Chicago Walks the Walk
The City of Chicago has come a long way since literally raising its streets to make room for sewers back in the 19th century. Now the 5th most walkable and bikeable city in the United States, it boasts one of the top pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly infrastructures out there.
Historically, large hubs have prioritized vehicle-friendly infrastructure, but Chicago is taking a more holistic view of transportation. With that in mind, we looked at sustainable means of commuting to work — as well the city’s latest Walk Score®, Bike Score® and Transit Score®, among other factors — that confirm Chicago’s increased walkability and bikeablity. As it turns out, the growing number of bike-sharing programs, walking lanes, and easily accessible public transit make it easier than ever to just get up and walk to your favorite deep dish pizza place.
Chicago Officially Deemed “Very Walkable”
With the average Chicagoan spending more than half an hour commuting one way, specially designed infrastructure and easy access to public transit are a necessity.
According to the latest U.S. Census data, 6.5% of commuters walk to their place of work in Chicago, compared to the national average of 2.7%. Walking has slowly become a more common means of getting around the city, with 12% more commuters embracing it than in 2010. And, with a Walk Score of 77.2, Chicago is considered “very walkable” — meaning most errands can be comfortably achieved on foot.
As for those who bike on the regular, their number is understandably correlated with the city’s dedicated bicycle infrastructure: While the 2% of biking commuters in Chicago might seem low, they actually outperform the national average of 0.50%. Moreover, the city’s 72.2 Bike Score makes biking convenient for most trips around the city.
On top of being the 5th most walkable and bikeable city in the U.S., Chicago is also the 7th most public transit-friendly city with a 64.9 Transit Score for its many nearby public transportation options. According to Census data, 28% of commuters here prefer to use public transportation on their way to work — a significant number compared to the 5% national commuter average.
The city also has plenty of micromobility options. For instance, there were more than 620 public bike-sharing stations in 2019 — about 150 more than four years prior — perfect if you want to enjoy some fresh air on the go. Incidentally, Chicago also has a median air quality index of 59 (similar to other cities of its size), with noticeably lower levels of pollution during weekends. Since the transportation sector is the biggest culprit of greenhouse gas emissions, this could be attributed to fewer cars being used on these days.
Walkability & Bikeability Matter in Chicago
The inclusive infrastructure and smooth inner-city mobility make living in Chicago more and more appealing — but this comes with increased home values, as well. For most of 2021, the median home sale price in the Chicago metro area was $300,000, almost 12% more than in 2020.
On top of home value growth, well-designed urban planning has been linked to business, job and retail development — and Chicago has taken notice. From accessible public transit and walking lanes downtown to the inclusion of more walking routes in suburbs like Arlington Heights, the third-largest city in the United States is keen on creating a more sustainable infrastructure across the board.
Recently, a bill making it easier to approve and create walking and biking infrastructure in the Chicago region allows for gas tax funds to go not only toward new roads, but also toward sidewalks, pedestrian corridors, shared-use paths or bike lanes.
Chicago also designed the nation’s first urban transportation plan in response to the pandemic. The plan recognizes that, beyond the benefits of health implications and traffic decongestion lies the chance for equity and access to opportunities. Accordingly, legislative efforts are intended to expand bike share and bike lanes and even adapt underutilized streets as car-free spaces.
Local Educated Perspectives
To find out what life in Chicago is like for someone who walks and bikes on the regular, we turned to local experts. Here’s what they had to say about the city’s alternative infrastructure, as well as which initiatives worked, and how Chicago walkability and bikeability can develop even further.
Professor of Civil and Architectural Engineering
Director of Transportation Engineering and Infrastructure Engineering and Management
Illinois Institute of Technology
|How have walkability and bikeability improved in Chicago over the past 10 years?
Notable plans and field deployments include:
What do you think about the time and resources it took for Chicago to reach this level of walkability and bikeability?
For the most part of the Chicago CBD area (central business district), the connectivity of the pedestrian walkways is up to standard. However, bikeways face some challenges in aspects of dedicated right-of-way, signals for intersection crossing, and facility provisions in terms of storage/parking and retrieval of self-owned and rented bikes, accommodation by transit and ferry vehicles such as buses, CTA trains, Metra trains, ferry boats, and bike-compatible river cross bridges where some bike riders must take long detours for river crossing.
The timeline would be in the range of 10-20 years. A better model of public-private partnership (PPP) unlike the current Divvy must be introduced to significantly improve the bike mobility, safety, and economy essential to the success of promoting the active transportation mode, including walking, biking, and scooting.
Bike Mechanic and Community Mechanics Instructor
Working Bikes, Chicago
|What do you think about the time and resources it took for Chicago to reach this level of walkability and bikeability?
Chicago has a ways to go before it is sufficiently supporting walking, biking, and other non-cars modes of transportation. Investing in affordable, active modes of transportation like walking and biking is a no-brainer given how affordable, space- and energy-efficient they are.
That being said, I think it’s essential when evaluating the return on investment in walkability and bikeability, that we are being honest about who is biking and walking:
Investments in walkability and bikeability only go so far when not accompanied by investments that tackle a broader scope of issues outside of transportation. There is much work to be done before folks from all parts of Chicago of all ages and abilities feel free, comfortable, and safe to walk and roll around their neighborhoods.
Chair and Associate Professor Department of Sociology & Criminology
Program Director Latino/Latin American Studies & The Study of Women and Gender
|In your opinion, what are some of the effects of walkability and bikeability on Chicago’s demographics?
The accessibility and quality of bike lanes in wealthier neighborhoods cannot be compared to poorer areas. Chicago is highly segregated by race and resources. As I ride my bike through the city, I can see social stratification reflected in the physical landscape including road quality and accessibility of bike lanes.
Last year the city announced plans to expand bike lanes in neglected areas to address these inequalities. It is important that policymakers engage with local communities as they make these changes. Many streets don’t have enough car lanes and are already clogged with traffic. If the interest is justice, then the interests of community members should be reflected and integrated into plans to make bike lanes accessible through the city.
Getting out of the house for exercise, recreation or just a breath of fresh air has become increasingly important. As we navigate a new lifestyle brought on by the pandemic, new approaches to urban planning emerge — and Chicago rises to the occasion.
- Walk Score®, Bike Score® and Transit Score® as per walkscore.com.
- For this study, we considered the means of transportation to work (public transportation, walking and cycling) used by workers 16 years of age and over.
- Transportation data is from the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent 5-Year Estimates Tables.
- Air Quality Index (AQI) as per the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
- Docked Bikeshare Stations data according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
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