Reopen the Lakefront Trail and Slow Streets in CHI

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tl;dr: Per the State of Illinois's reopening plan, we are currently in "Phase 2". Phase 2 permits outdoor physical activity like walking and biking and includes keeping parks open. The science shows that the Coronavirus is less transmissible outdoors than it is indoors. At the same time, public health experts have indicated that the benefits of spending time outdoors outweigh the risks. The CDC specifically recommends that people stay physically active by accessing parks, trails and open spaces.

We provide suggestions for how Mayor Lightfoot can safely reopen the Lakefront Trail, including by:

  • Requiring that trail users remain in continuous motion rather than stopping for recreation or congregation, which has been the rule overnight in most Chicago parks for decades.
  • Monitoring the public’s compliance with the City’s guidelines. This can be achieved by relying on local community “ambassadors”, whose job would be to share data with the City. If people are not acting responsibly, the City would reserve the right to close the trail again.

In addition, we propose opening streets for recreation in neighborhoods across the city, especially in those areas where access to recreational space is limited, so that all Chicagoans can safely spend time outdoors. This program would be modeled on other cities’ “Slow Streets” initiatives, including, for example Oakland, CA.

If you are a member of an interest group in Chicago (or you just have an idea you would like to share) and you would like to discuss how this might work for people in your community, please reach out to us! Our goal is to share viable ideas about how to reopen the Lakefront Trail in a responsible way and also to reallocate street space for safe social distancing, and we can only do that by connecting with Chicagoans from all 77 neighborhoods.

HAVE AN IDEA? You can share your ideas with us here: https://forms.gle/JTpFCMyPmCxKtor69

SHOW YOUR SUPPORT: You can demonstrate your support on social media with the following hashtags: #ReopenLFT #CHISlowStreets

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Note: The full letter with accompanying footnotes can be viewed here.

Dear Mayor Lightfoot,

We are writing to request that your administration take immediate action to reopen the Lakefront Trail system in addition to implementing a comprehensive “Slow Streets”[1] program across the City of Chicago.

During this unprecedented public health crisis, many Chicagoans are struggling to cope with the various social-distancing orders issued by Governor J.B. Pritzker’s “Stay at Home” order (Executive Order No. 32). The forced closure of “non-essential” businesses statewide has already caused widespread unemployment and seriously threatens the long-term survival of countless local businesses. The shuttering of schools has forced children to remain at home, which often means that parents take on the double duty of both providing for and caring for their children simultaneously. We support public health measures which mitigate community transmission of the novel coronavirus and contribute to the “flattening of the curve”. We understand that this requires all Chicagoans to make difficult (and often painful) sacrifices in order to safeguard the public good. However, public health is multi-faceted and does not only entail the avoidance of disease.

As indicated by research[2], nature is not an amenity; it’s a necessity. Chicago’s green spaces provide several immediate public health benefits. Green spaces are psychologically restorative, produce beneficial influences on individuals’ emotions and ability to reflect, and enhance people’s ability to exercise, which contributes to positive health outcomes. Importantly, many historically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago – including black, brown and LatinX communities – are seriously lacking sufficient green spaces. Consequently, the people most likely to benefit from accessing areas like the lakefront are unnecessarily penalized. A Kaiser poll found that nearly half of Americans said the coronavirus crisis has harmed their mental health. At a time like this, the importance of maintaining mental health is amplified. This is why we are requesting that you end the closure of the Lakefront Trail to the general public. We have heard your primary concerns and we address them in detail below.

Though the outdoor transmissibility of the virus was believed to be extreme when the decision was made to shut down the Lakefront Trail, we now know that SARS-CoV-2 is not transmitted nearly as widely outdoors as it is indoors. One study of 318 outbreaks found only one instance of outdoor transmission. Another study in Wuhan found “undetectable or very low” amounts of the virus outdoors, except at busy hospital and department store entrances. In Japan, a study found that “the odds that a primary case transmitted Covid-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment." Additionally, public health experts at Harvard wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explicitly stating that the public health benefits from parks outweigh the risks of transmission.

As spring turns to summer, Chicagoans will do what they have always done: seek the outdoors. This is why we cannot expect the historical allocation of public space (i.e., including Chicago’s parks system) will sufficiently meet demand, given these unique circumstances. Until a vaccine is produced and distributed at scale or until an effective therapeutic is identified, Chicagoans will need to continue practicing social distancing. This will require that the city develop innovative solutions that support the city’s broader goals of mitigating the health impacts of the pandemic. Other cities across the country and around the world – Berlin, Paris, Montreal, New York City, Denver, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Portland, Bogota, and Oakland – have demonstrated what is doable, for example by opening up streets to pedestrians and cyclists or repurposing infrastructure to accommodate the free flow of movement. There is no reason why Chicago couldn’t do something similar. On the reallocation of space, we have outlined our primary suggestions below.

Reopening the Lakefront Trail System

Primary Arguments Against and Counterarguments/Proposals:

1.     The problem is not the activity, but the congregation.

The Lakefront Trail encompasses an ~18.5 mile trail system. Along the trail and adjacent to its north-south axis exist multiple green spaces, open spaces, parklets, and “mini-parks” which in aggregate total approximately 2,914 acres. Some of Chicago’s largest parks, including Lincoln Park, Grant Park, Millennium Park, and Jackson Park, are contiguous to the Lakefront Trail. These open spaces can, in most cases, easily absorb any “overflow” of pedestrian traffic on the Lakefront Trail.

Proposal: Reopen the Lakefront Trail following the long-established overnight rules: continuous flow of movement is allowed; stopping to recreate is not. Low-cost signage can be quickly constructed at high-visibility access points which provides clear guidelines and indicates those activities which are permissible (i.e., continuous flow of movement) and those which are prohibited (e.g., large gatherings, contact sports, using playground equipment, etc). People on bikes should be advised against travelling at unsafe speeds, given the increased demand for trail usage and the anticipated overflow from the parallel pedestrian-only trail.

2.     This puts an additional burden on the City’s public safety resources, including the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Parks security personnel.

Not every city has resorted to draconian policing tactics to enforce proper social distancing. For example, Seattle is currently relying on 60+ “social distancing ambassadors” to remind people to social distance and not gather. Seattle’s ambassadors record hourly data on park usage with the option to close parks if usage exceeds safe levels.[3] In Minneapolis, the city has turned off all drinking fountains to eliminate the need for monitoring.[4]

Chicago’s reliance on uniformed CPD to patrol parks is not the best use of public safety resources, especially as the city continues to deal with elevated levels of crime in other areas. At the same time, an overreliance on policing is especially traumatic for communities of color which have historically suffered from racial profiling.

Proposal: Chicago should follow Seattle’s lead and either redeploy existing parks personnel as social distancing “ambassadors” and/or hire additional personnel to advise on proper social distancing. Ideally, any new parks personnel would be hired from a diverse array of neighborhoods across the city and eligibility would be restricted to those recently laid off due to the pandemic.

3.     Even with the closure of the Lakefront Trail, there remains sufficient bike lanes and trails throughout the city. People can find alternative routes or parks.

The fact is that the Lakefront Trail is one of the only fully protected bike paths in the entire city of Chicago. Outside of the Lakefront Trail, Chicago has very few protected bike lanes or buffered bike lanes (offering partial protection) which are safe for even inexperienced people who ride bikes. The closure of the Bloomingdale Trail removed another critical artery for cyclists in the city, especially for those living on the West Side. Importantly, even as statewide restrictions are lifted, ridership on public transportation could continue to remain at depressed levels due to fears of infection risk. In the future, when travelling across the city, most Chicagoans will likely weigh one of two options: (1) get in a car, or (2) get on a bike. In the absence of measures which enable cycling as a safe and viable transportation mode, most people will choose #1 which will inevitably lead to higher traffic volumes, increased roadway congestion, higher vehicle pollution and increased conflict as tempers flare for limited parking spaces.

In recent weeks, warmer weather has previewed what the city can expect as the summer approaches: dangerous crowding of sidewalks and pedestrian overflow into streets not designed to handle foot traffic. Reports of overcrowding on Inner Lake Shore Drive would suggest that people are pivoting to the next best option, which may not always be the safest option. As fewer people are driving in Chicago, average vehicle travel speeds are up ~14%, according to CDOT. These conditions have created a new equilibrium of speeding cars and dangerously exposed pedestrians and cyclists.

Proposal: The city should install additional protected bike lanes and other street-calming projects which promote public safety for people both in and outside of vehicles. The reopening of the Lakefront Trail is an obvious first step in accommodating people’s movements. At the same time, we recognize that the Lakefront Trail’s bike path cannot serve as a super-highway for speeding cyclists when many people will be using the Lakefront Trail for recreation during the pandemic. As outlined above, the city should install signage which advises against cycling at unsafe speeds.

Implementation of “Slow Streets” in Chicago

Governor Pritzker’s stay-at-home order provides for Illinoisans to leave their homes for “essential activities.” Item 5(iii) of this order explicitly allows Illinoisans to engage in outdoor activity, for example by walking, running, or biking. However, many Chicagoans are hard-pressed to find adequate open spaces while maintaining a physical distance of six feet from others. In some high-density neighborhoods in Chicago, for example, it is nearly impossible to safely social distance when taking the sidewalk. This is especially pronounced in communities of color where there is a legacy of underinvestment in streets and sidewalk infrastructure.

City Hall should work with the City Council and local community organizations in identifying low-traffic streets across the city’s fifty wards that can be temporarily converted into “Slow Streets”, or streets that are closed to through-traffic and open exclusively to local residents and emergency personnel (including fire, police and medical). Slow Streets can serve as temporary release valves that naturally absorb people looking for space to spread out. A Chicago Slow Streets program could be designed as follows (modeled on other US cities’ initiatives):

·       Declare "Road Closed to Through Traffic" on all Chicago Slow Streets for the duration of the stay-at-home order or until otherwise indicated by the City of Chicago.

·       Provide Signage at Designated Locations. At selected locations, such as intersections with arterial streets, post closure signage. The City should prioritize routes in underserved communities, especially historically disadvantaged communities where access to green spaces or parks is already limited, as well as areas where sidewalk congestion has been observed.

·       Partner with Local Communities. Work with community organizations and civic leaders to complement interventions including communications and outreach, signage, and the potential for community-led traffic calming ("tactical urbanism").

Your guiding principle throughout the pandemic has been to do what the science says is best for public health. The science says we can be outdoors safely, and that the time we spend outside is good for public health. It's time to reopen the Lakefront Trail.

Thank you for all of the work you are doing to keep Chicagoans safe during this pandemic.