Ladies’ choice: why do some women prefer to walk in the street?


I’ve noticed it’s common for young women in Chicago to walk in the middle of the street when there are sidewalks available. I always assumed that it’s a strategy to avoid getting jumped by a would-be attacker hiding behind a tree or in the bushes. This personal safety issue is one that I, as a man who does most of his walking in areas with relatively low crime rates, have the privilege of not thinking much about.

On the other hand, I often see women walking in the street in “safe” neighborhoods, in broad daylight. This was the case last Sunday when I biked past Jacqueline and Caitlin, who were strolling west on the 2100 bock of West Rice Street in Ukrainian Village around 4 pm. I hit the brakes and asked if I could interview them on the subject for this blog, and they politely humored me.

So you were walking in the middle of the street just now. Why were you walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk?

Jacqueline: Well, we didn’t realize we were doing that until it was brought to our attention. But we were walking back to our car and I think in my mind that dumpster back there kind of was obstructive and it seemed less direct to walk on the sidewalk then it did to mosey through the street.

Caitlin: It’s a one-way street here, and when we got out of the car to go to our destination we also walked in the street on the way there. So to bookend the whole event we decided to walk in the street on the way back as well.

What was your destination?

We were looking at an apartment that’s for rent a bit northeast of here.

OK. So you parked the car and instead of taking the sidewalk you walked in the street because it seemed more convenient.

Both: Yeah.

So you said you sometimes walk in the street at night. Why do you do that?

Jacqueline: I walk in the street because it’s usually better lit, especially on narrower streets and streets that have a lot of trees. If I’m walking by myself I’ll walk in the middle of the street because it seems safer and less like somebody could grab me. Maybe I’m paranoid.

It seems like there’s less stuff for people to jump out from behind?

Jacqueline: Yeah. And I live in Lincoln Park, so especially when I’m walking by a lot of those weird little alleys where you can’t really see and the lights are out a lot.

OK. So in general at night you would walk in the street instead of on the sidewalk.

Jacqueline: If I’m by myself, yeah.

So the crime issue is more of a factor than worrying about getting hit by a car?

Both: Yeah.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

22 thoughts on “Ladies’ choice: why do some women prefer to walk in the street?”

  1. I also do this at night some times (I’m a woman) for safety, depending on the area and the lighting. And in the winter, I will sometimes walk in the street because the sidewalks haven’t been shoveled and they are very icy and hazardous. I always move over to the edge of the street when a car approaches, and check constantly for cars if I’m walking in the same direction as traffic.

    The sidewalk is definitely a much better place to walk, so I stay there on walks unless there is some safety reason not to.

    But like these women, I’ll sometimes walk to my car in the street if going over to a sidewalk would mean walking a bit farther.

    1. I find myself walking in the street during the winter too. It’s definitely a big issue in Chicago that the streets are usually cleared sooner than the sidewalks, especially in “no-man’s-land” areas like bridges over expressways. While, of course, it’s safer to bike with traffic, I’ve always heard it’s safer to walk in the opposite direction as traffic if you’re walking in a street.

      1. I’ve heard that, but my understanding is it isn’t supported by any studies. MoDOT’s latest data doesn’t reveal any patterns– peds got hit crossing at crosswalks, crossing midblock, walking with traffic, walking against traffic, walking on sidewalks, walking in streets.

      2. I do feel safer walking against traffic because I can always see what is coming — but my neighborhood mostly has one-way streets.

        The number of sidewalks left snowy and icy in the winter is a real problem, and it’s an accessibility issue as well as a safety issue.

  2. I have not yet witnessed anyone doing this, but it would certainly annoy me if I was riding my bike down the street and two people were blocking the road by walking right down the middle of it. I already get frustrated at the pedestrians in the Loop who feel the need to wait partially in the street at crosswalks for the light to change.

  3. Breaking news! This doesn’t really happen enough to warrant a study. The only time I see people walking in the street in the summer is when they are going o their cars. It has nothing to do with gender or safety.

    In the winter people (of all genders) do it because no one shovels their walk.

    1. Well, I do see this pretty frequently and one of the women interviewed here did say she sometimes walks in the street for safety reasons: “If I’m walking by myself I’ll walk in the middle of the street because it seems safer and less like somebody could grab me.”

  4. In my neighborhood (Beverly), I see men and women of all races walking in the street at all times of year. Most of our streets don’t have a lot of traffic, but it can be annoying when I’m trying to ride my bike and the street has lots of pedestrians.

    I can understand it in winter, when sidewalks may be icy or otherwise impassable. At other times of year, I don’t really get it in locations where crime isn’t a significant issue.

  5. It’s unfortunate when you have to make this choice, which is the case in Lakeview right now where there are sidewalks blocked up on both sides of Broadway near Surf, which is also very unsafe because Broadway is not exactly a quiet residential street.

  6. A long time ago I suffered from panic attacks after being assaulted. I never let my fear stop me from going out or being out. I did respect my fear though, and that meant that occasionally, if I felt threatened, I would walk in the middle of the street.

  7. Go interview women at California and Roosevelt . . . . lots of ‘conventional wisdom’ on the West Side about where to walk to avoid getting jumped by people hiding in gangways, as is in mothers train their daughters, friends exchange tips… anyone who says that walking in the street is a random phenomenon and not gender-related is just plain wrong.

  8. Sorry. I see these as real “country girls” who are used to streets with no sidewalks whatsoever. When you come from Mendota, Sterling or points downstate, you’re used to blacktop roads with no curbs or sidewalks. And any sidewalks are only within 50′ of the town’s one stoplight, and completely unusable. I think John was a bit too eager in this so-called “interview.”

  9. I walk in the street on side streets sometimes late at night (early AM) and when there are unshoveled walks. If it is quiet and still, I think walking in a side street at an odd hour gives you better visibility and safety. I’m just generally leery of blind alleys and sharp corners when I am alone in the city. That extra bit of space can insulate you from lots of different dangers and if it is quiet, you can hear cars approaching so it feels OK.

  10. Walking in the middle of the street is also nice when you’re with someone because it gives you more room to wander. Personally I love walking I the street because the extra rom it gives you and the ability to see more things. I recommend everyone walk in the middle of the road if it’s safe to do so.

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