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How walkable is Chicago? A new inventory of sidewalks maps the gaps

The data helps municipalities plan better infrastructure, bike paths, and policies

A sidewalk with a leafy parkway and green trees. The homes have a black iron fence in front of the lawn.
A sidewalk in Chicago

Until recently, there was no comprehensive inventory of Chicago sidewalks.

Streets and bike lanes are all mapped, but publicly accessible data on whether every bus stop had a sidewalk or how many streets had sidewalks on both sides didn’t exist, said Lindsay Bayley, Senior Planner, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).

While private companies like WalkScore and other real estate sites offer information about walkability, it isn’t a source city planners or advocacy groups can use freely. The sidewalk inventory was a project that CMAP had wanted to do for nearly a decade, but didn’t have the proper tools and resources to complete until last year.

When the agency was creating its regional On To 2050 recommendation plan, supporting walkability was a major goal. Through this new inventory, which catalogs 30,000 miles of roads across six counties, municipalities can now see what neighborhoods have gaps in walkability.

Bayley, one of the senior researchers who led the year-long project, recently heard that the data had helped the northwest suburban McHenry Department of Transportation create new bicycle and pedestrian paths. The county last completed updates in 1996, and now with the sidewalk data officials will begin to work on a new plan for the first time since then.

Even before the inventory was completed, city planners were reaching out to CMAP for information that was important for developments and other projects.

The data set is massive and right now geared toward municipalities as it’s still within a complex GIS mapping system. Bayley says one of the goals is to make the data more accessible so that everyday people can use it to find out more information about their neighborhoods, safety, and equity.

CMAP is excited to dive deeper into the research this year as creating the inventory was just the first step. Researchers discussed using the sidewalk data to help with analysis of crash fatality to see if roads without sidewalks were more dangerous. Another idea included an economic analysis examining sidewalks neighborhoods of varying incomes.

“What’s important is we now have a baseline to continue to measure progress,” said Bayley. As cities continue to build new infrastructure there’s something now that officials, activists, and others can use to ensure walkability remains a priority.