No, Chicago Tribune, We Don’t Have to Accommodate All 19,300 Car Trips on Cornell

Cornell Drive, the 6-lane traffic sewer that currently runs though one of Chicago's most beautiful green spaces. Image: Google Maps
Cornell Drive, the 6-lane traffic sewer that currently runs though one of Chicago's most beautiful green spaces. Image: Google Maps

At the unveiling of the designs for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park earlier this month, Barack Obama explained why it makes sense to pedestrianize six-lane Cornell Drive, which currently slices through the historic green space. In addition to the lantern-shaped presidential library, the center will feature plenty of open space for picnics and other forms of recreation, including a new sledding hill.

“You can’t have little kids playing right next to the road,” Obama said. He added that it’s important not to get so “fixated on traffic that we lose sight of what’s possible.”

It’s too bad the authors of this morning’s Chicago Tribune editorial apparently missed the part about not obsessing about moving cars as quickly as possible. In fairness, the paper acknowledged that the plan for the center has many appealing aspects, and should give an economic boost to nearby neighborhoods.

But the Tribune argues that the 19,300 average daily vehicle trips on the section of Cornell that would be made car-free, between 59th and 67th, represents a “snag” in the former president’s plan. “That’s a lot of traffic that needs to be accommodated, without unduly disrupting the lives and routines of South Siders,” the op-ed states. “Shutting down a heavily used road without creating a palatable alternative is no way to treat your neighbors.”

It’s certainly true that urban planning decisions in this city have historically been imposed on lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color without sufficient input from the residents. Cornell Drive itself, which blights one of the South Side’s most beautiful green spaces and was expanded to its current highway status in 1965, during the height of the Urban Renewal era, represents a textbook example of that phenomenon. As such, it will be important for residents of the largely African-American neighborhoods near the park to have a say in the plan.

But the Trib’s assumption that all of the car trips that currently take place on Cornell need to be “accommodated” is flawed.

First, let’s note that Cornell is currently way too wide for the amount of motor vehicles it carries – it has the same number of lanes as nearby Lake Shore Drive, but only a fraction of the traffic. Studies show that roads with one lane in each direction, plus turn lanes can usually handle up to 20,000 vehicles a day without creating undue congestion, so Cornell has roughly twice as wide as it needs to be for its current traffic load. Diverting some of that traffic to Stony Island Avenue and the Drive, which roughly parallel Cornell and also have excess lane capacity, is not going to create carmaggedon.

Tweet in response to the Tribune editorial from the Transport Politic's Yonah Freemark.
Tweet in response to the Tribune editorial from the Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark.

And it’s far from certain that all 19,300 of those trips will have to be accommodated in the future. Sure, there’s the possibility that more people than ever will drive to this part of town after the presidential center is built – if our urban planning decisions encourage that travel choice. If we leave Cornell intact, more car trips, congestion, and pollution are sure to result as visitors flock to the new attraction.

But there’s also the phenomenon of traffic evaporation. When driving becomes a little less convenient, people choose to use different travel modes, or opt not to make unnecessary car trips. That’s why, despite gloomy predictions from the media, the Loop never grinds to a halt when multiple downtown streets are closed for construction projects. Instead, more people choose to leave their cars at home.

That’s what will happen if driving to and past Jackson Park becomes a somewhat less attractive option. We can further encourage positive travel choices by beefing up transit, pedestrian, and bike access to the Obama center. For example this would be a golden opportunity to implement rapid transit-style service on the Metra Electric commuter line, which has stops a stone’s throw from the library site, something South Siders have been advocating for for years.

Obama noted during his speech this month that city and state transportation officials say that banishing cars from Cornell would only add one-to-three minutes to local car commutes if steps are taken to mitigate traffic impacts.

To their credit, the Tribune acknowledges that having a traffic sewer running through the middle of the park detracts from the safety and convenience of the green space, and runs completely counter to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s original vision.

But now that it’s there, its utility cannot be ignored… Are there other fixes that minimize the impact of closing Cornell Drive? Would it help to widen Stony Island Avenue, which runs along the western edge of Jackson Park? Could Cornell be moved underground?

It should be obvious that destroying green space or knocking down buildings to broaden Stony, which already has six lanes near 67th, or spending billions to submerge Cornell, are terrible ideas.

“It’s up to Obama and his team, in collaboration with state and local officials, to find an answer better than This’ll just take you an extra minute or three,” the paper concludes. Sure, the library planners, the city and state transportation departments, the CTA, Metra, and the nearby communities should all work together to create an appropriate transportation plan for the presidential center. But the Tribune is way off base to assume that this requires accommodating as many – or more – car trips than currently exist on Cornell.

  • Tristan Crockett

    Depending on where the traffic on Cornell is primarily going:

    1. The 6 goes local at 47th and continues going south. J14 goes local at 67th and continues going south. Why not another bus that goes local at 57th and continues going south on Stony Island? Would go right past the library, right after going local. That would bring the south lakefront’s express bus service more in parity with the north side. This would make sense if a lot of this traffic is getting off before 67th

    2. If a lot of this traffic is going west after getting off Cornell, sounds like there needs to be a bus that goes local at 67th like the J14, but goes west instead afterwards

    3. If a lot of this traffic is going south after getting off Cornell, sounds like the J14 needs more frequent service

  • ardecila

    Stony Island is wide enough already. A closure of Cornell probably requires a new intersection at Stony/Midway to get traffic onto Stony, but it seems like t could easily be restriped as a 2 lane plus turning lane road, with rush hour parking restrictions in the curb lane to ease traffic at busy times.

    The center turning lane, of course, could also include landscaped medians and pedestrian refuges.

  • Jim Angrabright

    I’m old enough to remember reading in the papers that people chained themselves to the trees in Jackson Park in an effort to halt the bulldozers. Back then Stony was 4 lanes and buried under dirt or asphalt you could still see some of the trolley rails that ran down the center of the ‘island’. The el made it all the way to Stony and the trolley probably connected to it at some point. If you had the fare you’d get off the Stony bus at 71st and take the IC downtown, else you’d get off at 63rd and make the transfer to the el which was cheaper but took a lot longer.

    Somehow we all got around without cars

  • While the Tribune does come from a windshield perspective, their comments are not wildly off-base. I agree with their main grip: we should wait see a more detailed transportation plan. They also agree that removal of Cornell Drive is entirely feasible, with some mitigation.

    I do have a particular concern about what is being planned given statements by the Obama Foundation and the city. I do not think it is feasible to remove both Cornell and Marquette drive without funneling too much traffic down neighbourhood streets like Stoney Island or 71st. We should not be adding lanes to either of those streets.

    To add to the article’s title, no, we don’t need to accommodate 19,300 car trips through Jackson Park. We may wish to be able to accommodate more, or at least many more person-trips. The south shore area is ripe for new economic activity, and increased transportation demand. This is a problem that cannot be explained away by press statements.

  • david vartanoff

    The answers to several of the why nots are the
    http://www.grayline.20m.com/ project, restoring the Green Line L to Stony Island including a fully ADA compliant rebuild of the MED 63 St station for transfers.
    Crucial to any of this is full fare integration between MED and CTA for service within jointly served areas.
    As to improving bus service on Stony Island, from 67th South here is enough roadway width to build dedicated BRT lanes for express service. The median used to have streetcar tracks until the 50s.

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