Envisioning a More Walkable, Transit-Accessible Illinois Medical Distric

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Rush Hospital on the Illinois Medical Campus. Photo: Whim Collective via flickr

With 560 acres of medical research facilities, labs, and classrooms, and more than 40 healthcare facilities, visited by some 50,000 people per day, the Illinois Medical District is a major economic engine. People need convenient access to the campus and to get around within it. With this in mind, a volunteer thinktank submitted a master plan for the district to the IMD leadership, with several ideas to improve transportation options. Last month, the IMD voted to incorporate the ideas into its official master plan.

The plan was brainstormed during a two-day charette hosted last in November by the Chicago Central Area Committee, a braintrust comprised of volunteers from the fields of planning, real estate, and law, as well as the heads of corporations and cultural institutions. In the past, the committee has provided input that helped shape the Museum Campus, Navy Pier and Millennium Park. I recently talked to Mike Szkatulski, managing director of the project management and real estate consulting firm RMC International, who co-chaired the IMD planning session, to learn about their suggestions for improving transportation at the medical district.

One of the key recommendations was to create an intra-district bus service to tie together different parts of the medical campus. “The IMD is really too big to be easily walkable,” Szkatulski said. “We want to connect different parts of the district to each other, to UIC, and to a development being built north of the Eisenhower. That seemed like an obvious missing piece.”

There are plans in the works to enhance the pedestrian environment at the Peoria entrance of the UIC-Halsted Blue Line stop, about a mile east of the IMD, by building a cul-de-sac on Peoria north of the station, and and moving the station house to create a car-free plaza. The pedestrian bridge over the Ike at this location will also be rebuilt and new fencing and landscaping will be added. The CCAC wants to see comparable improvements to the walking environment at the Blue Line’s Illinois Medical District stop, which is already slated for a $23 million rehab next year to make all three entrances accessible to people with disabilities.

Illinois Medical District
The Ogden entrance of the Illinois Medical District Blue Line stop. Photo: Kevin Zolkiewicz

“We were thinking a similar treatment could be done at the Ogden entrance, which currently brings you up to a narrow sidewalk on a major street,” Szkatulski said. “That location is the front door of the whole medical district.” The CCAC plan calls for significantly widening the east sidewalk of Ogden where it crosses the Ike, to create a more inviting walking route to the campus, as well as adding a gateway sign over the expressway.

The plan recommends rethinking the way parking is handled on the medical campus. “It isn’t coordinated,” Szkatulski said. “The major stakeholders are dealing with the issue independently. They really need to come up with a plan for the whole IMD.” He notes that the area is about to become denser, with several new developments in the works. For example, the IMD leadership has a request for proposals out, asking for ideas to develop about ten acres of parking lots on the west side of the campus into office space, labs, residential units, retail, and/or hotels. One idea for accommodating future parking demand without building new lots is to work out an arrangement with the operators of lots that serve United Center customers, with shuttle bus service to the campus.

Another way to address the parking issue is to provide more alternatives to driving, which is why the IMD commission has signed on as an official supporter of the plan for Ashland bus rapid transit, which will run down the eastern border of the campus. “In the plan, we acknowledged that BRT would come down the side of the whole district, so that’s something the IMD will have to work with and take advantage of,” Szkatuski said.

However, the charette took place on the eve of the December public input hearings on the BRT plan, when opponents were getting plenty of airtime in the local press. Szkatulski says there wasn’t much discussion for or against BRT at the seminar. “There was so much going on with the meetings, there wasn’t much we could say until it was sorted out,” he said.

The commission also recommended a few other modest steps for improving conditions for walking and bicycling, including well-lit, well-landscaped walking paths with good wayfinding signs, plus on-street bicycle lanes, bike racks and Divvy stations. “Different transportation modes need to be incorporated into the streetscape,” Szkatulski said.

The IMD leadership is currently looking into hiring an urban planning company to create an official master plan for the district, incorporating some of the suggestions put forth in the CCAC’s plan.

  • Whoever figures out how to turn that area away from being an auto-oriented mess deserves a medal. Most glaring of the mistakes made is placing the EL down the middle of the expressway; one of the worst decisions this city has made. You have to walk at least 200 yards just to get to the northern boundary of the med district from a platform. Most of the district is flat-out not accessible by rail. BRT could really fill in the gap here.

  • Not Needed

    This plan operates on a major assumption that many more people want to walk between the hospitals in the IMD. Each of the IMD institutions is largely independent. They joined together in the IMD to get available land and tax benefits. The hospitals are designed to be independent campuses. IMD is doing good things to reduce parking demand (BRT support and using United Center lots). But walking improvements really aren’t necessary as most people won’t walk to the IMD (due to distance from other places) or walk within the IMD (due to lack of need).

  • alexfrancisburchard

    One would think that the people running the IMD know what it does and does not need, and in this case, the plan is being put together by the people who run the medical district, so that has to count for something, right?

  • Anna Schibrowsky

    Lots of medical personnel live in the apartments along Ashland and walk or bike to work every day. Medical and administrative hospital staff walk to lunch within the IMD and walk around the area to run errands.

    Medical students attend the teaching hospitals within the IMD, walking between classes, labs, internships, meals, and errands. The hospitals also offer joint or rotating residencies, where residents spend the morning at one hospital and walk over to another one for their afternoon rounds.

    People who come to the IMD for medical care also need to walk around. Stronger/Cook County doesn’t offer some services and refers patients to UIC, a couple blocks away, for those. When patients visiting Rush’s office towers are sent for tests, they walk to one of the larger buildings for the tests.

    Plus people need to walk from their parked cars, racked bicycles, the ‘L,’ or the bus to their destinations. There is plenty of need for walking facilities in the Illinois Medical District.

  • J James

    Actually beyond Brt this area would be perfect for an actual street tram. Brt and trams run efficiently sharing the same spaces on the street. A street tram shadowing the plan of the proposed Ashland brt with the capability to turn the lights when approaching would revolutionize travel for commuters along Ashland. Affordable new methods for laying tram lines directly into the street used commonly all over the world now, would make it far more affordable than in the past.
    Ashland is a great place to introduce Brt but an even better place for a tram.

  • Rob Rion

    Metra needs to be addressed also. There is not really a stop there which required people to go all the way to Union Station and then back in an bus which a lot of people will not do. They end up just driving.

  • What are your thoughts on how Metra access to the IMD can be improved? Would you suggest a new station on the BNSF line (which happens to be half a mile away), a better Western Ave. station, or connections between existing stations at Western and Union to the IMD?

  • Fred

    Isn’t BRT just a tram without all the associated infrastructure costs (rails, power lines)? How is tram better than BRT in a way that justifies the added cost?

  • trufe

    will likely never happen due to cost, but there really should be a much larger 3 level blue line/pink line station at paulina

    it is silly to not have a transfer point there

    you could even have another exit from the station at ashland for BRT transfer as well, although then you basically have one long station b/w ogden and ashand

  • alexfrancisburchard

    you could hook trams together and achieve lower operating costs if operating close to capacity. they’re smoother, they’re electric – thus cheaper in that sense usually. BRT is really a waste of money. BRT is what you get when you look 10 years into the future, rather than 100. its cheap short term, but it makes up for it in its operating expense long term. Lets take the extreme case of Istanbul’s MEtroBus – where there are busses every 14 seconds packed to the brims. 1 Istanbul Metro 8-car train carries 2600 people, 1 Istanbul Metrobus carries 100-200 people (depending on the specific model in use – they use many) lets assume they are using the bi-artics for fun (200 cap) every minute the busses are handling 800 people with four drivers. every three minutes the busses handle 2400 with 12 drivers. Istanbul Metro trains could run every three minutes, with one driver, and carry the same amount of people, considerably more comfortably. Look at that over the course of a day, 4000 bus trips becomes 300 train trips, and you’ve eliminated 3700 operator trips (probably about 900 operators) 900*100K is like 90 million a year if my math is right. 90 million you’re overpaying in just operator costs, then there’s fuel, etc. etc.

    So basically, to answer your question, Rail scales with passenger demand much much cheaper than busses do.

    Now, in the case of Chicago, Chicago is broke. there’s no money, so all we’re gonna get is shortchanging our future for our present – BRT. That’s the very best we can hope for in this very financially distraught city.

  • Fred

    I don’t see how most of what you posted has to do with Ashland. Ashland will never see even remotely near that kind of ridership in the next 100 years.

    Also, do train operators really make 100k/yr?!?

    Wouldn’t it be fairly easy to convert the proposed BRT to tram in the future? It will already have stations and dedicated ROW. So wouldn’t it really just be a matter of running track and power? If anything, BRT seems like a good compromise incremental step between the two for a broke city.

  • alexfrancisburchard

    I don’t know how much they make, maybe its closer to 60 or 80K That’s still a lot of money, and I’ve yet to hear about a single actual rail conversion from BRT, so I’ll believe that when I see it. Even in places like IStanbul where it makes NO SENSE at all to keep using busses, (750,000/day on the metrobus, compared to 250,000 on the M2 Metro Line….). Ashland already has a corridor ridership as high as our lowest performing train line(30,000 – Pink Line). Turn it into a train and it may very well double (which would make it 5th of 9 el lines for ridership at 60,000) – plus the city is expanding, downtown is pushing outwards, 100 years ago do you think anyone thought of Roosevelt as part of downtown really, or Division Street? Or West Loop?

    Plus theres the spurring effects of rail, which are considerably less with busses. The property tax revenue increases for the value increase the train brings. (this is how half of Seattle’s New Streetcar – a very low intensity train) was funded. The real estate (excise or transfer, I don’t remember) tax of the sale of the amazon campus alone in South Lake Union brought in around 1/4 of the money it cost to build the streetcar. One Transaction. While we can’t say definitively that would or would not have happened without rail, it is subject to a variety of influences, we know for sure, Paul Allen’s Vulcan (who built and sold those buildings – and also provided the other half of the money for the streetcar – because they saw the importance of rail) built the streetcar into the neighborhood because they wanted rail served buildings. They saw the immense value added due to rail access, even if at an incremental and slow pace.

    Bigger trains produce bigger windfalls. Large projects have gone up along the Light Rail in Seattle along MLK Dr. Those I’m 99.9% sure would NEVER have happened without rail. Wherever the city allows the zoning to be looser around stations, stuff has gone up pretty quickly.

    Like I said, it’s a short term project that will cost more in the long term than doing it right. but again, this city is so failed financially that it will never afford doing it right at this point… I think.

  • Fred

    We can both agree that new rail isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future. So which is better: status quo until rail is economically viable (decades? possibly never?) or BRT?

  • alexfrancisburchard

    Oh, I thought I said in the first round that I begrudgingly support BRT in Chicago because I don’t think it will ever get anything better, but I fear it may actually cause cuts to regular service trying to maintain the operations cost of the BRT level of service. I hope I’m wrong.

  • Brian Sheehan

    Possibly the best option for this would be new infill stations at Ashland on the BNSF line and the shared Milwaukee District/North Central/UP-W tracks for connectivity with the BRT.

    Although this would likely require new BRT stops to serve each (the shared Metra line is too distant to either Grand or Lake), though perhaps the 18th Street BRT station could be realigned to be at 17th St to serve both transfers from BNSF and the #18 bus.

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