The Reopening of the Cortland Street Bridge Is Bittersweet

There’s a story by Waukegan native and lifelong non-driver Ray Bradbury called “Yes, We’ll Gather at the River,” about a new superhighway that’s about to open, bypassing a small town. A couple of old-timers lament that all the local commerce will probably be sucked away from Main Street as new auto-centric development opens next to the expressway. In the end, the men decide that there’s no use trying to stop “progress,” so they move the construction barricades themselves, opening the floodgate for the river of cars.

That’s a bit what it felt like when I watched the Cortland Street Bascule Bridge being reopened to motorized traffic this morning. Ever since the Chicago Department of Transportation began rehabbing the historic span on June 1, it has been closed to cars.

However, during the entire project, at least one of the bridge’s sidewalks has remained open as an officially sanctioned route for pedestrian and bike riders. During this time, the stretch of Cortland between Elston Avenue and Clybourn Avenue has been virtually car-free. That made the street a safe, low-stress connection between the Armitage Avenue bike lanes and the Bloomingdale Trail.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 5.30.44 PM
The old metal “Kathy Plates” (shown) have been replaced with concrete. Image: Google Street View

Originally built in 1902, the bridge was the first “Chicago Style Fixed Trunnion Bascule Bridge,” a design that has since been copied by cities around the world, according to CDOT. The department says the overhaul was needed to repair sections of the roadway, as well as floor beams, trusses, and sidewalks.

Previously, anti-slip metal “Kathy Plates” (named for local bridge safety advocate Kathy Schubert) that formerly covered the biking portion of the otherwise open-grate bridge deck. These have been replaced with concrete, which eliminates the slightly wobbly sensation cyclists felt while riding over the plates. A very short stretch of striped bike lanes has also been added near the bridge.

Before the project started, the span typically saw about 10,000 motor vehicle trips per day. Lincoln Park residents blamed the closure for creating rush-hour gridlock on nearby streets, as well as funneling cars onto side streets, according to a June 11 DNAinfo report. For example, a local baseball mom claimed that detouring to east-west streets like Wrightwood Avenue added a whopping 20 minutes onto trips across the neighborhood to take her son to practice.

The Finkl Steel plant, located just east of the bridge was recently closed and demolished, which surely has removed some of the traffic from Clybourn. However, new residential and commercial development is likely coming to the Finkl, and a number of other large developments are currently in the works elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The gray car that crosses the bridge near the end of this video may have been the first “civilian” vehicle to use the span after the barricades were removed.

2nd Ward Alderman Brian Hopkins told DNA that the supposed carmaggedon caused by the bridge work might be a harbinger of things to come. “We are getting an interesting experiment of what would happen if you add 10,000 vehicles to the surrounding streets,” Hopkins said. “It’s frustrating drivers and causing lengthy delays.”

Personally, I’m a little skeptical that the Cortland closure made rush-hour congestion as people have claimed. It’s possible that “traffic evaporation” was a factor. This is the commonly observed phenomenon that when roadways are narrowed or closed, there are fewer traffic problems than expected because people respond to the new scenario by driving less.

At any rate, it was a bit of a bummer this morning to see the barricades removed and the street reopened to motor vehicles again, destroying the tranquility of the commuting route for pedestrians and cyclists. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

  • Same way I felt once they started re-opening streets under the UP-N tracks, some of which were closed for bridgework. They should have stayed closed; the streets were so much more pleasant without all the cut-thru traffic.

    The bike lane on the bridge, as shown in your video, is also pretty pathetic. Cortlandt is one of the least stressful ways to get between the sides of the city eviscerated by the expressway, even with the cars…too bad it can’t be better for bicyclists.

  • Matt

    I guess I’m in the minority here… I never found Cortland to be “unsafe” or “uncomfortable” on a bike, and I was pretty upset when the bridge was closed. While it was nice to enjoy the car-free stretch on either side of the bridge, it was still an overall nuisance in my opinion. I even saw two separate incidents where cyclists crashed into each other.

    I’d also disagree with your view on how local traffic was impacted. Going home from Mariano’s I would often take Webster over the river (so I know the wobbly feeling well). There was a definite increase in the amount of cars at the Webster/Ashland intersection, and the 4-way stop at Webster and Southport often had cars in the intersection waiting to go through the light at Clybourn. That intersection was never all that great in the first place, but it definitely was worse this summer than in the past. And speaking of Webster, it was often backed up at least to Sheffield, if not further. Every time I rode east, all I could think was how glad I was that I was not one of those motorists trying to go the other direction.

    So, yeah… I’m glad the bridge is back open. I found it to be a pleasant surprise today on my ride home. While it might suck to lose a couple blocks of car-free riding, it’s a small price to pay to alleviate the excessive traffic that formed in the surrounding areas. I just hope that with all the redevelopment talk of the Finkl site that Armitage can be built out to create an unbroken route over the river, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

  • Lisa Curcio

    I am glad to have the bridge open again. It was nice to have that car-free space, but really Cortland has not been a difficult place to ride. What would be really nice would be if they resurfaced Cortland east of the bridge,but that seems unlikely until the development of the old Finkl, et. al. space. It is still not a bad way to get across the river.

  • I already miss the only quiet and peaceful route over the river that Chicago has had in the last 100 years. It’s not just the bridge, it was all of Cortland between the 606 and Armitage. The 606 needs to be extended to the East side of the river ASAP. One of the only times I can think of where construction in progress was a huge improvement.

  • High_n_Dry

    RIP Cortland pedestrian mall. Twas nice knowing you.

  • JacobEPeters

    Hopefully any new development leads to a rebuilding of the entire road right of way, including protected bike lanes & connections to a continuous riverwalk path for pedestrians & cyclists.

  • Ideally, the development would include an extension of the Bloomingdale Trail.

  • JacobEPeters

    yes, but a safe connection from the intersection of Racine/Cortland/Clybourn to the trail entrance & connection to riverwalk will hinge on Cortland street design.

  • High_n_Dry

    Recently came across this route proposal from the 606 and Ashland to downtown. Technically a route now but not all sections are bike friendly.

  • Yeah we wrote about that:

    At the time, the Elston Avenue industrial council was pushing that proposal as an alternative to striping buffered bike lanes on Elston. But, taken on its own, the proposal has some merits.

  • cjlane

    “There was a definite increase in the amount of cars at the Webster/Ashland intersection”

    Yep, totally observed the same thing. Webster definitely much worse (at peak times–which is not necessarily “rush hour”) than immediately prior to Cortland closure.

  • Roland Solinski

    Is the concrete really an improvement over the Kathy plates? Years of experience tell me the steel grating will rust, the concrete will spall, and the rideable surface will become very rough after only a few winters. The textured fiberglass is a much better, longer lasting solution, at least when it is buffered with pylons as on the Kinzie St bridge.

  • dr

    Sad to see it go. It was a novelty to meander down the center of Cortland.

    What I see to be the primary issue with a fully-operational Cortland as a bike-route is the lighting on the bridge. During the day, it’s a little tight when cars are on the bridge, but it’s still probably above average for a Chicago bike lane, since it’s a one-sided threat. The bus lanes east of the bridge make it a great route overall. The one issue I have is crossing at night, when the bridge is dark and the cars are speeding home – it’s both tight and very low visibility. I’m uncomfortable being passed, especially if I happen to forget a tail-light. I have fears of a distracted driver not seeing me and drifting the 1-2 feet necessary to clip me. I haven’t been since re-opening, but I doubt this has been addressed.

  • Mike

    I would love to see Cortland turned into a permanently car-free bike and pedestrian route connected to the 606. The Finkl site would make a beautiful park and wildlife sanctuary, right there along the river with stunning views of the skyline.

    Unfortunately since the environment seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind, this area will probably become just another nauseating clusterf**k of sprawling parking lots, strip malls, and condos.

  • Bob RD

    Cortland car free? What a terrible idea for the community and the environment. Everyone living nearby would have to drive up to a mile extra on every trip. Think about all the wasted time and extra gas/pollution/carbon!

  • Joe Mama

    Bikers do not obey the rules of the road. Those morons should be banned from the city.

  • Al

    Get a job and buy a car.

  • marmarinou

    Here is an old view of the bridge during a previous repair with a Chicago Surface Lines streetcar on Cortland Street:


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