Thinking Big: The Lake Shore Drive Bike-and-Bus Highway

Adding bus-only and bike-only lanes on Lake Shore Drive would clear the way for efficient transportation and send fewer cars onto Chicago's streets. Graphic: Chicago Magazine

Back in August, longtime bicycling activist Randy Neufeld – currently the director of the SRAM Cycling Fund and formerly the Active Transportation Alliance’s first paid staffer – outlined an intriguing proposal in Chicago Magazine: building a bike-and-bus highway into the north Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project.

…the city could create two specialized lanes at minimal cost. One should be for a bus rapid transit system, which is essentially a train system without rails. Rapid transit buses—already operating in places like Bogotá, Colombia—move rapidly. They don’t bog down in traffic like express buses do. And riders pay at stations instead of as they board, which is more efficient. The bus lane would be closest to the median strip. Then there would be a lane for bikes and for light electric vehicles, such as electric assist cargo bikes and solar-charged scooters. Two traditional car lanes would be on the right, where drivers could use the off ramps easily.

Just imagine: Chicago could be the first city in the world with an express lane—on our signature road!—dedicated to emerging green urban mobility. There are big economic benefits to a Lake Shore Drive that attracts tourists, that serves residents who choose not to drive, and that is 100 percent reliable, regardless of events and weather. And all this could be done within five years.

I ran into Neufeld on Monday at the Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Summit and asked him how the high-capacity buses would enter and exit the highway. If the buses had to merge with regular automobile traffic, it would slow the buses down or make it difficult for drivers to enter or exit Lake Shore Drive.

He said the buses wouldn’t leave the route: They would work like a rail system, with stations at the major streets. Express routes like 151-Sheridan would exit at major streets and take surface roads. There could be some direct access ramps for buses only, like on I-15 in Escondido, California (satellite view):

I-15 Express Lanes (San Diego County)
The tolled I-15 Express Lanes have congestion pricing, but allow buses and carpools for free. There are direct access ramps so you don't have to merge from outer to inner lanes. Photo by jfs1988.

The same ramps would give cyclists access to a speedy way to travel to and from downtown, avoiding the congested Lakefront Trail that gets even more difficult to ride in the winter.

The Lakefront Trail is unrideable through some of winter. Here, ice blocks cover the Oak Street curve. Photo: @lizzxii
  • Mikeycan’tfail

    I think the Bus Lanes need to implemented immediately, especially between Belmont and the Loop and 31st St. But wouldn’t the bus lanes work better on the Outer Lanes and have autos merge into them briefly to get off the Lake Shore. Stopping Buses like subways at the major road intersections seems weird because there isn’t much of anything surround the intersections of Belmont-LSD, Fullerton-LSD and Irving Park-LSD

  • Randy simply proposed the idea, but as you can see, the details are still up in the air. It would be an all-new facility so we can design it how we see fit.

    Since the bus routes already don’t make any intermediate stops, that operation could continue. Or maybe some buses get off the direct access ramps but other buses make a stop there.

    A full public planning process for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project will begin this year.

  • CL

    I’m curious why anyone would take a bus on Lake Shore Drive instead of the red line. The few times I have hopped on a 147 or 151 bus to go back to Rogers Park because one was right there, I regretted it because the trip took so much longer — especially during rush hour. It would help if the bus could move quickly on LSD like under this plan, but all of the other stops in traffic still slow it down considerably compared to the L.

  • Fedor Manin

    Closer in, in Uptown, Lake View and Lincoln Park, the Red Line is pretty far away from the lakefront, between half a mile and a mile. So for the people who live in lakefront highrises, the LSD buses are more convenient. A lot of these people also drive — a dedicated bus lane would help with that.

  • I know plenty of folks who live close to the lake in East Lakeview, Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park who often take an express bus rather than the red line for one of three reasons. One: on their inbound trip, the red line is already very crowded, sometimes to the point where it’s impossible to get on the first or even second train. Two: they have personal safety concerns about walking between their homes and the nearest red line station at night. Three: if one is facing hellish weather, especially strong cold wind off the lake in wet conditions, the choice between walking 1/2 mile or more in that weather vs. catching a bus right outside one’s door tends to override travel time as a decision factor.

    Years ago I lived at Sheridan and Ardmore and faced this same choice. I often needed to come and go at night, when the areas around the Bryn Mawr and Thorndale stations were dicey at best. In the daytime, my decision often depended on weather or the location at the other end of my trip. At night, I almost always opted for the bus stop right outside my door.

  • Alan Robinson

    The outer lanes would not work when traffic backs up the off-ramps. However, this would be less of a problem with car lanes removed from LSD where the car capacity of LSD would then more closely match the capacity of its exits.

  • CL

    Thanks – I live nearly one mile from the L station,so I can understand this. I sometimes get on the 22 just because I’m too lazy to walk, even though it takes longer. But the LSD bus seems to add so much time that it’s not worth it — however it might be better with BRT.

  • Guest

    I am all for multi modal transportation options, but this is a fundamentally flawed idea, and would be an enormous waste of capacity. LSD is just too far East for most people, especially once it moves South of Belmont. The express buses work just fine (I used to take the 145/146 from Roscoe and Sheridan and it would routinely take 12-18 min to get to Michigan/Randolph) and the lakefront trail is a perfectly situated bikeway for fair weather months. If you want a inland bikeway I would suggest Sheridan as a prime candidate.

    But giving up two entire lanes of LSD to bicycles? Creating direct access ramps for center running BRT? …and the ridiculous overpasses that would accompany them? Just a terrible, terrible idea.

  • Joseph Musco

    “Big think BRT” is an oxymoron. Bus rapid transit’s only real advantage as a tool in the transportation toolbox is its short term implementation cost. If you are thinking big, short term costs shouldn’t be a factor. If short term costs aren’t a factor, what does BRT have to offer as a mode choice?

  • Anonymous

    Seems like most are focusing on the bus lanes, but why in the hell would it make sense to put bike lanes on LSD? There is already a parallel bike path the entire length. Expand that if needed

  • Expansion (widening) wouldn’t necessarily eliminate or mitigate the issues. It would expand capacity, but that’s not what the issue is: it’s that some people want to go fast and straight and others want to move slowly and meander. The two groups have different reasons for using the Lakefront Trail.

    It would make sense to put bike lanes on Lake Shore Drive, in a completely separate right of way because the Lake Shore Drive’s path is optimized for fast travel.

  • Forget the name BRT right now.

    There are already a dozen bus routes using Lake Shore Drive (north and south portions). Should they not have prioritization on this highway?

  • Joseph Musco

    Yes, I agree!

    I have issues with costs of implementation and operation for central lane separation for buses. I don’t think it is safer for pedestrians to have to cross traffic twice for every leg, however short the crossing. My hunch is that the decision making of involved with lane crossing is the #1 cause of pedestrian accidents, not the length of crossing. It’s not an issue on LSD where pedestrians almost always cross on a different plane than traffic and the buses run express but I hate it for an intracity artery like Western or Ashland.

  • Anonymous

    So instead of expanding, build a second high speed trail alongside. I don’t see how it’s possibly safe to have bikes on LSD. The picture shown has the bikes sharing space with electrical vehicles. How is that safe? Electrical vehicles may be a hell of a lot better for the planet, but they’re not better for a cyclist if it hits you.

  • In reality, if the buses did use a median lane, the stations would only be located where major roads or pedestrian tunnels are, and access would occur via a stair built into the tunnel wall, like a really simplified version of the Blue Line’s Irving Park station.

    Direct-access ramps might be necessary, because moving a flexible extended bus across 4 lanes of traffic is difficult in good conditions. You wouldn’t get a big ugly overpass like the Escondido example; the new ramps would be buried in the middle of existing overpasses.

  • The picture hardly represents what would actually be built. In no way would cyclists on Lake Shore Drive interact with automobiles. And Randy suggested that the electric vehicles would be cargo bikes and scooters. European countries have strict rules (but so-so enforcement) about which scooters are allowed to use bike paths, measured by speed and/or engine volume.

  • People would cross to the center stations when the signal says so. Therefore, no automobiles should be moving. I would add that right-turn-on-red should be banned at any intersection with a center bus station.

  • Adam Herstein

    A better plan would be to tear down Lake Shore Drive entirely.

  • Adam Herstein

    Right-on-red should be banned everywhere.

  • Adam Herstein

    I had the opposite experience. The express buses get overcrowded and I frequently had to wait for 3 or 4 packed buses to go by before I could even get on one, and even then, I’d be standing. If I walk the extra four blocks to the Brown/Red/Purple line, I can get on the first train that arrives, and even get a seat!

  • Anonymous

    “The city could create two specialized lanes at minimal cost. One should be for a bus rapid transit system, which is essentially a train system without rails,” No, BRT is not “essentially a train system without rails.” If it were, premier BRT examples worldwide would not ever transition to rail – they would forever stay BRT.

    Importantly, the operating costs of BRT are *signficantly* higher than rail, BRT can’t handle the passenger volumes that rail can, and fully segregated BRT ROW isn’t cheap, either, though it is best performing among other lesser bus solutions. “BRT boosters often argue that their mode of choice can carry a similar number of riders, but neglect to mention that this is only possible when
    buses arrive every 10 seconds along highway-like four-lane corridors” (http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2011/05/25/the-silly-argument-over-brt-and-rail/). Maybe capacity isn’t the question on LSD; however, operating costs are always a big issue, and they come in perpetuity, unlike the initial investment to build one mode or the other.

    How does a streetcar stack-up?

    Just sayin’

  • Anonymous

    The question isn’t that simple.

    Yes, world-class transit should have a presence in the corridor, and there’s room for improving bike and ped amenities, too.

    As for the transit mode, that’s a question that requires something more than asking whether busses should have prioritization on LSD. Neither cheaper nor better are defined simply by upfront capital costs, and the margin between modes is not always a big one when it comes to fully segregated busways.

  • Anonymous

    VTPI study examining public transportation performance in U.S. urban areas that expanded rail transit with urban areas that expanded bus transit from the mid-1990s through 2003:

    “Analysis indicates that U.S. urban areas that expanded rail service on average significantly outperformed urban areas that only expanded bus service in terms of transit ridership and financial performance. Cities that expanded their rail transit systems gained far more total transit riders than cities that expanded bus transit systems.”

    Why are virtually all Chicago-area plans some form of bus investment? Is it that bus is best or that bus is the only thing we can seem to scrape up capital for because it can be done as (or part of) a road improvement?

    Surely it can’t be because bus is always best . . . and not because they’re cheaper to operate, either – not by a wide margin, yet we annually confront the operating funding crisis that inevitably leads to route changes and curtailments of bus service. That’s not a way to build confidence in transit, let alone to produce a real 21st century transit network that is affordable, reliable, and efficient.

  • Joseph Musco

    I think transit planners underestimate the effect of bad decision making on accidents. Shorter crossings are great in theory but in practice having to cross twice as frequently creates that twice as many decision points for drivers to run lights, make rolling rights, or for pedestrians to walk in traffic staring at their phone.

  • Guest

    It is a highly functional piece of infrastructure and a Chicago attraction in its own right. I say leave it, and if you want to do something dramatic try removing a lane in either direction and constructing a Lakefront subway line (like the one they have proposed for 50 years) to offset the capacity loss.

  • Guest

    It makes no sense whatsoever Steven. It is too far away, would be hyper exposed, and does not take a direct route to employment centers. A barrier separated bikeway on Sheridan would make much more sense IMO.

  • Guest

    Too convoluted, and your idea requires even more roadway width than the current LSD ROW.

  • Thank you guest!

  • Ryan Wallace

    I am glad to see we are even discussing the issue of improving the transportation modes/choices for LSD. Personally, I believe we can prioritize buses on LSD *right now*. I believe marking the *outside* lane for BUS ONLY, can be done immediately, and would require only the cost of the updated pavement markings.

    Improved transit choices have to be part of the discussion for rebuilding LSD in the future (and ALL choices need to be discussed), but I think there is more that we can do NOW.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, but I like LSD. Make it more bike, ped, and transit-oriented, though.

  • Adam Herstein

    The best way to make LSD bike and pedestrian friendly is to remove it entirely. The highway serves as a formidable barrier to the lake front.

  • Adam Herstein

    If a six-lane highway built for cars only is a major attraction in your city, then you are doing something wrong.

  • There’s still a transit need, even if it’s torn down.

  • Does it really? There’s already an unconstructed (just empty space) median for much of Lake Shore Drive. And 1 travel lane in each direction would be converted to a middle two-way bike lane that’s narrower than 2 travel lanes. It could have center, direct access at different points than the buses, including at pedestrian underpasses.

  • “Importantly, the operating costs of BRT are *signficantly* higher than rail…”

    Can you show documentation of this? I feel that since BRT or “BRT” is so new in North America that there doesn’t seem to be much research. Or there’s a ton and the Transportation Research Board is charging an arm and a leg for it.

    Metropolitan Planning Council and Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development are working on a study this year to gauge the economic development potential of Ashland/Western BRT in Chicago.

  • Anonymous

    Anecdotally, here is what was written in Honolulu reference their alternatives analysis, which included consideration of BRT and rail: “The Busway was considered in detail in the Alternatives Analysis and was deemed an unsuitable alternative for Honolulu because of construction and operating costs, design considerations and operating inefficiencies.”

    Also, think of this, which is from NYC transit officials: Two operators can carry lose to 2,000 riders on a single heavy rail train (CTA-type), whereas in a BRT system, 24 operators are needed to carry the same number of riders. More operators = big bump in operating costs.

    Hamilton, CA, analysis titled “Operating and Maintenance Costs for Selected North American Cities by Passenger Miles Traveled and Unlinked Passenger Trips”, and the data source was the United States National Transit Database:

    Info below is in this format: City, State; Population; Per PMT (BRT/LRT); %Diff* ; Per UPT (BRT/LRT); %Diff*
    *Negative value is advantage LRT over BRT, noting that HRT carries even more people, so greater savings than depicted, not to mention that wind is constituting an ever-increasing portion of Illinois power and our existing baseload capacity is non-coal already.

    Denver, CO: 588,349; $0.67/$0.34; -49%; $3.60/$2.17; -40%
    Houston, TX: 2,208,180; $0.55/$0.53; -4%; $3.18/$1.29; -59%
    Minneapolis, MN: 377,392; $0.72/$0.42; -42%; $3.20/$2.41; -25%
    Pittsburgh, PA: 311,218; $0.90/$1.23; -37%; $4.29/$6.00; 40%
    Portland, OR: 550,396; $0.93/$0.39; -58%; $3.27/$2.04; -38%
    San Diego, CA: 1,266,731; $0.71/$0.27; -62%; $2.62/$1.59; -39%

    As for the economic development potential of BRT, one of the tricks in gauging potential local economic development benefits associated with BRT is defining what BRT really is, finding the right comparables (if there are any), and then completing a realistic and unbiased analysis. It is terribly easy to fall into the trap of over-promising and under-delivering on the full spectrum of benefits by comparing apples and oranges, or ascribing the benefits of a fully grade separated (capital intensive) BRT with those of a lesser form of “BRT.” Are the benefits associated with “bronze BRT” (ART?) equal to those of “gold” (fully separated ROW) BRT? Are the benefits of BRT equal to those of rail, as some argue – “it’s just like rail”?

    Garbage in, garbage out.

    A quality and unbiased analysis is truly hard to come by when it comes to spending significant transportation dollars on road-oriented solutions to urban mobility and accessibility problems. In most cases, it is a “build a road solution or build nothing” question and very rarely does a study find that the desired outcome should not be built – it always pencils. What happens after construction? Well, there are a lot of examples of under-performing and assets.

    To illustrate, a 2012 GAO analysis of the economic benefits framed their findings in this way: “In general, we found that project sponsors and other stakeholders in each of our five case study locations believe that the BRT project is having some positive effect on economic development. However, these individuals were unsure about how much of the economic activity can be attributed to the presence of BRT versus other factors or circumstances (See table 2 for a summary of economic development activities near the
    five BRT projects we visited) . . . Project sponsors, local officials, and transit experts we spoke to believe that, in general, rail transit is a better economic development catalyst than BRT; however, this opinion was not universal.”

    That should make it about clear as mud.

  • hello

    Why is North LSD up for reconstruction? They recently resurfaced, and any capacity issues should be addressed with correctly pricing the asset.

    Seems like IDOT is looking to spend some money and “create” some jobs.

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