Chicago is known for a variety of transportation: busy airports, a popular riverfront, and a strategic rail transit hub. However, the city’s downtown is perhaps best traveled by foot. It’s the only way to explore a series of underground tunnels and bridges known as the Pedway that link more than 40 blocks in the Loop.
Plus, knowledge of the underground path comes in handy during the city’s extreme cold and unpredictable seasons. Tens of thousands of travelers use parts of the roughly five-mile pathway everyday which connects to CTA stations, public buildings, and private offices, according to the city.
Despite living in Chicago for almost two decades, I find myself chronically underdressed each winter and usually in need of protection for impractical footwear making it from the L to meetings that take place in the Loop. For this reason, I have become quite familiar with the downtown Pedway system.
History of Chicago’s underground tunnel system
The Chicago Pedestrian Walkway System works in conjunction with street level paths that connect to almost 50 buildings in the Loop. The longest continuous section of the Pedway runs east-west from 120 N. LaSalle Street to the Millennium Park near Columbus Drive and Randolph Street with various points radiating north and south.
The system includes several shorter sections, at times serving only as a connection between buildings and CTA or Metra Stations. Nearly every civically significant building in the Loop, including City Hall and the James R. Thompson Center, is connected by a section of the Pedway.
The system opened in 1951 with the completion of tunnel between the Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway and the State Street Subway, connecting what is now the Red and Blue lines. In 1966, the former Brunswick Building at 69 W. Washington Street was linked to the Civic Center. Then in late 1980s a connection was made to the Millennium Metra station which was completed in 2005. Another extension of the Pedway was added in 2010 which opened up access to north of Lake Street to Aqua Tower.
While the notion of an indoor pedestrian subway in Chicago existed as early as the 1920s, it took the success of indoor suburban malls and the transition of State Street from that ‘Great Street’ to a series of discount stores, pawn shops, and burlesque theaters to encourage city planners to push for all-weather pedestrian walkways. Several comprehensive plans presented in the late 1960s urged Chicago to consider connecting commercial and civic buildings in the Loop.
In its primary civic role, the Pedway allows underground access between City Hall, the Daley Center, the Cook County Office Building, and the Thompson Center which bridges these government buildings. It also provides ingress to the private sector and public citizens to Daley Center Court rooms, offices of the Cook County Clerk, and the Central Illinois Secretary of State Facility. Between these are a super colony of businesses, including dry cleaners, salons, shoe repair shops, and restaurants and bars.
However, the Pedway has issues with inconsistent signage and an official map that lacks dozens of informal pathways. Some of these walkways are through private property or in many cases across commuter or rapid transit train platforms. Many Pedway routes are marked with blue and yellow compasses set into the terrazzo floor, but others are designed to match the colors and aesthetic of the building it connects to which can be misleading.
Some areas of the Pedway are aggressively patrolled with staff and cameras, while others appear to be entirely void of any attention. As sections of the Pedway are operated by individual building owners, not all doors remain open in the evenings or weekends.
A walk through the Chicago Pedway
Earlier this week, I descended into the Chicago Pedway beneath the Roger Brown mural of Daedalus & Icarus at 120 North LaSalle, towards City Hall and the County Building, where the entrance was clearly marked with the Pedway system compass. This is a good sign, I thought. As the Pedway travels beneath buildings, it reflects the building just above through matching designs or materials, providing a more kickable example of the architecture, as the Pedway is public space. In the case of 120 North LaSalle, the same gray-black marble is repeated in the hallway, transitioning through a steel doorway to the City side of the City Hall/County Building, where the walls are tiled in the black and grey of the Chicago Police Department.
Cadet training occurs in this area of the basement of City Hall, as well as case research. There’s also a bike room down there for city employees. The Pedway forces itself upstairs from here, and into the first-floor lobby of the City Hall/County Building. The path continues into the county building, and down an escalator facing east to Clark Street. Getting back into the Pedway when it is no longer underground can be tricky. This was my first instance of mild confusion, but I learned that my intuition to head to the down escalator was a good one.
The bowels of the Daley Center mimic the building above, including glossy terrazzo floors, tan Roman brick and plate glass—something like the International Style gone casual. The foot traffic really picks up in this portion of the Pedway, as Chicagoans make their way to file forms, apply for licenses, obtain certificates and go to court. The directory within this area is a useless piece of brass, indicating that picnic permits could be obtained if one walks towards the direction of a solid brick wall.
I observed a nervous woman in an Anthony Rizzo jersey briefly checking out the directory before bolting in the direction of the George W. Dunne Cook County Office Building, only to suddenly pivot on a clipped expletive before turning around in the opposite direction.
Next to the Liquor License Appeal Commission Offices, is a Starbucks with a tiny patio, quietly piping music into the heavily cooled air. The Pedway is known as a welcome respite from the harsh winds and cold winters, but it can also provide relief from late summer heat.
The Pedway splits off here, with one branch headed towards the Dunne Office Building and the other headed towards the Red Line and Block 37.
Within the George W. Dunne Cook County Office Building are the Pedway shops including Angileri’s Barber Shop, Around the Clock Repair, and an entrance to Trattoria No. 10. Doubling back towards the east end of the Pedway is the mezzanine to the State Street Subway, Block 37, and the Red Line near Macy’s.
This portion of the Chicago Pedway dates to 1989, but was brightened in 2013 by the addition of 22 art glass windows. The collection, once part of the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier, includes designers part of the American Victorian stained glass movement like Louis Comfort Tiffany. Here, the omnipresent florescent light of the rest of the Pedway is replaced by brilliantly colored faceted glass set into innovative compositions and lit from behind.
Nearby, the entrance to the Cultural Center is marked by a simple postmodern rotunda, perhaps evocative of the treasures within the building, such as the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and Preston Bradley Hall, home of a 38-foot Tiffany Favrile glass dome. Both spaces are within the same building but represent two distinct decorative moods.
East of the Cultural Center and heading towards Millennium Station, the Pedway takes a dark turn. The nearly 20-year effort to turn the cavernous, dank underground of Millennium Station into a modern terminal didn’t affect all of the spaces, and many still appear to be under construction, particularly the musty and littered entrance corridors. Bare concrete floors and dusty utility lights give way to the Millennium Station Concourse, with its cool blue terrazzo floor with pedestrian lanes, a gentle design reminder to keep movement orderly while moving through the space during rush hour.
Close to 20,000 people board Metra and South Shore Line trains daily, many of them working the Pedway to shave off precious seconds from their commute from offices downtown to awaiting trains. Fans of the Batman franchise will remember this area from 2008’s The Dark Knight. Batman sped through the concourse on the Batpod with the same ferocity as a sneaker and white tube sock suburbanite, frantic to catch her Union Pacific Northwest to Arlington Heights that leaves at 5:05 p.m.
Mbar, within the station, and perhaps the Pedway’s only official bar (as Infields is technically located inside Macy’s), provides commuters with drinks and snacks before their rides home. I watched a weary professional order an “extra-large Chard” from the bartender, who emptied out the cold coffee from her mug and filled it with Chardonnay, as travelers on commuter trains may choose to take their beverages to go.
North of Lake Street and accessible only above ground, is the second largest segment of the Pedway, connecting Michigan Plaza at 205 N. Michigan Avenue, to the Swissotel Chicago. The western-most entry point to this portion of the Pedway was difficult to find. I initially followed the wrong escalator down once inside Michigan Plaza and into a private area where I was chastised for taking a photograph of a particularly unhelpful sign.
The Pedway here, toted by neighbors as beneath the New East Side micro neighborhood, extends to several hotels, including the Fairmont Hotel and the Hyatt Regency, and takes on a decidedly different character than the larger portion of the Pedway. Spaces along this stretch are cleaner and carpeted, and have more in common with hotel hallways than the larger portion of the Pedway connecting civic and commercial buildings.
With only three residential buildings boasting connections to the Pedway, specifically the Heritage at Millennium Park, the Park Millennium, and Aqua Tower, residents of the area were disappointed that the Pedway did not continue east once it was connected to Aqua in 2009. Despite the limited access to residential developments, this area of the Pedway seems popular with young parents and dog owners during the day, as I dodged several sleepy toddlers in strollers and joyful terriers.
The route became particularly confusing as I approached the Hyatt Regency, where several entrances and pathways are unmarked. Twice I ended up going down the wrong hallway and was plunged into the perpetual darkness of Lower Wacker Drive with no Pedway compass in sight. Here I ran into a young man who seemed to lose all hope in finding the Central Auto Pound. Was this some sort of pedestrian purgatory?
I asked a parking lot security guard for directions back down into the Pedway, heading south on lower Columbus Drive at his suggestion. When I arrived at what I heard to be the entrance to the Pedway, I found a stairway leading up. Did the security guard mistake my question about the Pedway entrance as one asking how to just simply get out of here?
I ascended the steps onto upper Columbus Drive, a street full of hotels, commercial buildings and general pedestrian unfriendliness that is more evocative of suburban Schaumburg than the Loop. Following an escalator down into the Pedway connected to Aqua, back on track towards the Swisshotel.
I thought about the simplicity of Chicago’s street grid system, creating a zero point at State and Madison streets that has assisted Chicagoans to get where they are going since 1909, against the intricacies and colloquial habits of the Pedway system.
There is room for improvement, particularly in terms of increasing the number of signs and making them consistent overall, but with three levels to Wacker Drive, neighborhoods and the grid system slashed by highways, diagonal streets and boulevards, knowing how to get around in Chicago is often an experience that maps and signs cannot teach. The only way to master the Chicago Pedway is on foot racking up the underground miles step by step.