Drive-thru service…to (or at) your door.

One of the most intense work months of my career has just come to an end, and it’s been obvious that it has prevented me from devoting as much time and thought to my already meager average of two blog posts a month. And I conclude September with another short(ish) post on an observation I made during a visit to Chicago, just days before I left the country for this job in Afghanistan.

It’s inevitable that trendy neighborhoods such as Lakeview, where I took the pictures from this series, will attract restaurants with an understanding of the pulse of urbanity. These shrewd entrepreneurs recognize that busy foot traffic on the sidewalks is not just free publicity but also an opportunity to expand their gross leasable area ever so slightly. For every party seeking a private meal in the restaurant’s darkest, most anonymous corner, another will specifically stake out the extroverted front row seats, to increase the likelihood of chance encounters with friends from the neighborhood. It fits with the coveted lifestyle of the young professional as a Lakeview yuppie fits in the seat of a Volkswagen Jetta. And what better way to maximize the chance of lassoing passers-by into the coruscating dinner conversation than by getting them before they even make it into the door of the restaurant? Thus, witness the al fresco dining options.

If the sidewalk were broad and expansive, the owners of each restaurant could probably seek a permit for the city with much more artistic license—something that allowed a greater variety of seating arrangements, some waist-high partitions, maybe some tiki torches or other mood lighting at night, perhaps even a space for a roving musician. Obviously that’s not likely to be the case on this street, where an restaurateur instead must take advantage of every square inch that he or she can get during Chicago’s inevitably limited al fresco dining season; not much more than one-third of the year is warm enough. The outdoor dining configuration must fall within the allowable parameters set by the city, not to interfere with pedestrian accessibility or general safety.

But, judging from the photo of the streetscape here, the City of Chicago gives quite a bit of leeway for sidewalk amenities. It appears that these improvements, whether they include the setback for al fresco dining, or bike racks, or street trees, or potted plants—all of them can claim more than fifty percent of the width of the sidewalk—the total right of way. Pedestrians can’t pass more than two shoulder-to-shoulder. Quite generous for the diners and restaurant owners, and my suspicion is that the city’s planners conceived these dimensions with the hopes of further stimulating pedestrian vitality in the area by catering to them so much, then forcing them close together. The fence for the outdoor dining tables may not offer any visual privacy, which isn’t a problem, since customers who would choose to eat here would have few qualms about being seen by as many people as possible. However, the fence does clearly demarcate a space which its users can clearly appropriate through the duration of the meal. And it provides an attractive mount for hanging plants and flowers. The restaurant’s al fresco probably only caters to two deuces—just four people—but the owners prove that they value those potential customers by the amount they have invested towards gussying it up. The resulting arrangement seems to work for everyone: the business operators get to add a few more seats, the city gets the enhanced sense of pedestrian energy that drives up real estate (and, thus, tax revenue), the restaurant’s patrons get all the seating options that they can hope for.

But one party still loses: the motorists.

For all they’ve been able to stuff onto the sidewalk, the interplay is problematic. The al freso diners could reach out and slap the car while remaining seated at their table. And while the driver may not have a problem with this arrangement, the passenger side sure gets a bum deal.

They’re stuck. No real options if you park at this space. In this particular situation, the cars seem to fall last in the pecking order. For the militant urbanist, this isn’t a problem, of course: cars are the problem, and we defenders of city living should never try to accommodate them at the expense of a healthy walking environment. After all, it’s quite an improvement from the sidewalk fencing in downtown Chicago that I blogged about awhile ago, which clearly did nothing more than impede pedestrians’ ability to cross the street on a particular side of the intersection.

But I’m not a militant urbanist, and I can recognize the need for a less lopsided arrangement. These images reveal a real predicament for a driver, and while this might seem like an isolated incident, I’d be be willing to bet the farm (or the entire slow food movement, in this case) that Lincoln Square, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Roscoe Village, Wrigleyville, etc etc etc have plenty more examples where the the powers that be have rammed the puzzle pieces together. Cars park and the passenger can’t get out because of an impediment on the sidewalk. The fact remains that this is on-street parking we’re impinging upon here—the most spatially efficient kind, the easiest to integrate to a pedestrian/bicycle heavy environment, and, in many parts of Chicago, the only option on that block. Is it really in the best interest of the city to allow a streetscape improvement that effectively maims the adjacent parking spots? Sure, it won’t affect the driver of the car featured in the above photos. But in a dense environment like Chicago, where parking is never that easy, cars are more likely to have a passenger (or two or three) than a typical vehicle seeking a parking space in a huge lot in suburban, car-friendly Schaumburg.

Thus, the conductor of this urban symphony failed to perceive all that forces that make the counterpoint here so delicate. I’m hardly pointing out a crisis here. It may never need intervention through new codes or revisions to the permitting process; let’s hope it doesn’t. The restaurant owners may soon discover the problem that these fences pose, and they may decide that it’s better not to antagonize drivers seeking parking on the street right outside their window. But this arrangement demonstrates that pushing heavily in one ideological direction only results in the other agent responding with a push back, or even an antagonistic tug. Urban environments can be just as hostile to drivers as the suburbs are accused of being toward pedestrians. Streetscape improvements have the opportunity for enhancing value in a huge, largely successful metropolis just as much as they do in a neglected small town, but calibration with the scale, an awareness of the context, and a sensitivity to the consequences are all critical. This observation has about as much complexity as arguing that a dish can be seasoned too heavily, or, by contrast, it might not be seasoned enough—gosh, what an insight. Yet the most obvious juxtapositions often pass us right by, until, lo and behold, a passenger has to climb across the driver’s seat to get out of the car. “Take that, Lexus-owning yuppies,” retorts the militant. “Even worse than a Jetta.” May the cooler heads prevail.

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3 thoughts on “Drive-thru service…to (or at) your door.

  1. Chris Winters

    Eric, There is only so much space in cities. As a result, it’s basically impossible to improve conditions for pedestrians beyond a certain point without degrading them at least a little for car drivers. That’s just the way it is. (The converse is certainly true too.) As you point out, the chief justification for letting restaurants create dining space on urban sidewalks is that it enriches the pedestrian environment. Consider conditions in the area you picture. Lake View (official spelling) is not Manhattan, but it’s a prosperous neighborhood where nearly half the households are car-free. (The proportion is a little lower in the area you picture.) I can’t prove it, but I think it’s very likely that even most car owners in Lake View do most of their local errands on foot; parking isn’t (as you acknowledge) that easy. It’s also likely that most residents—even car owners—prefer things more or less as they are. If prioritizing movement by automobile were important to them, they could move to the 98% of America where “automobility” remains unquestioned. Compared to the indignities and threats to which pedestrians are subjected in landscapes built entirely for the automobile, the awkwardness of making passengers wiggle their way out of cars on the driver’s side is pretty trivial.

    There’s also the issue that in most of the non-commercial streets of pre-World-War-II Chicago, there’s a strip of land between the sidewalk and the street (called a “parkway” in the traditional Chicago English). Often this strip contains a carefully cultivated garden–and is fenced to keep out dogs and people; the fence runs almost all the way to the street and presents car passengers with the same problem as sidewalk cafés. (I tried to include a photo here but wasn’t allowed to.) Fenced parkways are a whole lot more common in Chicago than sidewalk cafés, and I doubt whether very many people would like to get rid of them.

    Chris Winters

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Chris, thanks for your response…and on a long-neglected post I had almost forgotten that I had written! Yes, motorists are likely to get the shaft in a neighborhood like Lake View, and I would never argue that we should accommodate a swinging car door if it meant sacrificing outdoor seating for restaurants–a huge source of revenue, since for about 4 or 5 months a year in a city with Chicago’s climate, these are typically the most popular seats for diners.

      I guess bigger consideration, which I failed to mention, is if the passenger in that car is incapable of climbing over the seat and leaving through the driver’s side, either due to age or infirmity. Then, of course, however, we can only respond by advocating for laws that force private businesses to change their practices in response to an extremely unlikely (even rare) event. Zoning provisions for medium to high-density commercial districts in Chicago probably make provisions for wheelchair access along the sidewalk itself, but not necessarily for passenger car doors. Given that, due to the conditions you describe, there’s not likely to be enough political momentum to prompt a change, the drivers in this case would probably be best served looking for another place to park down the road.

      Reply

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