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Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 04:46 am

Three-way traffic

Can traffic in Washington Park be unjammed?

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Compared to Chicago’s lakefront, the notion that Washington Park is congested is absurd.
PHOTOS BY DAVID HINE

“A place for everything and everything in its place, I say, and a park is not the place for cars.” That was me, ranting in this paper in 1978. I promised then that it would be my last word on the subject, and it was for 35 years. That’s a long time for me to keep my mouth shut about anything.

Even then the car-world conflict was not the most pressing conflict in Washington Park. That was between me and my backhand. But in those days a car on the roads meant joggers and strollers and bike riders in the gutter with the storm drains, the litter and the slush. As one of my wiser brothers likes to say, that’s just wrong.

I didn’t really think that the Springfield Park District would follow my advice, but bless ’em, they did eventually ban them from half of the road surface in Washington Park, designating the other half for use by walkers and joggers. This was a real improvement, so much so that some may wonder why any new restrictions on cars are needed. Nonethless, the SPD recently announced that it is considering temporarily extending the popular Sunday Bike and Hike Days in Washington Park to weekdays, when the park roads are thick with people taking the air.

Expanding car-less hours is itself eminently sensible. At present, cars may cruise the park during nine of every ten hours the park is open during half the year and all the time the rest of it. The new plan, if approved, would still admit cars for three of every four hours, and even then cars would still enjoy access to the playground, tennis courts and upper lagoon area.

The measure is kin to those being put into place by parks managers across the country. While banning cars does not entirely solve the problem of intermodal conflicts directly, it does provide more space in which both can misbehave, thus reducing the odds of their mangling each other – kind of like moving to a bigger house so two squabbling kids can each have his own bedroom.

I doubt however whether any combination of access restrictions or infrastructure changes will ever achieve peace in our time on public ways. The word “congestion” is sometimes used to describe the problem on Washington Park’s roads, but to anyone who regularly visits, say, Chicago’s lakefront path, the notion that Washington Park is congested is absurd. I suggest that the park roads are not congested. What they are, at times, is confused. Reducing car access to one lane means that bikers can get squeezed and move temporarily into the pedestrian-only space. The pedestrian space is often blocked by strollers moving several abreast like cattle heading for the barn, forcing joggers to veer into car space to get past them.

The simple solution is separate rights-of-way, but the simple solution is often one that doesn’t work. The SPD could give pedestrians their own roads in the form of sidewalks, and I think it ought to. But separate ROWs for bikes and joggers in general do a poor job of separating people. Anxious cyclists will ride on a sidewalk if there is one. Evanston’s lakefront path features an asphalted path for bikes and a parallel graveled one for walkers and joggers, which the latter happily abandon for the asphalt in wet weather; cyclists use the jogging path to pass slow riders.

For that matter, even walkers get in each other’s way. Hardly anyone seems to have figured out that the rule in this country that traffic bears to the right applies to all kinds of traffic. Strollers in earnest conversation seldom interrupt themselves to move single-file while someone passes. Watching them you’re surprised that either has the brains to put one foot in front of another.

Yet those same people on a city sidewalk are different beings. One of the wonders of city life is the ability of strangers to move on crowded sidewalks and almost never bump into each other. Herds, schools, flocks and swarms work the same way – walking on a crowded sidewalk brings out the animal in us in the best way.

In a park, human instinct is as inappropriate for the environment as a squirrel’s in the parlor. Walking by its nature can induce a dreamy state of mind that is alert to its own preoccupations but not the world around it. I learned that walking in warm weather in Evanston’s lakefront parks, where the authorities keep an ambulance parked nearby in anticipation of the middle-age males to who walk into trees while they are gawking at jogging Northwestern coeds.

I’m feeling much better now, in case you’re wondering.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net.

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