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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  • Pat

    Bingo. After reading the article the other day, I was wondering where city’s voice was in all of this. I hope the city doesn’t let IDOT jam an outdated model down their throat.

  • Also important: The project study area is virtually entirely within Chicago city limits, in our parks, and much more accessible (and I’m sure, used) by Chicagoans. Other than the fact that IDOT technically has jurisdiction, there’s not a great case for IDOT to be in the drivers seat.

    Asking what the city and park district’s involvement in this project is very important; after all, your article about the most recent meeting showed very little about the lakefront trail and park areas except larger tunnels.

  • BlueFairlane

    I’d like to see some numbers. How would taking control of the Drive affect the city’s budget?

  • Chicagoan

    Manzanares Park in Madrid is incredible. A thought-provoking mix of architecture and green space with plenty of space for cyclists, joggers, walkers, mothers with strollers, anyone!

    Felt compelled to give it a shout out, it’s great. Madrid probably has the best green space/park scene in Europe.

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    The Big Dig? Before you can “cap” LSD, you’ll need, say 10-20 Billion dollars.

  • Ben Stewart

    This is great thinking. For those who doubt that highway conversion can work, check out what happened with the Cheonggyecheon in South Korea. It’s not perfect, but, neither is LSD. There’s an older Streetsblog post about it here:

  • PP

    Agreed – the Big Dig is a very poor comparison.
    I love the idea but paying for it is the problem.

  • Pat

    I would imagine the funding mix would probably be the same. But if the city were to wrest control of the project would it see some payback (in the form of withholding funding) from IDOT?

    “Remember the Illiniana.”

  • Nimby

    God lets hope IDOT Stays in the drivers seat. We certainly don’t need less travel lanes on LSD. And also it would cost way too much to do anything other than rebuild what’s there.

  • Chicagoan

    Username checks out.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Here’s a nice shot of Düsseldorf’s 4 lane riverfront express road. It surfaces right behind the arched building (just to the left of the tower).

  • David Henri

    Can we please try and put forward intelligent comments, instead of this?

  • David Henri

    Down OUR throat. We need to get Rahm on board and represent us.

  • FGFM

    Good luck with that.

  • AlexWithAK

    See also: Seattle and the boondoggle they’re dealing with now. Better to emulate what San Fran did with the Embarcadero.

  • How do we justify adding thousands of residential units downtown and
    thousands more along the L’s spoke lines under the TOD concept while
    this conflicting philosophy is undermining it?

    IDOT’s role and view of the project seems to be driven by the fact that
    LSD is used by large numbers of people to get through the City. So they
    are looking at LSD and access capacity. This is obviously a reality we need to deal with, but another reality is that drawing more cars to LSD will also inevitably pull more cars through all of the neighborhoods to the west. Induced demand doesn’t seem to be a concept in play here (nor are behavioral economics – I’m pretty sure there won’t be a toll to ensure users are bearing the costs).

  • BlueFairlane

    My hope would be if this were to become something that actually might happen as opposed to an internet fantasy, that Streetsblog would explore the funding a bit more deeply than “I would imagine.”

  • Considering the 9 figure pension liability on the books, Illinois meddling with Chicago infrastructure at this level is kind of fantastical in the first place, don’t you think?

    The fantasy I have is to see our state government behave as it is required to by our state constitution, which is to provide the majority of K-12 public school funding. That would free up a lot of municipal resources to tackle these kinds of projects.

  • BlueFairlane

    The state’s unfunded pension liability is something closer to 12 figures. But considering Chicago’s own 10 figure pension liability, any Chicago infrastructure the city can let the state handle is that much more we can focus on transportation throughout the city rather than just the eastern edge.

    Education funding is a whole other ball of wax, but yeah, it’d be nice to see the state pick up that tab, too.

  • Yep, you’re right – that’s what I get for being lazy and not typing out the $110,000,000,000 figure I saw in the news the other day.

    But the holistic issue is exactly the problem here. I’m not sure IDOT’s track record suggests they understand the ripple effects, and I’d rather have them not touch it at all than do it on the cheap, as these are some far-reaching changes they are throwing around. I don’t think the budgets work the way you’re envisioning, it’s not like IDOT’s project actually frees up any funding for CDOT, and it would seem to complicate quite a bit.

    So actually, that would seem to be the most important detail here – what is IDOT’s budget for this? Did I miss that? Tinkering with lanes is one thing, but adding lakefill to extend Chicago is a much different deal, I’d think that would need the US Army Corp of Engineers and federal involvement.

  • BlueFairlane

    And that’s the crux of my questions: What’s the budget, who pays for what as things stand, and how does that change if the city were to take over jurisdiction? (And I don’t believe for a second that some accounting number somewhere wouldn’t change.)

    Chicago’s per capita pension liability is about three times that of the state right now. If we’re going to spend more money on something, it needs to be spelled out.

  • I agree with NIMBY here. LSD is in my back yard and I don’t want it. Right, we don’t need less travel lanes (for cars) we need none as in zero.

  • If I had the money I would finish the Lincoln Park extension to Evanston.

  • Chicagoan

    If it’ll boost tourism, create jobs, or portray the city as progressive, Rahm is usually on board. Plus, I don’t think he’s ever really come across as a pro-automobile, anti-transit kind of mayor. He’s in favor of doing what’s in the now and that’s definitely not expanding roads.

  • In some places on the northside LSD can be semi-submerged, banks built up…then covered with green-space.

  • FG

    Because Illinois does not currently have a State budget we are NOT RECEIVING any Federal transportation dollars! It’s already starting to cause furloughs and layoffs among smaller organizations that depend upon the federal money. Some of them have cut deals with the feds for lines of credit or other means of staying open (one of them does something very important by telling local governments about growth, helping ensure we get our tax dollars back to Illinois).

    Guess who didn’t realize this? Yes, that’s right, our state senators (certainly some in the north shore didn’t know this). My point, there will be NO money to Illinois for a long time.

  • Chicagoan

    That’d so wonders for Montrose Beach/Harbor, it kind of feels disconnected from the rest of Uptown right now, thanks to LSD.

    Still a great place, though. Views of downtown can’t be beat from Montrose Harbor’s peninsula.

  • Ross Guthrie

    The idea of capping LSD seems quite an expensive solution. Converting auto lanes to transit lanes while making the drive more of a parkway instead of a freeway is the best solution. I was quite shocked to hear that IDOT would consider adding lanes to make the drive even wider & more of a barrier to the lake. It would be fantastic if CDOT could control the process instead of IDOT.

  • FGFM

    You and Rahm obviously have your priorities .

  • Gervis

    Yup, big mistake. I also believe the should have a LSD El line that is in the middle like the western Blue lines, and then convert underutilized Metra / freight rail tracks to serve down to the IN border (or at least down to East Side – 93rd). Want to revitalize the South Shore, this will make a huge difference.

  • D_the_FactMan

    Steven Vance’s views are naive at best, elitist at worst. There’s no need on
    earth to place a transit only lane in the Outer Drive — there’s an El
    line just a few blocks west of the Drive. Like it or not, cars are here
    to stay and we’ve got to accommodate them. Reducing the car capacity of
    North Lake Shore Drive with a transit lane won’t reduce the number of
    cars by much since any new buses would simply cannibalize transit riders from
    the Red and Brown lines of the CTA Elevated lines. And capping the Drive? That’s a ridiculously expensive solution and just as elitist as the proposals to cap the Ike through Oak Park (obviously the less wealthy and heavily minority and lower-income communities west of Oak Park are not worthy of such an expensive treat).

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Reallocating road space used by a small number of affluent North Side and North Shore professionals, who choose to drive to their Loop offices instead of taking the CTA or Metra, so that it can be used by a much higher number of transit riders is elitist? Right…


IDOT Provides an Update on the North Lake Shore Drive Reconstruction Study

Starting in 2013, the Illinois and Chicago transportation department have hosted a series of public meetings on the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study, dubbed “Redefine the Drive.” At a hearing in July 2014, planners introduced Chicagoans to the project’s latest purpose and needs statement (essentially a mission statement), while also asking attendees to chime in with […]