There are those who claim traffic is a massive problem to be solved with other transportation options. Some traffic, such as highway traffic, really doesn't serve any useful economic purpose.
But not so for street traffic of the streetcar, driving, or walking varieties. Street traffic in the streets of a neighborhood is akin to blood in the veins of live tissue.
It's key to the rise and fall of urban communities.
Let me ask you -- what is the bottleneck keeping neighborhoods like Garfield Park and Bronzeville from completing the neighborhood cycle of rise and fall and rise again?
Answer: lack of commercial activity. In these communities there are few businesses serving the extant population, which taken as a whole should support much more commerce than is seen.
Here's the rub:
There are two different main factors that determine the depth of a main street business' market area -- traffic and nearby population purchasing power. Different businesses are more affected by one or the other.
Service businesses tend to be more affected by population purchasing power proximity. Examples include sit-down restaurants, dry cleaners, grocery stores, food staples such as bakeries, and pharmacies. While even these concerns need both factors, the internet makes them even less dependent on traffic.
Other businesses, and not just travel-related businesses like hotels and gas stations, tend to be more dependent on traffic: these include money order places, department stores, banks (nowadays), most retail stores, fast food restaurants, convenience stores, and large outlet stores.
Other businesses need both, such as theaters, and others need neither, such as offices, industry, and museums. Industry simply needs infrastructure, whereas offices locate where they are served by infrastructure and where their workers want to be. Museums simply need visibility.
An Approach For Increasing Commercial Activity
A main reason for the struggle to recover from all this population decline is in part due to sparse commercial services for residents, lowering community desirability. Solving this problem would lead to increased chances for population gain, and so we'll have to address each issue -- low purchasing power in the area and low traffic quantities on key area streets.
Population purchasing power per unit area has been hollowed out by housing subsidy, and I address this problem here. Since subsidized housing programs are difficult to roll back, we'll have to take another route -- find a way to increase traffic to revive business activity.
Increase the traffic and get traffic-dependent businesses to return ---->
These businesses will provide services and increase area desirability, resulting in population growth ---->
Finally, businesses that require a higher population purchasing power area will follow.
The Reason For The Fall From Grace
When it comes to empty, forlorn avenues, Madison Ave and Cottage Grove are the two most obvious examples. Much of their paths were not directly gutted by urban renewal, and yet a lot of their streetscapes look like war zones.
It turns out they have something in common -- they both had their AADT numbers (Avg Annual Daily Traffic) decimated by...
Imagine Paris if the Champs-Élysées were sapped of traffic and 150 feet away from a parallel superhighway. It seems extreme, but the Madison and Cottage Grove corridors were once among the most dense, most highly travelled, most consistently urban Avenues in Chicago -- think Lincoln Ave or 18th St, but more dense. Both Avenues had miles-long stretches in which their density resembled that of Brooklyn.
In Madison's case the riots make it more complicated, but the primary reasons these avenues look like war zones today are the:
1. Dan Ryan Expressway
2. Eisenhower Expressway
(This is part 1 of a series on Chicagos Expressways.)