The changing streets of Chicago | Best of Chicago 2021 | City Life | Chicago Reader

The changing streets of Chicago

The Leland Avenue Slow Street in Ravenswood - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • The Leland Avenue Slow Street in Ravenswood

In many ways the pandemic has devastated the Chicagoland transportation system. Starting with the human toll, at least 14 local transit workers died from the disease, and 1,874 employees tested positive.

The coronavirus has also contributed to a tragic spike in Chicago traffic deaths, from 96 fatalities on city streets in 2019 to 139 last year, a 45 percent increase. This epidemic was partly due to the increase in speeding during the pandemic, when fewer people have been driving and the roads are less congested. Nine of the victims were riding bikes, the highest number of any year in the past decade.

CTA, Metra, and Pace ridership has plummeted, and downtown foot traffic has also been at a fraction of normal levels. And, of course, for many months Chicagoans lost access to the Lakefront Trail and the 606, and shoreline parks and beaches didn't officially reopen until late February. That was pretty infuriating since Mayor Lightfoot reopened the beachfront bars last summer.

Unlike cities from Paris to Oakland, California, that radically reconfigured their street to enable safe walking, biking, and transit use, Chicago was slow to take action on that front. However, after a lot of cajoling from Streetsblog, the city finally launched a Slow Streets program in late May, banning through traffic on residential roadways from Woodlawn to Belmont Cragin to Uptown to help residents stroll, jog, scoot, and pedal safely in the street.

The city also piloted new bus-only lanes on several miles of 79th and Chicago Avenue to help shorten commutes, reducing riders' chances of exposure to the virus. And Chicago's Cafe Streets initiative, pedestrianizing dozens of business strips for outdoor dining, proved wildly successful, so much so that I'm hopeful it will become a permanent feature during the warmer months long after COVID-19 is just a bad memory.

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