A Pedestrian-Friendly Campus Demands Solutions to Mobility Inequity

Building on recent LTEs on traffic safety, UChicago must go beyond “Pedestrian Safety Week” and actively address equity issues of mobility through greater investment in access to public transit.

By Luke Joyner

As an instructor at this university, an alum, and someone who’s crisscrossed this city for nearly two decades without a car, I read Steven Lucy’s recent letter about the University’s transit policy with great interest and admiration.

For a while now, a large group of us who teach about cities at UChicago have been fed up with the University’s tepid approach to pedestrian safety—not to mention broader issues of bicycle safety and access, public transit, and overall mobility—and have been trying to convince the administration to do much, much more. UChicago’s approach to the Midway is, as Steven details, a particularly frustrating example, but it’s symptomatic of larger problems. The University should absolutely do what Steven says, in a heartbeat, but it’s not nearly enough.

This country has spent the last century under the outsize influence of the auto industry, and American cities have suffered from car-based design, a fact that comes into stark relief in an era of climate change and late-capitalist uncertainty. Many of the spatial inequities present in American cities are exacerbated by inadequate mobility across them by any means other than private vehicle, and most of these ills have been, and continue to be, intentional instruments of social control. The University of Chicago actively sought, especially during the urban renewal period, to insulate its campus and neighborhood from public access of all kinds, through mechanisms simple (get rid of transit options) and arcane (build a complex system of one-way streets that can’t easily be penetrated) alike. So when the University claims that it can’t make the Midway more pedestrian-friendly in part because of pushback from “the community”—a claim University officials have made to many of us fighting these battles—it smells of selective amnesia.

If the University were truly committed to equity of mobility, and to its South Side neighbors, it would seriously engage communities and people (plural and multiple) in its full orbit to address issues like these with more ambition, longevity, and sensitivity, and not simply use “the community” as an excuse to do nothing—or worse. Many of UChicago’s actions, both past and present, such as fighting the existence of a Level 1 trauma center until student and community activists finally broke the resistance, actually hurt people across the South Side; calming and reducing automobile traffic on the Midway would not. But, more important, there’s room for the University to work with its neighbors and city government to develop better and more lasting solutions that aren’t simply reactive and regressive and that help reduce this city’s dubious and uneven dependence on the private car.

This must, necessarily, go beyond simply easing automobile speeds and improving crosswalks. For one, bike access on and near the Midway is a joke: How can a patch of land, designed originally as a park, sustain four separate auto thoroughfares and not a single safe bike through-route? For two, public transit vehicles—both CTA service and University shuttles—get no special treatment and are relegated primarily to the poorly paved and narrow 59th and 60th Streets, rather than given dedicated and safe priority over private cars on the central plaisance. For three, the entire system the administration has devised of discounted student Lyft rides and private shuttles is offensive, misguided, and actively hurts neighbors, compared to what might be possible with an investment in genuinely public transit access across Hyde Park and the broader South Side. The CTA’s recent troubles make it all the more crucial for both individuals and institutions to reinvest in transit with urgency, not to flee into private alternatives or embarrassing stunts and excuses.

Setting aside the laughable and cruel “Pedestrian Safety Week” antics that Steven writes about, there’s no room here for stagnant studies and incremental inaction. Our community, our neighbors, our city, our country, and our planet demand better. Many of us on staff, and many of our students, alums, and neighbors, are ready and willing to help build ideas, enter collaborative processes, and do the work to make our streets better. Please give us the chance to do so.

Luke Joyner (A.B. ’09) is an instructor in urban design and architecture at the University of Chicago. He and Evan Carver will be teaching a studio-based Big Problems class on mobility and transit in winter 2024.