Strategies in the Pedestrian Plan: Skinny streets


This rough drawing shows what could be done with the extra space if Haddon Avenue was narrowed and remained one-way. It doesn’t show what the street would look like if it were two-way. The drawing shows two scenarios with features that use the land reclaimed from asphalt: the first shows a cycle track. A speed limit sign says “neighborhood speed limit” (a number is left off so residents decide what speed is appropriate for their street). The second scenario has a rain garden in the land reclaimed from asphalt, to help with stormwater management. Both scenarios have permeable pavers in the parking lanes. 

The first-ever Chicago Pedestrian Plan will be introducing a lot of new concepts and ideas to Chicagoans (and even this transportation planner) about how to make the pedestrian experience safer, more comfortable, as well as more enjoyable. This post will be one of the occasional articles on strategies in the Pedestrian Plan.

Tool: Skinny streets, page 29

What it says: “After the severe winters of 1978 and 1979, many of Chicago’s streets were converted from two-way to one-way to improve mobility during the winter and to allow plows to go through. However, two-way streets have many advantages over one-way streets. These ‘skinny streets’ reduce vehicle speeds and can also increase connectivity for all users by providing more ways to traverse the city’s grid. Skinny streets should be considered on all one-way streets that are wider than 30 feet.”

Download the Chicago Pedestrian Plan in .pdf format: 15 MB or 100 MB. No web version available.

Haddon Avenue from Western Avenue to California Avenue in the Humboldt Park neighborhood is a prime candidate for conversion. I asked Joshua and Carolyn Koonce, who live in this stretch about their street, to tell me more about the conditions there. Before being repaved, you could see the yellow center line that indicated it used to be a two-way street.

Speed is the main concern. The width of the street and the low speed-humps make anything resembling “neighborhood” speed rare. Drivers build up speed coming from Western, headed to California, often disregarding stop signs as well. If there was a speed camera here we wouldn’t be surprised if drivers routinely hit 40+ mph. The road becomes an easy, fast westbound alternate to Division.

The street is regularly used as a two-way street already by the Chicago Police. Sure, they can pretty much drive against traffic anywhere they like, but it’s really prevalent here, not to mention disconcerting when you’re crossing the street or biking. Are they doing this to catch people unawares? Is it a policing technique? We’re not really sure.

The width of the street is just outrageous. Three cars could fit side by side between the parking lanes. In other words: a car could double park on each side and you could still drive here. That’s not right for a neighborhood street! We’d love to see linear gardens, or bioswales or a home-zone style project like the one on Albany Avenue in Logan Square (between Kedzie Avenue and Fullerton Avenue). That’s dreaming big, of course. But the simplest solution might just be to make the street a two-way, naturally slowing down traffic in both directions. We’d take that too.

When we walk the dog over on Thomas, we marvel at how calm and beautiful it is. One street over and the change is absolutely remarkable. We keep an eye out for apartments for rent over there.


A view west down Haddon Avenue. 

View a Google Street View of a typical block in this stretch, which is 38 feet wide.

As far as skinny streets go, I live on a skinny street, Fletcher Avenue between California Avenue and Sacramento Avenue. It’s a narrow one-way street. I think this strategy should also include narrowing existing streets and swapping space for wider sidewalks or more room for trees.

16 thoughts on “Strategies in the Pedestrian Plan: Skinny streets”

  1. So simple– converting one-ways back to two-ways. It’s good for drivers, cyclists, and peds. I like it: A road diet to make a skinny street!

  2. Skinny street? Wider parkways? Bioswales? More trees? Rain gardens? Yes! Sounds like a good answer that could help solve more than one problem – speeding, flooding, air quality (from the additional plants and trees)….

    My section of Beverly offers some good contrasts between narrow two-way streets and wider one-way streets. I live on a corner on a narrow two-way street with a stoplight at 95th. That stoplight means it gets a bit more traffic than an average residential street. Over half of the available parking spaces on the street are typically filled at any given time. This means that the available driving space is narrow enough that drivers coming from opposite directions can’t pass each other unless one of them pulls over into an open space, so most of the traffic goes less than 30 mph at most hours of the day. I’d estimate that a decent percentage goes 20-25.

    The two-way street that runs along the side of our house is a different beast. It’s about the same width, but in most places cars are parked only on one side, or there are no parked cars at all. This effectively creates a much wider driving space, and seeing drivers going 35-40 (possibly faster) is a daily occurrence. The traffic calming effect is quite noticeable when both sides of the street are parked up with construction vehicles for a home rehab project or lots of cars for a party. Last year we and our neighbors across the street had contractors working on our houses at the same time, and the thru traffic speeds during the day appeared to be around 20 mph for most vehicles while the contractors were there.

    Within 1/2 mile, we have several one-way streets, most of which have available travel spaces equal or greater than what we have on our narrow two-way street. Travel speeds there are often above 30 mph.

    I’d love to see more of our one-ways converted back to narrow two-ways. This would create natural traffic calming, make it much easier to get around, and offer cyclists more legal flexibility than they have now when pavement on one of a current pair of one-way streets gets too cratered to ride easily.

    1. Agree with all of this. Most streets 30′ wide or more work fine as two-way streets throughout Chicago. The problems come when there is enough traffic that two cars passing in opposite directions is common and when hte on-street parking is fully occupied, which doesn’t allow a car to pull off to the side while oncoming traffic passes. I find that the short (330 foot) blocks that are interrupted by alleys can often work better as two-way streets than the 660 foot blocks in the neighborhoods with fully occupied on-street parking because the alleys offer a break in parking to pull to the side.

    1. It would be nice if environment and moving people took precedent over private automobile storage.
      My drawing maintains the same number of car parking spaces on a street, but reduces the overall width.

  3. After the severe winters of 1978 and 1979, many of Chicago’s streets were converted from two-way to one-way to improve mobility during the winter and to allow plows to go through.” – CPP

    What is the plan for keeping these skinny streets free from snow and passable, the concern that made the City convert them from two-way to one-way in the first place?

    1. I’m still trying to imagine what the problem was in 1978, 1979, that limited mobility and “didn’t” allow the plows to go through. We have lots of narrow streets today (two-way and one-way that don’t have issues with car mobility or snow plow access). My street being one example.

      1. The ’78/’79 Chicago winter is infamous for its political effects. The original Mayor Daley’s successor Mayor Bilandic was voted out of office in large part due to the ineffectual response to clearing city streets. Mayor Jane Byrne won election in early 1979, on a platform of competence and reform of government services. She is still around, maybe GRID can interview her about snow removal and get some insight on how politicians view snow. I know the “parklet” initiative is not year-round, they will be removed during snow removal season.,0,7583194.story

      2. I assume the plows got through fine. But watch next winter and observe how a large snowfall (if we get one) affects the effective street width. Some snow remains piled up along the curbs which causes people to park farther from the curb. Or someone never moves their car to allow the plows to get through, and the extra snow piles up between the moving traffic and the parked cars. Either way, the street is effectively narrowed until it melts.

      3. There was SO much snow in a relatively short period of time that it took WEEKS for plows to get to all the side streets. Many cars never got dug out during that time, and those that managed to get out and back in again ended up parked further from the curb.

        The street where I lived was always one of the last in the area to get plowed.

        Those drivers who dug their cars out actually had to create ramps out of packed snow, because it was impossible to create any semblance of a clear lane. After about 6 weeks of packed snow and ice, we had a thaw where it got into the 40s and everyone on the block came out with their shovels to clear the street. Even though the snow had gotten compacted from being driven on, it was still about a foot deep.

        That was a lot of heavy slush to move.

        Back in those days, without cell phones, internet, current weather forecasting technology or other high tech tools to improve emergency communications and deployment, it was a lot tougher to deal with snow emergencies, so the streets were more likely to get buried and stay buried for a while. Harsher weather didn’t help. Most winters from the mid 70s to mid 80s had long periods of below-freezing weather, so once the snow fell, it tended to stick around. We usually had snow cover for most or all of the winter – VERY different from most of the winters since 2000.

        Yes, I know I’m dating myself. 😉 I lived through all of that. It was a great time to learn how to cross country ski.

        1. I’m happy to know about all of this historical context regarding snow removal and side streets a while ago. I’m now curious to know if those two winters (1978 and 1979) are the only reasons why two-way streets were converted to one-way streets. As I mentioned, the yellow center line was still visible on Haddon Avenue before a resurfacing in 2011. That makes me think it was converted much later than those two winters.
          Haddon Avenue is a great candidate for back conversion because it is so wide: at 38 feet, that’s 14 feet taken for parking, with 24 feet left over, which leaves 3×8 feet “imaginary lanes” in the same direction. (A car is only 6 feet wide.)
          So perhaps not all streets are prime for conversion, but Haddon Avenue definitely is.

  4. I can’t believe people are actually in favor of this stupid idea. I used to live on a so-called skinny street and hated every minute I spent on it. Instead of slowing down, drivers simply rocket down the middle until something gets in the way; this something is never, ever a recognizable human being but usually a vehicle of equal or greater size, or occasionally a pothole of a size inversely proportional to the value of vehicle being driven. (It was so nice to be reminded every day that the suspension on my neighbor’s Acura was worth more than my very life.)

  5. I hate riding on narrow 2-way streets. Cars give less space to cyclists. Oncoming cars especially do not stay on their side of the street.

  6. Next time you go down a narrow 2-way street, notice all of the driver-side mirrors that are knocked off the cars.

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