Building Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble

Last week in his interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, new commissioner of the Department of Transportation (CDOT), Gabe Klein, indicated he wanted to explore installing a pedestrian scramble at some intersections in the city. This would mean that vehicle traffic is stopped in all directions (an “all red” phase) and people walking can cross in any direction from any corner to any other corner.

“It’s something we would be interested in piloting at the busiest intersections,” Klein said.


People at Milwaukee-North-Damen are already demonstrating, in partial fashion, how the pedestrian scramble works. At peak times you may see 25 people cross outside a marked crosswalk between the Starbucks at the southwest side to the former bank building on the north side between Milwaukee and Damen (see above photo).

Gabe Klein’s not the first to bring it up this year. The students of “Living in a Smart City” at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC) proposed such an upgrade in March for the Milwaukee-North-Damen intersection,the heart of Wicker Park – and quite busy. You can watch a video of their demonstration model at 2:18.

A pedestrian scramble should be tested at this intersection soon. Wicker Park visitors are already treating this intersection as if it had one; their situation can be improved by matching the infrastructure to the activity. What will be interesting to observe is how people bicycling will treat the signal phase. They will be expected to stop (all vehicle traffic) but it may be a ripe opportunity for many bicyclists to make their turns during this phase. This situation is especially relevant because of the insane amount of bicycle traffic here.

What other locations in Chicago do you think should have pedestrian scrambles?

Tokyo is famous for pedestrian scrambles (also knows as the “Barnes dance”).

24 thoughts on “Building Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble”

  1. The pedestrian scramble outside of Tokyo’s Shibuya station would warm the cockles of any pedestrian planner’s heart. It’s wonderful to witness a moment when an intersection is completely surrendered to a swarm of foot traffic.

  2. Would this mean that pedestrians would only be allowed to cross during the scramble phase, and not the other three vehicle phases at this six-legged intersection? If so, that would mean longer delays for everyone (pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers) while they wait for their phase to come up in what will inevitably be even a longer signal cycle time.

    If pedestrians are still allowed to cross during the other three signal phases, then is the scramble really necessary? I think the better solution here would be two new crosswalks, one connecting the SW corner of North Avenue to the SE corner of North Avenue and one connecting the SE corner of Milwaukee to the NE corner of Milwaukee.

    I would also consider eliminating all left turns here to create some extra space that could be used for wider sidewalks.

    1. I think that pedestrians should be able to cross in the correct direction in each of the three phases of the “vehicle” signals, as they do now.
      A fourth phase would be added that is “pedestrian only” and “all red” for vehicles.

      But in the interview, Fran writes: “Intersections where vehicular traffic is stopped for 14 seconds every other light cycle to give pedestrians a chance to cross in every direction, including diagonally.”

      I don’t think 14 seconds is long enough, and every other light cycle would mean extremely long waiting time (they’d have to wait for two light cycles). Or maybe she meant to write every other phase?

      I like the idea of extra sidewalks and banning left turns if bike boxes were created to facilitate a bicyclist making a box turn.

      I added your crosswalk addition ideas to a map, attached.

      1. 14 seconds is nowhere near long enough for a diagonal crossing at that intersection. The longest diagonal is 175 feet, which takes 50 seconds by current engineering standards (and 35 seconds even if you are in fairly good shape).

      2. Those aren’t quite what I had in mind. The east-west crosswalk needs to be aligned straight east-west so EB right turners can see pedestrians before they turn.

        The second crosswalk I was imagining would have been at an angle connecting the sidewalks on Milwaukee Avenue. However, you identified an equally valid third new crosswalk connecting the sidewalks along the west side of Damen Avenue. Again though, I think it needs to be realigned to maximize the visibility of pedestrians to turning traffic.

  3. I love the idea. It’s too bad Denver is getting rid of their scrambles, and it’ll be interesting to see if the Chicago scrambles end up working, and why. I’ve thought for a while that North Michigan Avenue should come to a full stop and scramble for about 30 seconds, particularly during the Christmas shopping season.

    There are some countries in Europe that apparently allow bicyclists to proceed during this phase. They figure it out as they cross… no complicated bike-only signal heads necessary.

  4. Watch out, because sometimes these are designed in such a way that they make the pedestrian experience worse instead of better. Case in point: Montgomery Street in San Francisco, where pedestrians get a “don’t walk” during green lights so cars can turn freely instead. I think in most cases a leading pedestrian interval works better.

  5. A good intersection for this would be Halsted / Clark / Barry, it is not a normal 6 way but off center so the diagonal seems like it’s across, and people try to run across the middle where they shouldn’t. A city worker even accidentally painted diagonal crosswalk lines once that had to be removed.

    1. I think this intersection could use some help. The crosswalk markings are abnormally narrow in some places and there are “extra” markings in other places. Also, the crossing distances are long.

      See attached map.

  6. The intersection of Lincoln/Halsted/Fullerton would be a good candidate for this. High volume of motor vehicles and a high volume of pedestrians from DePaul, Children’s Memorial (for now), and all the restaurants/bars/retail along Lincoln. The current configuration for pedestrians makes them wait for multiple cycles in order to cross legally a relatively short distance.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. This does seem like a good intersection at which to try it.

      I was also thinking that pedestrian scrambles could also be used a “peak pedestrian volumes” (certain times of the day), and not all day long. This would present additional design challenges as people who cross this intersection often may expect that the scramble will come up and start crossing but be mistaken.

      1. Yes, intermittent use does sound risky if pedestrians expect it all the time. On the other hand, when no pedestrians are present (maybe half the time in a 24-hour day, at least, I’d guess), and cars are made to sit inert “for nothing,” that doesn’t see optimal, either.

  7. As the professor for the class, Living in a Smart City, I am conscious of the challenges that adding a scramble crosswalk at Milwaukee/Damen/North would entail. For us in the class, we took it as far as visualizing the proposed intervention, but much thought needs to be brought to the execution and the testing phase itself. Ideally, I would sit down with the folks at CDOT and their traffic engineers to work out the best plan to physically phase-in and install the new street layout.

    As a designer, one knows that prototyping experiences is difficult enough when dealing with a fixed number of components, but at a live intersection where many, many factors are in play we ought to be cautious of our approach.

    Key prototyping questions I’d like to ask:

    • When we have a plan for the scramble, what levers can we pull on as we test the prototype? I would like to test the timings of each traffic/pedestrian sequence every few weeks to build up a body of measurable data that we can use to make our final recommendation.
    • What set of measurable criteria will allow us to gauge our success? Measuring the number of reported traffic incidents per month might be one example.
    • To what degree would a scramble be installed? After new painted lines on the tarmac, there is a potential for needing new lighting fixtures on the street poles, new signage created and of course, new timing sequences for each type of traffic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *