Streetsblog’s Irreverent Guide to Chicago Planning Highlights and Lowlights

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View from the top of "Mt. Bridgeport" in Palmisano/Stearns Quarry Park. Photo by John Greenfield.

We’d like to give a warm welcome to urban planners from across the country who are coming to our fair city for the American Planning Association’s national conference, April 13-17. The APA has published an excellent, 46-page Planner’s Guide to Chicago, chock full of Windy City sights and activities that will appeal to attendees, as well as some fascinating historic and contemporary maps.

Those with an interest in bicycle culture might want to check out John Greenfield’s Visitor’s Guide to Biking in Chicago. We’d also like to offer this quick-and-dirty guide to a few of the local planning hotspots we love – and a few we love to hate.

View APA recommendations in a full screen map. Letters on the map pins correspond to the entries below.

The Bad

A. Greenwash Selfish-Park (60 West Kinzie) Billed as “Chicago’s first earth-friendly parking garage,” Greenway Self-Park’s logo features a VW Bug with leaves blowing out of the tailpipes rather than noxious fumes. But just how eco-friendly is a structure that warehouses 715 cars on prime downtown land, a stone’s throw from multiple transit stations? Please let us know if you actually see those corkscrew wind turbines rotate.

B. Chicago’s Dumbest Intersection (Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street) When Millennium Park opened in 2004, the increase in foot traffic on Michigan led to more conflicts between pedestrians and turning cars. The Richard M. Daley administration’s solution? Remove several crosswalks. This one is the worst example: while it used to be possible to walk directly from the Chicago Cultural Center to the park, now it’s necessary to make three street crossings.

C. Union Station Traffic Snafu (Canal Street and Jackson Boulevard) Best observed during the afternoon rush hour, this confluence of half a dozen bus routes, idling coach buses, hundreds of taxis and thousands of pedestrians per hour can make crossing the street here, or just driving or biking straight, an ordeal. The city has a Union Station Master Plan that recommends interventions, and the Chicago Department of Transportation is building an off-street transportation center just south of the station for bus/train connections that should make traffic more predictable.

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The Greenway Self-Park "earth-friendly parking garage." Photo by John Greenfield.

D. Faux-HAWK (Monroe Street east of Michigan Avenue) After the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago opened across from Millennium Park in 2009, many people made a hazardous mid-block crossing between the attractions. The museum paid for a talking crosswalk that doesn’t actually solve the problem. Speeding drivers still don’t always see, slow or stop for people crossing the street. A pedestrian-activated Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (similar to a HAWK beacon) was taken out by a car months ago, but a sign still tells peds to “Thank the driver” for stopping as you cross the roadway.

E. Fullerton Avenue Fiasco (Fullerton Avenue at Lake Shore Drive) Here’s another Daley-era design that eliminates conflicts between pedestrians and cars by removing the pedestrians. Formerly, it was possible to safely walk or bike under Lake Shore Drive to the lakefront via the sidewalk on the south side of Fullerton, a de-facto multiuse path. To make it easier for cars on Fullerton to turn south onto the drive, the sidewalk was removed to make room for a second on-ramp lane. Now pedestrians and cyclists are supposed take an extremely circuitous ramps-and-underpass route to the beach.

F. Chicago/Ogden/Milwaukee Crash Zone (intersection of Chicago, Ogden and Milwaukee avenues) Our city is known for its nearly seamless street grid, but not so much for its six-way intersections. A skewed street configuration, outdated traffic signal programming, and high car and bike traffic volumes makes this six-way one of the top locations for bike crashes every year. Last summer a speeding cabbie killed a pedestrian here.

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The reinstalled Queen's Landing crosswalk. Photo by Steven Vance.

The Good

G. Queen’s Landing Crosswalk (500 South Lake Shore Drive) The Daley administration’s most blatantly pro-car, anti-pedestrian maneuver was the 2005 removal of the dedicated walk signal and crosswalk at Queen’s Landing, between the lakefront and Buckingham Fountain. While the removal saved motorists a minute or two of wait time, it forced people on foot to take a ten-minute detour. As part of a wave of ped improvements under Rahm Emanuel, the city reinstalled the crosswalk and signal on Thanksgiving Day 2011, definitely something to give thanks for.

H. Chocolate-Scented Bike Lane (Kinzie Street from Desplaines to Wells streets) There’s lots to love about Chicago’s flagship protected bike lane, the first half-mile of 100 miles of protected and buffered lanes Rahm Emanuel has promised to install in his first term. Since lines of parked cars shelter cyclists from moving vehicles, protected lanes are just the ticket to help newbies feel comfortable riding on city streets. Best of all is the location, next to the fragrant Blommer Chocolate factory.

I. Milwaukee/North/Damen Mashup (Milwaukee, North and Damen avenues) The chaotic epicenter of the hip Wicker Park-Bucktown area would be a great place to install Chicago’s first pedestrian scramble, something CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein has expressed interest in piloting. This would also be an obvious place to implement the city’s new Complete Streets guidelines as they apply to complex intersections. Check out the view from the adjacent Blue Line platform, as well as the city’s first on-street bike parking corral at 1579 North Milwaukee.

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Opening day on the Dearborn two-way protected lane. Photo by John Greenfield.

J. Dearborn Two-Way Protected Bike Lane (Dearborn Street between Polk and Kinzie streets) It was a great day in Chicago last December when Mayor Emanuel cut the ribbon on the city’s first two-way protected lane, complete with dedicated bike traffic signals. Building it required removing a travel lane, a gutsy thing to do in the heart of the Loop business district. While the lanes are a bit narrow, this bikeway, over a mile long, is our favorite in the city because it provides a major reduction in cycling stress.

K. Chicago Riverwalk (south bank of the Chicago River from Lake Michigan to State Street) Right now you can take an uninterrupted stroll or pedal almost a mile from the lakefront to Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Park. Ray LaHood recently announced federal funding that will allow Chicago to extend the riverwalk several blocks west, a roughly $100 million project slated for completion in 2016. With waterfront cafes, kayak rental, a play fountain, fishing piers, floating gardens and more, this new, glitzier riverwalk section should be pretty frickin’ cool.

First day of CTA Morgan Station serving the Green and Pink Lines
CTA Green/Pink Morgan Station. Photo by Steven Vance.

‘L’. CTA Green/Pink Line Morgan Stop (Lake and Morgan streets) Opened last year, Chicago’s most beautiful ‘L’ station features sleek green canopies sheltering customers as they wait for their ride, plus a fully enclosed glass skybridge between the platforms, great for photographing the trains and skyline. Downstairs, sidewalks on both Lake and Morgan were widened to make room for the station houses and artistic, circular bike racks, the product of a design competition. The whole facility is an architect’s delight, and a relative bargain at only $38 million.

M. Public Space Nirvana in Andersonville (Clark Street between Argyle and Olive streets) This Portlandia-esque neighborhood is ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainable transportation and public space initiatives. Last year the Clark Street business strip, one of Chicago’s most vibrant pedestrian retail districts, became home to one of the city’s first “People Spots,” which replaced parking spaces with a miniature park, as well as two on-street bike parking corrals. Another parklet and several more corrals will debut this summer.

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The Bronzeville Victory Monument. Photo by John Greenfield.

N-S. Other Fantastic Stuff (various locations) We also highly recommend taking (N) a Chicago Architecture Foundation architectural river cruise; (O) checking out Palmisano/Stearns Quarry Park in Bridgeport and (P) Ping Tom Park in Chinatown; (Q) strolling the Chicago Museum Campus after looking at photos of what it used to be like before Lake Shore Drive was reconfigured; (R) cruising Northerly Island Park on a bike; (S) hiking the Northwest Side’s dormant Bloomingdale Line, slated to become a trail and “linear park”; (T) Strolling the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, including the iconic Bronzeville Victory Monument.

The Ugly

U. Navy Pier Flyover The Lakefront Trail is one of Chicago’s sustainable transportation treasures, a scenic, uninterrupted, 18.5-mile greenway. Actually, make that “semi-uninterrupted” – there’s a gnarly bottleneck where the path crosses the river, and dangerous intersections with Illinois Street and Grand Avenue near the pier, Illinois’ busiest tourist attraction. The planned $44.5 million flyover would allow cyclists to soar over these problem areas, but Steven Vance has proposed a much simpler, cheaper solution. Either way, we’ll be happy to see Chicago’s gem of a bike path get a little more sparkle.

  • Anonymous

    Canal/Jackson makes your worst list? I go through that all the time and I really don’t find it to be very bad. The pedestrian count isn’t all that high because most people going into Union don’t need to go through the intersection (most come from the loop and can go into Union directly from Riverside). The contraflow CTA lane is the only thing that makes it any different from most other intersections of two one way streets.

  • That’s right: most pedestrians aren’t crossing here to get to Union Station. It’s awful to bike through, though. There’s still a lot of pedestrian traffic generated by drop offs and people who don’t know which door of Union Station to enter (I forget all the time).

  • Anonymous

    Okay, I guess I was focused on the intersection itself. You’re more getting at all the crap on Canal between Jackson and Adams, which can look like the departures level at o’hare/midway at times.

  • It definitely helped ease the chaos a bit (and placated the Union Station authorities) when they moved the Megabus stop a couple blocks south on Canal.

  • Juan Campoverde

    I ride the Blue Island bus, and occasionally bike north on Canal past Jackson on a regular basis and it absolutely deserves to make this list. It got a hair better when they moved the northbound bus stop a block north, but it’s still a giant mess.

  • Juan Campoverde

    OK guys, looking forward to the “10 biggest blunders from the Emmanuel administration” piece. Let’s have it!

  • Jim

    Are you kidding? These people think Rahm walks on water! Let’s take every street and turn it into a bike lane! I mean, this automobile thing just isn’t going to catch on! Never mind the fact that they want their store shelves stocked. I mean, how would vehicles get where they need to go? They don’t need roads, everyone can just walk or ride a bike.

    One could only hope that Rahm is a one term mayor, and we get someone who looks at all of this silliness and gives the ROADS back to cars. Now excuse me while I go park in a bike lane! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA suckers!!!!!!
    Watch out for me in my big bad automobile!!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

  • Juan, me gusta tu nombre.

    Don’t worry gentlemen, if you look back at some older posts you’ll see we have no problem with critiquing current policies when appropriate. The fact is, when it comes to sustainable transportation, there’s a lot to like about the Emanuel administration. The new Complete Streets Chicago design guide is latest proof.

    Jim, they’ve got protected bike lanes on just about every business street in Copenhagen and Amsterdam and they have no problem keeping their store shelves stocked.

  • Randy Neufeld

    Please don’t call the Navy Pier Flyover ugly and please don’t call Vance’s suggestion an alternative. The Flyover will be beautiful and worth every penny. That’s why so many of have worked for over a decade to have it built. The Lakefront Path draws millions, is worth billions and deserves a great fix to a horrible set of intersections. Vance’s suggestions would be a short term help but the the main triumph of the Flyover is that it flys over and takes the Lakefront trail away from the dangerous pedestrian and traffic conflicts of the Grand and Illinois crossings. Trail users don’t need to fight it out in the catacombs beneath the freeway. StreetsBlog shouldn’t fuel a rehashing of a good decision that has been through public review. The views will be spectacular. Chicago deserves a great project like the Navy Pier Flyover.

  • BlueFairlane

    Ha! The flyover is an unnecessary boondoggle that devotes almost $50 million to solving problems with two intersections. It’s pretty and bright, sure, and it will provide great views from a spot where you can already get great views, but I don’t think a view is worth that much money. When people ask why Chicago can’t have nice things, this is why. All flash, no substance.

  • Juan C

    As long as I’ve been riding megabus it’s been in the first block south of Jackson, as I believe it is now. Where was it originally?

  • Thanks for the feedback Randy and for all the terrific work you’ve done for sustainable transportation in Chicago over the past few decades. Sorry if that was confusing – “Ugly” refers to the current situation, which will be improved one way or another. I agree that the flyover will be beautiful and awesome to ride on, Millennium Park-level bike infrastructure. However, I do think the subject of whether this is a smart use of $44.5 million, when Steven’s solution would solve most of the problem at a fraction of the cost, is one worthy of debate.

  • Anonymous

    I was at the Art Institute yesterday and wondered what happened to the “light’. Do we know if or when it is coming back? And as a pedestrian who tries to cross Irving Park, Western and Addison regularly I would love to see more of those types of beacons to help out between the long stretches without lights.

  • It used to stop right in front of the east building of Union Station, between Adams and Jackson. This upset Amtrak because customers of Megbus, Amtrak’s competitor, were getting to use Union Station as a waiting area even though Megabus doesn’t contribute directly to Union Station’s upkeep.

  • Great list. Tough to pick a favorite. I definitely agree with you on Michigan/Randolph as the dumbest intersection. If they’d been a little smarter when building Millennium Park, they could have mitigated this somewhat by creating a stairway and elevator to go from the Pedway/Randolph station and the park. I’ve looked more than once and never been able to find one. Is there a well hidden one that I’ve missed, or could we bundle this lapse into the vortex of dumbness that is Michigan/Randolph?

  • Yes, there is a way to do this. Walk down the stairs outside the Chicago Cultural Center’s Randolph entrance. Walk east into Millennium Station. Just past the flower shop in the station on your right side, turn right down a hallway and go through a door. Take the next right through an emergency exit. No alarm will sound, but you won’t be able to reenter the station. Walk up a few steps and you’ll emerge behind the Millennium Park colonnade on the southeast corner of Michigan/Randolph.

  • Carl

    Good list. One unappreciated shining example is Giddings Plaza in Lincoln Square. With its German roots and nearby shops serving declious treats, its always buzzing with people. An added bonus – students from the Old Town School of Folk Music regularly add to the ambiance with impromptu street performances. This is the closest example of European-style public space in the city.

  • Very true – Giddings Plaza (AKA Kempf Plaza) is a shining example of good urban planning in Chicago. Like we said, this is a quick-and-dirty guide, so we didn’t include everything we like (and dislike). The guide is also fairly Loop-centric since most conference attendees are staying at the downtown Hyatt.

  • Bruce

    I don’t think that was a HAWK (now officially called a Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon) on Monroe. It was (is) a Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon.

  • Hmm, if that’s the case, it’s yet another reason to call it a Faux-HAWK. We’ll look into it.

  • Andersonville resident

    Public Space Nirvana?! Residents of Andersonville live with an open space deficit (defined by the city) and have voted for a blighted area to be turned into a real park. We travel to other neighborhoods to enjoy a park and park amenities. The parklet does not serve area residents but has proven popular with visitors to our community. In Chicago (where nearly every neighborhood has easy access to park space) replacing parking spaces is hardly ahead of the curve. In fact, a temporary (i.e., seasonal) plywood space with uncomfortable seating, car exhaust, and a few plants, is largely behind the curve….especially when the people who lead this initiative would rather have a large commercial space built on the 3 acres that is currently occupied by an abandoned hospital. Other neighborhoods get “Movies in the Park” – we get movies in a parking lot and a lot of people telling us that we don’t need a real park. I’m looking forward to the second parklet that will be right next to a row of dumpsters. ah, Nirvana…smells like teen spirit to me, not quality planning.

  • Thanks for the feedback. How do you figure the exisiting parklet does not serve community resident? Is everyone who’s eating lunch on the benches or lounging on the turf-covered incline wearing a conventioneer badge? The second parklet will be on Clark south of Olive – there don’t seem to be dumpsters anywhere near there. I’d like to find out more about the hospital issue. But you’re not going to get much sympathy for your “Andersonville is a parkland desert” complaint since Clark/Foster is a 15 minute walk from big, beautiful Winnemac Park and a 6-minute bike ride from Foster Beach.

  • Erik Swedlund

    I do consider Andersonville to be a “Public Space Nirvana,” which is not to say it does not have an open space deficit–but that’s what I like about it. I’m not stopping by Andersonville to visit a park (I have plenty to visit in Rogers Park); I’m coming for the dense, walkable, interesting retail along Clark. I appreciate that residents might want more local parks, and should probably get them, but the neighborhood isn’t solely the province of residents: visitors visit because they enjoy the area.

  • Chicago South

    Not surprised to see ChiStreetsBlog still treating the South and West Sides as an afterthought.

  • Wow, really? It’s hard to tell that that concrete thing with handrails around it at the southeast corner of Michigan/Randolph is a staircase.

  • We’re open to suggestions.

    We focused on places that were close to where the 5,000 attendees were staying (Wacker/Michigan) and are more likely to be able to visit on the short time they have between conference sessions.

  • Thanks for your input. We do keep geographic equity in mind, and I think this list isn’t bad in terms of distance from State/Madison, Chicago’s Ground Zero. There are a few more sites on the North and Northwest Sides, but we really couldn’t leave out Andersonville, the Bloomingdale Line (which extends into the West Side), and Fullerton/LSD when talking about the best and worst features of Chicago urban planning. If you’ve got some other suggestions for this guide, feel free to share them.

    “Checkerboard City,” my weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, more-or-less alternates between North Side / Downtown stories and South / West Side topics. For example, you might be interested in this week’s column about how Englewood residents believe the neighborhood’s position as a transit hub will be a key to reviving the local economy: http://newcity.com/2013/04/16/checkerboard-city-can-transportation-options-energize-englewood/

  • Jason

    Hey Randy. Is there any word on when construction for the Flyover might begin?

  • Last time we checked it was supposed to be bid out this year and constructed in 2014.

  • John

    Bruce is correct

  • Thanks John.

  • Separate from pedestrians? I take the trail for my daily commute 6 times a week, and my experience is that whenever a bike path is close, pedestrians will choose that one over the foot path closest by. Especially if it is closer to the roadway—(false) sense of security perhaps? In the meantime, Vance’s solution would offer a much quicker, cheaper solution. While not ideal, I also question the notion that in a city bike traffic should be completely separated in the way you describe. What we need at that location is space, and too much of it is taken up by speeding, impatient and often inconsiderate drivers. Compare the amount of space allotted to cars (6 lanes in each direction) and that for pedestrian/bikers/rollerbladers (1/2 a lane for both directions). Profoundly misguided in my opinion. As fancy and pretty as the flyover may be, we’ll be stuck with the present situation for at least another two to three years, and likely more, as projects like these always encounter delays.

  • Listen to this guy. He’s from the Netherlands, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to bike/ped separation issues.

  • Thanks John—at this point I’m probably more Chicago than Dutch, I’ve been here for 23 years. However, I do still know how to think economically. And when 50 million is blown on a project that could be done immensely cheaper, while elsewhere there isn’t money to re-paint fading bike lanes and fill pot holes, I couldn’t disagree more with the statements of Mr. Neufeld.

  • It’s true that $44.5 million could re-stripe a lot of bike lanes. One issue is that it’s easier to find money for new infrastructure than fixing the old. For example, federal/local Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement money is commonly used for new bike projects but you can’t use it for maintenance.

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