Imagine a street with no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no curbs, no lane markings–basically no real distinctions between pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers at all. At first glance, that might seem like an extraordinarily unsafe street. But the city of Chicago is betting on its success as it redesigns a four-block stretch of its uptown.
The New York Times editorial board recently called the concept of shared streets a “radical experiment” for the city of Chicago, which plans to start construction on its first one on Argyle Street early next year. Yet the philosophy behind them–that by removing common street control features, street users will actually act less recklessly and negotiate space through eye-contact—is actually not all that new. Shared streets have been built and shown to be effective in reducing accidents in London already. In the U.S., shared streets exist in Seattle, Washington and Buffalo, New York.
The Chicago project came about as the city was looking to implement a normal street improvement project for Argyle Street, an active block with businesses and restaurants in a diverse neighborhood where many Vietnamese immigrants settled in the 1970s. The street had also shut down for the city’s first night market for the last two summers, and Alderman Harry Osterman, whose ward includes the area, says officials wanted to continue spurring the revitalization of the area. The lakefront bicycle path is only two blocks away.
After researching street designs all around the world, they were taken with the shared streets idea. “It’s a very innovative concept that we’re trying,” Osterman says. “We have spent the last two years really trying to build support from the community. … One of the best parts of it is that it’s been a bottom-up approach to designing a street.”
The $3.5 million street renovation will feature a design with no curbs or lanes, and minimal signage, though there will be stop signs, so as not to descend too far into chaos. Different colors and pavers will indicate where the sidewalk would normally end and where the street begins; the speed limit will be 15 miles per hour. Overall, the goal is to change the mood of the street: “Psychologically for drivers, they will know that they can’t just shoot from stop sign to stop sign.”
Osterman hopes that as a result of the improvement project, more visitors will come to businesses in the area, and that the open space will make it easier to encourage more sidewalk cafes and temporary events. The city is now nudging existing business to spruce up their facades.
Once the new Argyle Street is open, the city will be paying close attention to make sure that everyone is behaving safely.
With no real curbs, pedestrians may find it easier to move about. “We’re not going to encourage jaywalking, but that may happen,” says Osterman. If the project is a success, he expects the city will consider the idea elsewhere in Chicago.