Why the North LSD Rehab Should Swap Mixed-Traffic Lanes for Transit Lanes

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Buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive during the evening rush. Photo: John Greenfield

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Earlier this month at a hearing on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study—dubbed “Redefine the Drive”—officials assured the public that all options for rebuilding Chicago’s coastal highway are still on the table. But the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the drive, isn’t seriously considering the simplest way to help more people travel more efficiently: trading existing mixed-traffic lanes for bus-only lanes.

Immortalized in the eponymous song by local rock group Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah (R.I.P. bassist Mitch Aliotta, who passed away in July), the northern portion of Lake Shore Drive is 60 to 80 years old, and way overdue for a rehab. IDOT and the Chicago Department of Transportation are collaborating on the plan to rebuild the seven-mile section between Grand and Hollywood.

They expect to get approval for the design from the feds by 2018, with construction starting as early as 2019, pending available funding. The project could cost more than $1 billion and will take years to finish.

Starting in July 2013, the city and state transportation departments hosted a series of community meetings, where residents shared their ideas for the overhaul. In October 2014, the planners released a list of the 20 most popular ideas for the rehab, based on more than 1,600 comments from 330-plus attendees. “Improve transit service” came in second, after “Separate bike/pedestrian users on the Lakefront Trail.” Maintaining or improving driving conditions didn’t make the list.

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A vision of North Lake Shore Drive with rapid transit corridors and separated walking and biking paths published by 15 local civic organizations in July 2013. Image: Thom Greene

During the recent hearing at the Chicago History Museum, planners from IDOT noted that North Lake Shore Drive sees 70,000 transit trips a day on nine routes, accounting for one-fifth of all passenger trips on the drive.

IDOT projects that the population of the study area, bounded by Touhy, the Kennedy/Dan Ryan, and the Stevenson, will grow 15 to 20 percent by 2040, based on a state analysis of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning data. The department predicts the number of transit trips on the drive will increase by the same amount during this period. However, they project the increase in car trips will be negligible, because new Chicagoans will mostly commute by transit, and some current residents will switch from cars to other modes.

To meet the growing demand for transit, the LSD project team is considering options for the drive like bus-on-shoulder (which already exists on some Pace lines) and bus-only lanes, possibly with rapid transit-style stations along the route. Light rail is even in the mix, although it would likely be cost-prohibitive.

Liberating transit riders from car-generated congestion via dedicated lanes is a no-brainer, since buses are exponentially more space-efficient than automobiles. The planners said cars on the drive carry an average of 1.2 people. Meanwhile, a 60-foot articulated CTA bus seats about 50 people (not counting standees) and takes up less room on the highway than two average-size cars, when you factor in the necessary distances between vehicles.

During the hearing, planners stressed they haven’t yet ruled out any options for reconfiguring the drive. But afterward, IDOT project and environmental studies section chief John Baczek told a different story to Charles Papanek, who reported on the meeting for Streetsblog .

Baczek said it’s unlikely any of the drive’s existing travel lanes will be converted to transit-only use, because this would reduce capacity for drivers, and the number of car trips isn’t expected to decrease. Therefore, he implied, adding dedicated bus lanes would probably require widening the highway.

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.

  • Just now hearing about the reversible rush hour only bus lane. I hate to pre-compromise but… I suppose with the right design maybe. The right design would be very very close to the best design for actual dedicated bus lanes. Meaning that we could have those when the politics became right.

    And while I am compromising I guess that while I am firmly opposed to trading more infill park land for more pavement lanes, even Transit lanes, I would permit more infill park in order to create increased pavement for dedicated ramps for Transit and or bikes.

  • neroden

    “Baczek said it’s unlikely any of the drive’s existing travel lanes will
    be converted to transit-only use, because this would reduce capacity for
    drivers, and the number of car trips isn’t expected to decrease. ”

    So the all-holy car drivers must be kowtowed to, and no asphalt may ever be taken away from their holy cause? Because any asphalt for car drivers is a holy sacrament, and Baczek’s religion prohibits him from trespassing on their holy ground? Or what?

    Tell Baczek to convert existing travel lanes to transit-only use. Chicago did it in the Loop. It’s working fine. The car traffic will just disappear: “induced demand” in reverse.

    Convert the existing travel lanes — the ones in the center — to transit-only use, and if you later decide you “need” more space for cars, then you can widen the highway.

  • Additional thoughts.

    Currently our demand is that there be two dedicated bus-only lanes, one in each direction. That is to say that LSD should become a BRT route. And as long as we are demanding then the demand is that it become a gold standard route with pre-pay stations and level boarding. We, don’t need no left turns and signal priority for obvious reasons.

    Are we willing to compromise? Well no, but …

    That is our concrete, fixed-in-stone, demand. Well sort-a. While we must have the infrastructure part I am willing to share it at the beginning. As long as the inside lanes along the median are slightly wider, and as long as there is room for stations in the median at every arterial junction, with space for elevators and escalators, with space for connection buses beneath and turn arounds for those connecting buses, as long as that is there then I am willing to wait for the needed political strength to kick out the cars and build the actual stations later.

    That is to say that full BRT needs to be included in the design stage and all elements where concrete is poured immediately.

    And there need to be people ready to point out that because we are building a 50 year structure, even if today’s political will is lacking we are not allowed to assume that in 25 or 10 or 5 or 3 years after work ends that there won’t be the political strength to do it then.

  • giovanni

    Who is this WE you speak on behalf of? Whoever it is, I suggest they avoid the languageof “demands” since inevitably, that makes normal people and voters shy away by instinct, and aldermen and bureaucrats roll their eyes about people who don’t know their own weakness. “No political will” is another word for “public opinion doesn’t support my opinion”.
    LSD doesn’t need stations at all arterials. It’s too far from high-density residences, and its immediate destinations don’t have day-long/year-long demand.
    The current approach is appropriate, with collector routes that serve various neighborhoods east of the red line and then enter the drive at Foster, Irving, Belmont and Fullerton, and fan out differently downtown.
    The goal should be to get these buses moving fast enough to justify service level increases. A single transfer station at Fullerton could make sense – allowing everyone to sort themselves onto the bus going to the right downtown destination, while also giving an access point to the highest-demand lakefront destinations – the zoo, the nature museum and the northernmost stretch of the Oak/North Ave beach strand.

  • JacobEPeters

    I would agree that there don’t need to be stations on LSD north of Montrose, or between Belmont & North avenue because of distance from population. But the following stations would be essentially at the base of skyscrapers of residents and next to lakefront attractions:
    -Montrose (Montrose Harbor/Beach)
    -Waveland (Golf Course, Softball Fields, Tennis Courts, Bird Sanctuary, north Belmont Harbor)
    -Belmont (south Belmont Harbor, Diversey Driving Range)
    -North (North Ave Beach, Chicago History Museum)
    -Chicago (MCA, Hospitals)

    I can see why a stop at Fullerton might be desirable for the Zoo & Nature Museum, but considering that 5 buses currently pass by the edge of these institutions on routes other than LSD, it sounds like improving the stop locations and infrastructure for those lines would better serve these destinations with less walking needed, and less exposure to the elements. Also having only 1 station for transfers can be a recipe for congestion & extra long dwell times.

  • The royal “we,” of course, as in “we are not amused.” We are not making demands of normal people or voters so there will be no shying away. You correctly characterize aldermen and bureaucrats though, as they assume that they are the most sophisticated and enlightened people on whatever subject they deal. That’s why they roll their eyes.

    As for public opinion, well that’s a slippery concept that strongly depends upon myriad definitions. Is “public opinion” the larger car driving population opinion or the NIMBY population opinion. A politician worth their salt knows how to manipulate the polling environment to produce the needed opinion.

    Our enemies here are the state level bureaucrats who knee-jerk side with the suburban car drivers.

    Your vision seems appropriate to me. I had not thought of the concept of a transfer station at Fullerton to sort out different destination choices, but I like it.

    I get that the summer is different than winter in park usage. But the idea of a trolley like system along the drive has been around for a long time and it seems to me that it is a use that should be included in the new plans.