Just the right size

IL Chicago Lawrence Ave Woman on bike credit Hanna Kite
A new bike lane on Lawrence Avenue in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Photo by Hanna Kite

This post is the fourth in a series of case studies about Complete Streets people, places, and projects. Follow the full series over the next several weeks.

A road diet, bicycle lanes, and a profusion of pedestrian improvements have subtly transformed a low-key Chicago neighborhood.

The Ravenswood neighborhood in Chicago, especially the northwest section along Lawrence Avenue, has a quiet, residential feel. Many people in the neighborhood have lived there for decades, and the area attracts families with young children. Six bus routes and two train lines serve the neighborhood, and ridership rates are high. Buildings in the neighborhood are at most only three or four stories high, and a pharmacy, grocery store, handful of boutiques, and cafes serve local residents. In general, Ravenswood is mostly free from the hustle and bustle of the more hip areas of Chicago.

Until recently, Lawrence Avenue, an east-west arterial that spans Ravenswood, didn’t fit the low-key character of the community. A one-mile stretch of the road had four travel lanes and parking, but was bookended by a two-lane configuration. Drivers tended to blast through the four-lane section of the street. Long distances between crosswalks made it difficult for people to cross safely between the bus stops, businesses, parks, elementary school, social services agencies, and apartment buildings that line the corridor. According to Streetsblog Chicago, 72 people were injured in pedestrian-car crashes along Lawrence Avenue between 2005 and 2012. That’s 11 times higher than the average Chicago street. Bicycle traffic on the street also exceeded state standards for when to introduce a dedicated bicycle lane.

Chicago’s aldermen, elected representatives from 50 city wards, are responsible for directing and financing street improvements. In Ravenswood’s case, Alderman Ameya Pawar took the lead and worked with the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT)’s Livable Streets program in transforming Lawrence to a safe and attractive street.

CDOT began construction on Lawrence Avenue in 2013, reducing the four-lane section of the street to two lanes, adding bicycle lanes in both directions, and a center turn lane. CDOT also added 11 pedestrian refuges, extended the sidewalk by 5 feet, and added 6 curb extensions. To slow any cut-through traffic, an additional seven curb extensions were added to side streets immediately adjacent to Lawrence. A brick-pattern was added to the crosswalks with a stamped thermoplastic layer, creating a distinct and attractive space for pedestrians. The bicycle lanes replaced shared lane markings, completing a five-mile link to Lake Michigan and creating Chicago’s longest east-west bicycle route.

Photo: Hanna Kite
A crosswalk along Lawrence Avenue. Photo by Hanna Kite.

CDOT also used the safety improvement work as an opportunity to beautify the street. New community identifier signs, lampposts, benches, trash cans, and bicycle racks—all in a similar black iron style—now dot the street. Over two hundred trees were planted along the corridor, which will eventually create a canopy to provide shade and comfort for people using the sidewalk.

In addition, CDOT coordinated with the City of Chicago’s Department of Water Management to update the stormwater system along Lawrence. Each of the 13 curb extensions has an opening for storm water. A new system of catch basins and underdrains was installed to collect any overflow from the curb-outs and funnel it into drainage pipes. The upgraded stormwater system will help prevent flooding during rainy days and ease the burden on the city’s combined sewer system.

IL Chicago Lawrence Ave crosswalk 2 credit Hanna Kite
Pedestrian crossings along Lawrence Avenue. Photo by Hanna Kite.

The improvements to the walking and bicycling environment are a boon for the stores and restaurants on Lawrence. “The improvements have made it more desirable for businesses because of the additional foot traffic,” said Brad Gregorka, Constituent Services Liaison for Alderman Pawar. Pawar’s office acknowledges that the street improvements alone will not be enough to attract new development and investment, and the Alderman plans to secure small business improvement funding into his ward to appeal to new businesses.

CDOT has a few more finishing touches for the Avenue. The shrubs destined for the curb extensions still need to be planted. The traffic controls will be synchronized this month to keep cars and trucks traffic flowing smoothly. Three community identifier signs have yet to be installed, and there’s a small pedestrian plaza that hasn’t been built yet. The major improvements are in place though, and for the most part the community is happy with the changes.

It’s not too big, and it’s not too small. Lawrence Avenue is now just right for this community.

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This case study was written by Hanna Kite.

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