Is Hyde Park Walkable?

Hyde Park is what most people would consider a very walkable neighborhood. My Hyde Park apartment is in a “Walkers’ Paradise” according to Walk Score. And indeed, as a young, healthy individual, I can get wherever I want to go in Hyde Park on foot without too much difficulty.

But just because I can walk around does not mean that all is well in this walkers’ paradise. If it were, why would parking spots and bus service be such popular local issues?

The walkability of Hyde Park comes with several large caveats. First, walking around Hyde Park at night, although much safer than many residents seem to believe, is at the very least unpleasant due to the lack of other people walking around. The fact that the university provides bus service to compensate for this perceived danger only makes things worse. Most of Hyde Park seems utterly deserted during the night, which is not conducive to safe, enjoyable walking.

Secondly, walking around Hyde Park in winter is often made difficult because of snow and ice. In principle, owners are supposed to clear snow and ice on the sidewalks in front of their buildings, but in practice, this often doesn’t happen in a timely or satisfactory manner. Having to walk through snow, slush, and ice can turn quick, enjoyable walks into slow, tedious, and dangerous ones.

Thirdly, while destinations within Hyde Park involve reasonably short and aesthetically pleasing walks, the same is not true if one wishes to leave the neighborhood. Aside from the Metra, which has a sometimes inconvenient schedule and no fare reciprocity with CTA, the only way to travel to more distant parts of Chicago without a car involves either hopping on a bus or passing through significant amounts of both green space and urban decay. And even if one wants to visit the surrounding neighborhoods to the south and west, Washington Park, the Midway, and Jackson Park add extra distance to these journeys.

We can very roughly group the difficulties associated with walking into three main categories: distance, safety, and aesthetics. These categories are not entirely independent, nor necessarily all-encompassing, but most of the problems I mentioned above fit into one or more of them. I want to argue that these three classes of impediments are very deeply rooted in the way in which we design our streets, and more generally the way in which we allocate space between buildings.

The distance we have to travel to get from one place to another depends on two factors: the street layout, and how much stuff is between the two places. The Hyde Park grid is a bit long in the north-south direction, but overall is not a bottleneck for efficient travel distances. Rather, the problem is how much stuff we put between destinations. The typical Hyde Park street has two lanes of traffic, two lanes of parked cars, two green strips, two sidewalks, and in some cases one or two lawns. As a result, the facade-to-facade distance between facing buildings often makes up a significant fraction of a horizontal block. For example, the facade-to-facade distance on Blackstone north of 58th street is generally more than 100 feet, while the distance between Blackstone and Dorchester is under 400 feet: the width of the street makes up more than a quarter of the total distance! And this doesn’t include extra space beside and behind buildings. All of this space adds up. Too much space between buildings means too much distance between destinations. (Note, too, that the more space we put between buildings, the less of it will get cleared in the winter. This only adds to walking times!)

The corner of 58th and Blackstone

The corner of 58th and Blackstone. Compare the distances between facades to the distance between Blackstone and Dorchester!

When we increase distance between destinations, we decrease the density of people out walking on the street, both because we have increased the overall amount of street per person, and because longer distances discourage walking trips. (Of course, the average walking trip will be longer, but this effect is smaller than even the first alone.) Fewer people out on streets make them easier targets for crime. And the more space we put between our buildings, the more difficult is for law enforcement to patrol this space. Furthermore, we relegate walkers to the peripheries of our streets to accommodate high-speed automobile traffic, which is itself a significant danger.

The most subjective category is aesthetics. I find the most enjoyable places to walk are places where there are lots of shops and people and activity, but I can certainly believe that other aesthetic preferences exist. Nevertheless, I expect that few believe that the aesthetic quality of a walk is improved by constant traffic, abandoned buildings, rows of parked cars (or worse, sprawling parking lots), and empty lots. And while the Midway Plaisance may have aesthetic value to some, there is very little variation across its one mile east-west expanse: how much marginal aesthetic value does each additional east-west block of the Midway provide, anyway? Would a half mile-long Midway be significantly less beautiful than the current one? The little green strips between the sidewalk and parked cars likewise have some aesthetic value, but how many additional people could live in Hyde Park if those strips simply weren’t there and we could fit a few dozen more low-rise apartment buildings worth of people? I contend that those would-be residents would receive (and also provide!) far more total aesthetic value from living in Hyde Park than those little strips of grass.

The idea behind small streets urbanism is to eliminate all of these barriers to walking by eliminating their root cause: too much space between buildings. The ideal is not to be car-free by decree, but to create an environment in which few will prefer to travel by car, an environment designed with people, not vehicles, in mind. It is unproductive to blame people for driving instead of walking. Everything about our cities, from the way we lay them out to the way we zone them to the way we fund their infrastructure, incentivizes people to make the decision to drive.

Advocates of walkability often have to hedge their enthusiasm with statements of the form, “I don’t want to take away your car.” And I don’t. I want to take away a system of urban planning and regulation that coerces millions into buying cars. I want to provide a place where almost no one will drive, not because they are not allowed to, but because they will not benefit from it.

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About Evan Jenkins

I am an algorithmic trader and occasional writer living in Hyde Park, Chicago. I recently received my PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
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6 Responses to Is Hyde Park Walkable?

  1. vipulnaik says:

    Just curious: how huge is the demand to live in Hyde Park? I don’t think the demand for living here is that high (though that could change if the university dramatically expanded enrollment), so you probably wouldn’t be able to achieve much higher population density …

    Also, to achieve higher population density, it prima facie seems to make more sense to have taller buildings than less space between buildings. The scope for upward space is (practically) unlimited, but there’s only so much horizontal space one can use.

    Though may be you think tall buildings are ugly …

    btw, the world’s densest city has a population density about 16-20 times that of Hyde Park:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manila

    • vipulnaik says:

      That should be 6 times, not 16 times. My bad on the math.

      • Evan Jenkins says:

        Considering the way that rent has been rising in Hyde Park in recent years, combined with increased interest from developers and retailers, I’d say that the demand for housing in Hyde Park is fairly high and is likely to increase in coming years. And I think that a project like this would attract demand on its own, particularly if it were able to incorporate quality retail, which is in very short supply on the South Side. But I think your concern about demand is legitimate, and it’s something I’ll look into in more detail.

        As for the small streets vs. tall buildings debate (which seems to be a fairly contentious issue among proponents of increased density), that’s certainly something I’d like to get into in future posts. But let me quickly sum up why I’m more interested in small streets than in tall buildings.

        1. I don’t believe that your efficiency argument tilts so clearly in favor of tall buildings. I haven’t actually looked at numbers, but I can definitely imagine that tall buildings would be more expensive to build and maintain than shorter ones. And land is a very plentiful resource. High land costs in urban development can primarily be blamed on regulations that restrict land use by limiting the supply of land to the most profitable uses, as well as by requiring wide streets and parking lots and green space and the like. There are, of course, many variables to control for here. It would be interesting to do a more detailed analysis of this.

        2. Both tall buildings and small streets have strong political opposition. But as much as people kvetch about parking, I genuinely believe that in a place like Hyde Park, a small streets village is more politically tractable than trying to build a bunch of high-rises. I could be overly optimistic, though.

        3. There are already many tall buildings in Chicago and across the country. True mixed-use, small streets developments are essentially (or maybe literally) non-existent. I think it’s worth trying something new once in a while.

        4. This is perhaps the most controversial, but I don’t think that a superabundance of tall buildings is conducive to a healthy city. Tall buildings work well for offices, but when it comes to residential and retail, I think shorter buildings are better. It’s not merely social conditioning that most shops tend to be at street level; rather, this is where they get the most visibility. A shop on the 60th floor of a high-rise is not going to get much walk-up business. Similarly, interactions between people are much less likely to happen on high-rise elevators than on streets, which is a fundamental quality-of-life difference between living in a high-rise and living in a similarly dense small streets village.

        Anyway, thank you for raising some very good points. I find skeptical comments like yours the most useful because they force me to think harder about things. Keep them coming!

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