Chicago Should Take Over the North Lake Shore Drive Redesign Project

Lake Shore Drive: currently, and probably in the future unless Chicago takes over planning and design. Photo: Mike Travis

Last week, the Illinois Department of Transportation hosted the first public meeting on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project in almost a year and a half. This state-jurisdiction road, which is located entirely within the city limits, currently restricts access to our lakefront. And since CTA “express” buses are forced to share travel lanes with cars, the buses are slowed to a crawl during peak-hour traffic jams.

After the meeting, an IDOT staffer said it’s unlikely that any existing mixed-traffic lanes on the drive will be converted to transit-only lanes as part of the redesign. Instead, transit lanes would probably only included as an add-on to the existing eight lanes.

However, the department’s own analysis projects that the population of project area will increase by 15-to-20 percent between 2010 and 2040, with negligible motor vehicle traffic growth.

The shoreline of Lake Michigan doesn’t need 30 more feet of asphalt. Moreover, if buses are removed from all the existing mixed-traffic lanes, even more space will be available for cars on than there is now, further encouraging driving.

IDOT’s backwards policy on lane conversions demonstrates why it would make sense for the city of Chicago to take over control of the highway. In recent years, the Chicago Department of Transportation has helped build several forward-thinking transit projects, such as the Loop Link express bus corridor, which opens this Sunday.

Ideally, Chicago wouldn’t have a lakefront highway at all. Barring that possibility, Lake Shore Drive should be transformed into a much smaller, park-oriented street, and/or moved underground. San Francisco converted a double-decker highway into a shoreline boulevard instead of rebuilding it. Madrid buried their river-hugging highway under a brand-new park.

Lake Shore Drive could also be capped, with the newly created land used for parks and public space, as was done with Boston’s Big Dig project. CDOT’s recent actions show that the city might take these ideas seriously.

Riverfront highway buried under a new park in Madrid

In downtown Madrid, highways on both sides of a river were buried and a new park was built above.

But IDOT is in the driver’s seat when it comes to the LSD redesign, and CDOT has no authority to act on its pro-transit policies, or make the people-friendly changes to the road that residents have requested during the planning process, without permission from the state.

The City of Chicago needs to articulate a clear vision for the future of the highway and lakefront, and then work to make that vision a reality. If it’s important to Chicagoans to have reliable transit commutes to and from lakefront neighborhoods, and better park access, Mayor Rahm Emanuel needs to say he’s in favor of these goals and work to achieve them.

One possibility would be for CDOT to take over jurisdiction of the drive from IDOT. There’s a precedent for this. Peoria, Illinois, took over a street from the state, so they could make it more people-friendly and work towards their downtown development goals. South-suburban Blue Island has been trying for ten years to get permission from IDOT to undo what IDOT did in the early 1990s and convert Western Avenue back to a two-way street to support their own downtown development.

It’s clear that the state transportation department doesn’t always prioritize the interests of Chicago residents when making decisions about our streets. From the demolition of neighborhoods to make room for expressways during the urban renewal era, to blocking CDOT from installing protected bike lanes in recent years, IDOT has placed more importance on moving cars quickly through the city than creating safe, livable streets.

It’s too soon to tell whether new IDOT secretary Randy Blankenhorn – who previously led the transit-friendly Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning – can take the transportation department in a new direction that abandons its windshield perspective. If not, it’s definitely time for the city of Chicago to consider taking steps to gain jurisdiction of the drive.

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