces, alleys and dead zones into temporary or permanent public plazas, including the plaza in the State Street median downtown. The city’s People Plazas initiative aims to activate underutilized city-owned parcels/plazas. And new protected bike lanes create a ribbon of car-free space for cycling.

Chicago has relatively few car-free public plazas and streets across its 234 square miles, and many are small enough to have limited benefits. According to Active Trans, this lack of car-free public places indicates a need to explore larger car-free spaces in addition to the smaller plazas the city is currently developing.

Some of Chicago’s best car-free spaces include Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square, Sunnyside Mall, Ogden Mall and Englewood Mall. Car-free spaces are more common in downtown Chicago, where there is a pressing need for car-free space with so many people getting around on foot and bike. Cars, nonetheless, occupy most of the public right of way. Downtown examples include Daley Plaza, Federal Plaza and some other modestly-sized private plazas; the expanding River Walk system; and the wildly popular Navy Pier, Illinois’ top tourist attraction.

Car-free streets and plazas won’t work just anywhere, and they have to be carefully studied and designed. Good candidates will abut existing or potential retail and dining locations, entertainment venues and community centers. In residential areas, they should be accessible from local neighborhood streets so residents can leave their cars at home for an afternoon out with family in a safe, car-free location.

Well thought out pedestrian plazas also make good complements to transit hubs, serving the needs of commuters. With the right designs, plazas on existing transit routes can still accommodate bus service — the best example of this is the narrow bus way and slow bus speeds in Denver’s successful 16th Street Mall. This is a more sophisticated design than Chicago’s infamously failed State Street bus mall where people had to dodge fast-moving buses across a wide street.

Active Trans selected 20 streets and locations that deserve serious consideration for conversion into car-free space. Some streets like 47th Street in Bronzeville and Milwaukee Avenue through Logan Square have already been the subject of formal study. Active Trans selected other streets with input from community leaders.

“These aren’t the only streets that deserve consideration, but they are among the best,” said Burke. “Our hope is to jump-start conversations that lead to further study and the creation of car-free spaces for biking, walking and community place-making.”


  • Dearborn and/or Clark, River North to South Loop. Example concept: convert a travel lane on Clark St. to a protected bike lane with a landscaped seating area next to it.
  • Monroe Ave. between Michigan Ave and Lake Shore Drive. Example concept: make the entire street segment car-free and extend the existing park space. Wide, well-lit underpasses would replace difficult crossings at Michigan and Lake Shore Drive.
  • Segments of Oak Street in the Gold Coast.
  • Segments of Rush Street in the Gold Coast.
  • Michigan Avenue Magnificent Mile. More information at Transitized.Com


  • One or more streets near Wrigley Field
  • Segments of Broadway Ave. in Lakeview. Example concept. From Diversey to Belmont, make the entire street a car-free greenway with landscaping, seating, restaurant patio space and more. Use diverters to prevent local cut-through traffic, Clark and Halsted absorb traffic.
  • Segments of Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park
  • Simmonds Dr. between Lawrence and Foster through the lake front park.
  • Segments of Clark St. in Andersonville
  • Milwaukee Ave. through the square of Logan’s Square
  • Bryn Mawr between Broadway and Sheridan
  • Segments of Webster Ave. in Lincoln Park


  • Segments of 47th Street in Bronzeville.
  • Segments of E. 53rd Street in Hyde Park
  • Segments of 18th St. in Pilsen. Example concept: dead end Carpenter, Miller and/or Morgan streets on the north side of 18th St. to create a pedestrian plaza. These streets already have limited through traffic because they extend just two blocks to the north before dead-ending at train tracks, and each street is offset on either side of 18th .
  • Ellsworth and/or Payne Drives in Washington Park


  • Taylor Street in University Village between Racine and Ashland.
  • Segments of 26th street in Little Village
  • Humboldt Dr. and/or Luis Munoz Marin Dr. in Humboldt Park. Example concept. Close these streets to car traffic during the summer to effectively expand park space and give people a safe place to walk and bike. This is common in other cities but not in Chicago.

The Active Transportation Alliance is a non-profit, member-based advocacy organization that works to make bicycling, walking and public transit so safe, convenient and fun that we will achieve a significant shift from environmentally harmful, sedentary travel to clean, active travel. The organization builds a movement around active transportation, encourages physical activity, increases safety and builds a world-class transportation network. Formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, the Active Transportation Alliance is supported by more than 7,000 members, 1,000 volunteers and 35 full-time staff. For more information about the Active Transportation Alliance, visit or call 312.427.3325.