CDOT Tweaks Randolph/Michigan, But It’s Still Dysfunctional for Pedestrians

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The new right turn signal at Randolph/Michigan. Photo: John Greenfield

When you build a fabulous new attraction in the center of a bustling metropolis, you obviously want to maximize pedestrian access to make it easy for large numbers of people to walk there, right? That’s not what happened with Millennium Park.

A month after the music and art venue opened in the summer of 2004, drawing big crowds of pedestrians, the city actually took steps that made it more difficult to access the park on foot. After observing many conflicts between pedestrians crossing Michigan and motorists turning left onto the avenue, city traffic engineers solved the problem – by eliminating the pedestrians.

The Chicago Department of Transportation ground out crosswalks and barricaded corners at several intersections. Most egregiously, they removed the crosswalk at the south leg of Michigan/Randolph. At the time, a CDOT spokesman told me it was done because of safety concerns. Conveniently for motorists, however, eliminating this pedestrian movement also facilitated southbound turns onto Michigan by drivers heading west on Randolph.

The city spent $51,000 to install bollards and chains at the southwest and southeast corners of this intersection, deterring people from walking directly from the Chicago Cultural Center (which houses the city’s main visitor info center) to Millennium Park. Instead, pedestrians are now expected to cross the street three times to make the same move: north across Randolph, east across Michigan, then south across Randolph again. In addition to creating a major detour across 19 lanes of traffic, this made the remaining crosswalks more crowded.

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Formerly you could cross directly between the southwest corner and the southeast. Now it takes three crossings to make the same trip.

When the Emanuel administration took over in 2011, the appointment of forward-thinking transportation commissioner Gabe Klein suggested that this kind of cars-first planning might be a thing of the past. Shortly after he started at CDOT, I asked Klein if for his take on the Michigan Avenue situation, and the fact that the city had also taken out the midblock crosswalk between Buckingham Fountain and the lakefront in 2004.

“The Randolph/Michigan issue is interesting,” he said. “I don’t like it, from the standpoint that I would like to give priority to the pedestrians that we’re relying on to populate the park. Having said that, if the crosswalk was taken out because of safety concerns, then we really have to look at Michigan Avenue, which I think is just a problem.”

Klein added that he would like to reinstall the Buckingham crosswalk, and a few months later, CDOT did just that. Last summer, the department restriped the crossing at the north leg of Washington/Michigan, the main entrance to the park.

However, the Randolph/Michigan intersection has remained unchanged – until this fall. In October, CDOT installed a new right-turn arrow signal for drivers heading west on Randolph and turning north on Michigan. A recent newsletter from 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, who bankrolled the project with ward money, claimed the new dedicated right-turn phase is reducing congestion.

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A crowd of pedestrians waits for the end of the right-turn phase. Photo: John Greenfield

“The busy intersection of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue handles 45,000 cars every day, with residents, visitors, and tourists traveling between home, work, downtown institutions, and popular tourist destinations,” the newsletter noted. It didn’t mention how many pedestrians use the intersection, but judging from the throngs in the crosswalks, it’s likely that more people walk here than drive.

According to CDOT spokesman Pete Scales, the new right-turn phase does not negatively impact pedestrian crossing times for the north leg of the intersection. “In fact, we increased the ‘Walk’ time for crossing Michigan by two seconds for the period from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., from Monday to Friday,” he said. “The two seconds were taken from the ‘Walk’ time for crossing Randolph.” Westbound drivers on Randolph were already allowed to turn right on red before the signal was installed.

With this new configuration, the dedicated right-turn phase comes up during the northbound and southbound left-turn phase on Michigan. Scales argued that the turn arrow reduces the number of right-turning vehicles waiting when westbound traffic gets the green, and pedestrians get a walk signal across Michigan. “By providing the right-turn arrow, the pedestrian and vehicular conflict is reduced — thus improving pedestrian safety and traffic flow.”

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A motorist waits for a gap in foot traffic before turning. Photo: John Greenfield

That did seem to be the case when I stopped by this afternoon – by the time pedestrians got the go-ahead to cross, there weren’t many right-turning motorists left on Randolph. Those who remained after the walk signal came on generally did a good job of waiting for a break in foot traffic before attempting to turn. It appears the new signal has not made things worse for people on foot, and has perhaps improved things a bit.

However, the configuration of the intersection is still ridiculously slanted towards the convenience of motorists, because it requires many pedestrians to make three crossings where they should only need to make one. CDOT needs to reinstall the crosswalk on the south leg of the intersection. If they’re genuinely concerned about turning drivers endangering people on foot there, they should only allow turns during dedicated turn phases.

CDOT plans to release 2014 pedestrian counts in the near future. Perhaps we will then have numbers that proves there are more pedestrians than cars at Randolph/Michigan. That data would strengthen the case for changing this location from a car-focused intersection to a people-friendly one.

  • jeff wegerson

    I forget. If one is not disabled does the tunnel there work as a crossing into the park?

  • We wondered if readers would ask about that, and you didn’t let us down! It’s possible to use the tunnel to get from the CCC to Millennium Park via a hallway next to the flower shop in Millennium station, which leads to a (non-alarmed) emergency exit that takes you up to the park. However, the door locks behind you, so you can’t go back the same way.

  • That whole underground area is in desperate need of some wayfinding. I remember being so excited when the pedway maps went in in the 90s, but they didn’t actually make it much easier to orienteer yourself through the tunnels (say, in the depths of winter when trying to get to a restaurant for lunch or to a CTA station to go home).

  • There’s an underground route to the Harris Theater…

  • C Monroe

    Okay, I as an outsider has serious issues with this intersection. My first time I went to Chicago and decided to drive to Michigan City and jumping on the South Shore Line to avoid traffic and paying for parking. I was with my elderly mom. We decided to get off at the museum campus Metra/South Shore Line stop since we were going to the Field when we got to Chicago. After the museum, we headed over on buses to State Street so my mom could see the old Marshal Fields, you know tourist stuff. At the end of the day we decided to catch the South Shore line at Millennium Station since we could relax on boarding the train and not have to hurry. We got off the bus on the southeast corner of Michigan and Randolph and the map said the station was right on the southside of Randolph just east of Michigan. We walked around the bushes and onto Randolph to see…Nada, nothing, ziltch. Where the hell is the entrance? No signs. My mother was exhausted from the day so we decided to cross Randolph to the NE side of the intersection so she could sit on a small wall as I searched for the entrance. I did a quick glancing search in the park and then decided to head north a block or two on the eastside of Michigan. I finally seen a scruffy looking guy in ripped blue jeans enter a fancy stock brokerage firm so I decided to get closer and look. Just inside the entrance their was escalators going down and a sign that said trains(this was inside of the building, no markings outside) I decided to go down and found myself at the northern end of platforms on the northend of the station. I then traveled south went into the lobby and up another escalator and into another building. I grabbed my mother and we went to that building. It wasn’t until I was down in the lobby and I asked a clerk where the hell is the street entrance on the map(I showed her) That is when she informed me it is on the Southwest corner. Why wouldn’t they build a public entrance on Randolph just inside the park?

  • Mcass777

    Why not put a scramble here ?

  • jeff wegerson

    Glad to assist. Clearly it’s an opportunity waiting to be appropriately exploited.

  • JacobEPeters

    Technically there is an entrance right at Randolph outside of the Cultural Center, with Metra Millennium Station signage on the east, north and west faces of the entrance structure. The elevator that also goes to Millennium Station from that corner could have a bigger and better “Trains & Parking Entrance” sign.

    But, the simplest solution is to reinstate the crosswalk at Randolph & put a sign on the southeast corner that says “Trains” with an arrow pointing west. That would lead pedestrians past signage for the Metra entrance across the street along with every CTA line as you continue west down Randolph.

  • jimsey

    This intersection is still a mess if you ask me. As a daily user on bike, cyclists going west still have to navigate coming down a hill, illegally and improperly parking Prudential Shuttles, a popular taxicab loitering area, drop areas in front of Aon/Pru, merging traffic from lower and upper Randolph, sub-par road quality a faded bike lane, and one which disappears as you hit the intersection.

    Anecdotally, with the light reconfiguration, the block north of Randolph seems to get filled with cars, then you have the motorists who end up blocking the box on a regular basis.

  • urbancitygirl

    This is another reason why I LOVE Streetsblog! This corner is a serious problem and I’m glad to know there is discussion around it. I don’t have a solution, but thanks for shining a light on the problem!

  • Sure thing, glad to help.

  • High_n_Dry

    Scoff. Reilly would never allow such an affront to motorists in his ward… but it sure we be a lot safer for the hoards of tourists, Metra commuters, festival goers, downtown sounders…

  • 1976boy

    I never understood why the building on the northwest corner does not include an entrance into Millennium Station. I know that you can get in from the lobby of the Prudential Tower, but it seems a no brainer to have train station access from all 4 corners. The access is there under each corner, it just needs to be activated and signs installed. Simple stuff. That would also remove a lot of pedestrians crossing unnecessarily.

  • Jim Angrabright

    There may be infrastructure under the pavement – like a water main – that prevents or makes very expensive such a tunnel from being built.

  • Fred

    The north half of Jackson/State is in his ward…

  • High_n_Dry

    Well, I stand corrected. Has it been repainted? http://chi.streetsblog.org/tag/pedestrian-scramble/

  • C Monroe

    I was going by the “maps” that were at bus shelters to see where it was. I needed to find out which bus to take. Here is the CTA map that shows the station just east of Michigan on the southside of Randolph…http://www.transitchicago.com/assets/1/clickable_system_map/200806d.htm

  • C Monroe

    yeah, I believe it was the Prudential Tower is the building I seen the rag tag guy enter.

  • JacobEPeters

    that same line extending from the station northbound should have been replicated extending west across Michigan, because the location of the station is accurate, but does not represent its entrances. Signage on this corner would still be needed, and the crosswalk would be needed, since it is hard to represent that the station is in that location on a map without people reading that location as also being an entrance. Maps should get people to the general area, but signage has to direct them to the correct and specific place.

  • Yes, the pedestrian scramble at Jackson/State was painted with longer-lasting thermoplastic this year.

  • High_n_Dry

    Good to know.

    So it is past the “experimentation” stage and now a permanent fixture? Sounds like it might be possible to get one at Michigan/ Randolph if that one proved useful and safe for peds.

  • Thanks for your continuing coverage of this problematic intersection. My office is one block from here, so I navigate this crossing often as a pedestrian, bicyclist, and driver, and it won’t be shocking to hear that the only mode in which it feels safe and convenient is when I’m in my car.

    Just to touch on the bicycling aspect, it’s unbelievable that the southwest corner of this intersection holds one of the largest Divvy racks in the Loop, and the southeast corner is the beginning of the brand new East Randolph Street bollard-protected bike lane (one of very few in the Loop), and yet bicyclists are expected to make a circuitous three-stage crossing to reach the protected bike lane. I was at an art installation in the Cultural Center over the summer when I glanced out the window and snapped the picture below of a group of Divvy bicyclists using the direct route to the bike lane instead, with no help of a crosswalk or signals, just hoping the drivers wouldn’t gun it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were a regular occurrence.

    Also, last I heard, Randolph was supposed to be getting a protected bike lane all the way from the Lakefront Trail to the river in 2015, in conjunction with the installation of BRT. I’m not sure how a curb-side right turn lane for cars will mesh with that.

  • Can you post a link to the photo?

  • I think we should debate having a scramble at this intersection. The intersection is very large/wide and I feel the scramble works better (and looks better to outside observers) when you can expect there will always be clusters of people crossing diagonally.

    Additionally, the intersection doesn’t have level pavement across it, so fixing that would be a prerequisite to having the scramble.

  • Annie F. Adams

    Great post John! This intersection (not to mention MI Ave from Oak Street to the Art Institute) is horrible if you are in bike or on a bus. Has always struck me as a huge waste of valuable real estate devoted to moving private cars. People are coming to Chicago to have that “once in a lifetime experience” not a suburban drive to the mall experience. That is why you’ll see Divvy cyclists on MI Ave. Alderman Reilly has it in his head that fast moving cars equals lot’s of money for DT Chicago. But if a car is fast moving, I am not sure how they are spending money. As far as I can tell, money + vibrancy is happening outside the car on bike & foot. Getting to any of those shop via bike is not possible–so I avoid it. Nor am I able to park my car in front of say the Crate & Barrel. & if you do drive down MI Ave. Avoid the left lane. It is an unofficial parking lane.

  • Desire lines. Plain and simple.

  • Speaking of the left lane on Michigan Avenue…those poor buses and their riders. Always having to leave the lane for turning cars and illegally standing taxi cabs. The bendy-bus operators are pros, though.

  • Dennis McClendon

    The building on the northwest corner does have an entrance into Millennium Station. Stairs go down to the pedway level, under Randolph, and meet the tunnel from the Cultural Center. See my pedway map:
    http://chicagoinmaps.com/pedwaymap.html

  • Annie F. Adams

    That is the worst. How they don’t freak out over the complete injustice of that situation is incomprehensible to me. That left lane should be Bike Lane by the sidewalk & protected Bus Lane. Over 40k people ride the 147 alone. It is a disgrace that they have to sit in traffic behind private cars on MI Ave then on LSD. It also encourages people like me to drive.

  • Gnosis

    You make a lot of recommendations without actually knowing what the impact would be of those recommendations. Maybe it would make more sense to ask CDOT to study the issue, and perhaps have meetings about it, instead of blindly assuming that you know what would work at the intersection.

  • There are plenty of people commenting here who know as much about street design and future impacts as most CDOT staffers.

    Did you not notice people actually talking about data, in the article and the comments?

    If you just want to come here to parrot talking points without actually listening to any of us, don’t bother.

  • Maggi Lunde

    The corner of Randolph and Michigan is probably one of the most populated corners for pedestrians. Chicago citizens and domestic and international visitors almost all cross there either to access Millennium Park or to commute to and from the trains stations and other parts of the city. Having lived at 151 N Michigan for over 22 years, the crossing situation has only gotten worse over time. I like the turn lane that has recently been installed, but the removal of the south crosswalk over Michigan Ave years ago has continued to be a disaster. In peak tourist seasons, people frequently just ignore the lack of stripping on the pavement and cross Michigan Ave from the Cultural Center anyway, which is a far worse safety issue. Recently the closure of the northbound lane of Garland from Lake St. that allowed to you to access Lower South Water has complicated the issue again. People who live in the New East Side area, residents of 151 N Michigan, and anyone who wants to access Lower Wacker or Lower Michigan Ave, now has to use Randolph to access that area, which has increased congestion in the intersection. Now it is not unusual in peak periods to have 2 light changes to turn left from southbound Michigan Ave to eastbound Randolph. In addition, there are many elderly people who live in this area and for many of them, it is impossible to get across Michigan Ave and Randolph St. safely in the time allowed.

  • John

    Definitely a challenging location to meet ped demand and driver demand simultaneously. Would love to see someone come up with a solution that works for everyone.

  • 1976boy

    Sorry my bad I meant to say northEAST corner. I was referring to the 151-55 N Michigan Residential tower with the strange abandoned contraption on its south end.

  • FG

    There is an entry to the station from Beaubien – enter the Prudential (also enter, when not under renovation, from Randolph) and take the stairs down to the station. You can also enter from the lower level of Beaubien and the Doral, but not from street level.

  • FG

    The station is under a chunk of the intersection while the currently empty dome is awaiting redevelopment as a residential tower (yes, really – a very slender tower). The SE corner is the Grant Park Garage – not sure other than the Doral and it’s appendages what’s under the NE corner – it’s hard to tell the exact demarcation of the station entry vs. sidewalk on the east side of the street above inside. The station entrance ramps up dramatically once you enter the conditioned space to provide clearance for the tracks which are below the concourse. The Doral was built before the station was renovated and there was probably no desire to improve the access to the station by the IC when it was done (I think it was still the IC or just transferred to Metra when it was planned) and the station renovation came once the Doral was complete and since there was no space in the Doral for an entry it wasn’t possible without losing sidewalk width.

  • FG

    That leads you out to lower Randolph, so it’s not easy to find the way, which is via the South Shore platforms and out to the street and then up to the Park if you pass the theater (it’s really the garage elevators/entrance).

  • StefanieA

    Sarcastic, unhelpful comment that captures my annoyance at providing better driving experience here without substantively improving the walking experience: really loving that modal priority we have here in Chicago where pedestrians come first!

  • neroden

    I have never understood why there isn’t an entrance from the park. It’s completely bizarre. The station is actually under the park, but you have to cross the street to get into it. Ridiculous.

  • neroden

    Why in the name of all that is holy is there no direct entrance from the park to the station?

    The designers of the park must have really hated the Metra Electric and the South Shore Line. Because the park design is *awful*. Special effort made to preserve and widen a bloated Columbus Drive… and zero direct access to the train station which is literally under the park. It’s madness.

  • Dennis McClendon

    I completely agree that there should be a way to go from Millennium Station to Millennium Park . . . but the station is not literally under the park. The station is entirely under the Randolph Street viaduct; it’s the Grant Park garage that’s under the park (and also under Michigan Avenue). The Metra platforms stretch north from Randolph to South Water St. However, the (temporary, since 1926) South Shore platforms are indeed under the park.

  • Mark Twain

    And here we are, 3 years later and the problem is just exacerbated by increased employment and population levels east of Michigan Avenue. Go CDOT, go!

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