The road less traveled
In Chicago's 1,900 miles of alleys, rules often get thrown out the window. Here's how to navigate our most lawless streets the right way.
“Speed limit? What speed limit?” exclaims North Center resident Brian Carey, adding he typically drives around 20mph in alleys. “I’ve never seen a speed-limit sign in a Chicago alley, and I’ve lived here all my life.” While most of us half-ass estimate what speed we should be driving in alleyways, the official driving manual for the State of Illinois says that, yes, an official alley speed limit of 15mph exists, and drivers who exceed it can be ticketed. Be especially careful if the alley you’re in also happens to be a construction zone: The minimum fine for speeding through one of those zones—back alley or otherwise—is a wallet-crushing $375 for the first offense, $1,000 for a repeated offense.
“The worst is when people are parked in the alley, just sitting there chitchatting with each other, while other people are waiting behind them,” says Angela Manson, an Edgewater resident who’s been driving in Chicago for two years. “Whenever I see that, I honk.” The Chicago Municipal Code dictates that parking in an alley is a big no-no unless it’s for loading or unloading, pickup or delivery purposes. Even then, drivers picking up or delivering are required to leave a strip of road at least 10 feet wide for oncoming traffic to pass or be subject to fines. Good luck finding that. In our experience, you have as good a chance of finding a movers’ truck following that regulation as you do of spotting a yeti playing Ping-Pong against a unicorn.
The loud crowd
If you’re looking to safely leave an alley without pissing off the neighbors, forget about honking, says Brian Steele, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation. “Drivers absolutely should not honk in alleys,” Steele says. “A vehicle traveling slowly should not have to honk to call attention to their vehicle. Their safe driving should call attention to their vehicle.” Steele adds that drivers who go slow, stop before reaching an intersection, and stay on the lookout for stray animals, children and other pedestrians have no need to honk before pulling out onto a street. Though honking may be taboo, going at a snail’s pace isn’t. When leaving an alley and approaching an intersection flanked by two buildings, drivers should virtually crawl to the intersection, keeping their blind spots in check.
“It pisses me off when people move out and throw their trash into the alley, big things like an old futon or old TV stands,” Manson says. “People will throw anything in alleys.” Contrary to popular belief, Chicago’s extensive alley system isn’t a personal dumping ground for people changing apartments. In fact, each of the city’s 50 wards has its own superintendent in charge of making sure the alleys stay relatively clean and unobstructed. The Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department website (cityofchicago.org; click on “city departments”) states that those with one or two large trash items like old furniture can discard their once-valuables by placing them beside their regular bins the day before collection. Those with more can call their ward superintendant to arrange a free bulk pickup. Making that call could be one of the most money-saving moves you make all year. So-called fly dumpers caught illegally leaving furniture, tires or yard waste in alleys are subject to a $2,000 fine for the first offense. Call the fly-dumping hotline at 312-744-7672 if you spot illegal dumping in action, narc.
Unfortunately, there are situations where alley law is yet to be settled, as in the case of two cars coming from opposite directions. Who pulls over? Who gets the right of way? That’s for you to decide, Steele says. “I honestly don’t know if there’s any ‘rule’ on that one. I don’t think it’s governed by any specific ordinance.” Drivers who find themselves in that circumstance can stare each other down in an unwinnable, time-consuming stalemate, or one can simply prove how not-a-total-dicknugget he or she is by yielding. In cases like this, Steele admits, it’s up to drivers’ common sense to decide the laws in these here (alley) lands. Govern with care.