Hedge Fund Billionaire Ken Griffin Donates $12M for Lakefront Trail Separation

Residents have repeatedly asked for separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists

During the lakefront expansion project at Fullerton, a temporary paved path was built next to Lake Shore Drive. Trail separation might look something like this, but with pedestrians on one of the paths and cyclists on the other. Photo: Michelle Stenzel, Bike Walk Lincoln Park
During the lakefront expansion project at Fullerton, a temporary paved path was built next to Lake Shore Drive. Trail separation might look something like this, but with pedestrians on one of the paths and cyclists on the other. Photo: Michelle Stenzel, Bike Walk Lincoln Park

Chicagoans got an early holiday gift today as the city announced a $12 million donation for Lakefront Trail separation from hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, the biggest single donor to both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner. Residents have previously identified the creation of separate paths for pedestrians and bike riders on the 18.5-mile trail as a top priority for improving the lakefront, since conflicts between different modes can make the path downright chaotic during peak use periods.

In March Emanuel announced plans to separate the Lakefront Trail from Fullerton to Ohio streets and 31st to 51st streets as part of “Building on Burnham,” a roadmap for Chicago’s parks and open spaces. This latest cash infusion will allow the city to build separate paths on the entire length of the trail, presumably with some exceptions at locations without sufficient right-of-way for two paths. The work is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

“This is an important step in making the Lakefront Trail safer, more accessible and more enjoyable for the thousands of Chicagoans and visitors that travel the path each day,” Mayor Emanuel said in a statement. “It would not have been possible without Ken’s philanthropy to the city of Chicago, with this gift being the most recent [example].”

Emanuel and Griffin (right) announced the donation at a press event this morning at Ellis Park. Photo: Mayor's Office
Emanuel and Griffin (right) announced the donation at a press event this morning at Ellis Park. Photo: Mayor’s Office

The trail intended for bike riders will be made of asphalt and measure 12 feet, and will be located next to Lake Shore Drive. The pedestrian path will measure a total of 20 feet in width, with 14 feet of asphalt and three feet of soft-surface running trail on either side. This begs the question of why pedestrians are getting seven-foot-wide asphalt lanes, plus the soft-surface paths, while cyclists are only getting six-foot-wide lanes.

“Chicago is one of the world’s most vibrant cities, and our lakefront is unparalleled,” said Griffin in a statement. “On a beautiful day, the Lakefront Trail should be a place where cyclists, runners and walkers can enjoy their activities without having to navigate around one another.”

According to the city, work to create a separate pedestrian path from 31st to 35th, where a new pedestrian and bike bridge recently opened, is largely completed. Currently work is being completed on the stretch from 35th to 41st.

Construction to create a separate pedestrian path between 31st and 35th was underway last month. Photo: John Greenfield
Construction to create a separate pedestrian path between 31st and 35th was underway last month. Photo: John Greenfield

Unsurprisingly, the Active Transportation Alliance, which has lobbied hard for trail separation, applauded the announcement. “The new trail will ease congestion and conflicts on the lake front, especially on summer weekends when more than 100,000 people bike and walk the trail daily,” said executive Ron Burke. “I often hear from people who avoid the lakefront because it’s too crowded, and this will dramatically address that problem and enable more people to comfortably bike and hike along Chicago’s beautiful lakefront.”

Even Friends of the Parks, which successfully fought to kill Emanuel’s proposal for replacing a lakefront parking lot with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts, is endorsing the Lakefront Trail separation plan. “There have been many safety concerns as pedestrians, runners and cyclists get in each other’s way on a very crowded lakefront, executive director Juanita Irizarry told the Sun-Times. “Improving and expanding those trails and separating the different uses from each other is a good thing.”

“The mayor finds money for the things he cares about,” Irizarry added. “We care about the same thing in this case.”

  • skyrefuge

    I love how in the city-provided photo highlighting the newly-separated south side section, there are only two trail users visible, both runners….running in the clearly-marked bicycle lane! Encouraging!

    I’ll repeat my broken-record concern here: most conflicts occur at intersections, and “separation” of paths vastly *increases* the required number of intersections, and thus, this $12M is likely to only succeed in turning one type of danger into another. How about publishing some plan documents so we can at least get some idea of what sort of nightmare intersections are going to be half-assed together? With so many choke-points on the north side, we’re sure to get at least some poor designs in the mix.

    Because the one in the photo (I haven’t been there) is not looking great. The markings on the connecting trail are confusing (if bikes go one direction and peds the opposite, that implies that both were already on the “wrong” path to begin with), and the 3 bars are ambiguous (is that a “stop” sign, and if so, why is it only on one side of the connector?) At least making sure that the pedestrian path is on the lake side and that the bike path is the one that needs to be crossed by peds to get to and from “their path” should be better than the opposite, which would have had bikers whizzing across the face of runners.


  • Pat

    The 8ft double-yellow line is by far my favorite.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    You know, I’m not even sure this photo is from Chicago. The Mayor’s Office distributed it, but it wasn’t labeled. It looks like it could be (“acorn” trail lamps), but I can’t pinpoint the location. But, yeah, it does illustrate the limits of designating different paths for pedestrians and cyclists. Some peds may prefer the bike trail if it’s more direct, some cyclists may opt for the pedestrian path since it will be wider and father from the highway, and may have better views of the lake.

  • skyrefuge

    The Sun-Times had it as “31st-street-trail-graphics-post-separation.jpg”, and it matches the location just south of 31st St (the cars are on the northbound LSD exit ramp to 31st, and the Lake Meadows Apartments are in the background). At first the brightness of the white paint made me think it was a digital rendering, but apparently it actually exists here!

  • skyrefuge

    I was going to call out the right-turn arrow myself, but then I realized that maybe it’s less of a “dangerous curve ahead!” warning and more a “don’t take that path to the left, because that path is not for you!” nudge, in which case, good, I guess? I didn’t even notice the double-yellow line, good call; good thing I haven’t actually rode there, I might have illegally passed in that section without knowing it!

  • Carter O’Brien

    Is the picture of the new lanes between Irving and Montrose (Foster?)?

    I agree that intersections are the worst “infrastructure offenders” on city streets, but the LFT has a different dynamic IMO due to the fact that people jump on and off the path along its entire length (not to mention the bedeviling habit of the CPD to face benches and vending kiosks along it).

    There is no perfect solution for an all-purpose trail, but that is the trade-off for getting to bike along a nearly unbroken stretch of
    beach and lakefront, which are a destination for the public rather than (if not more so) simply a transportation corridor. Better signage is sorely needed to improve etiquette and the user experience, hopefully that gets integrated into the plan.

    I started riding to the lakefront as a kid in the early 80s, and then started using the LFT for commuting back in the mid-90s. Since since then the City has corrected the old North Avenue Nightmare in 1998/1999 (thank you Active Trans nee Chicago Bike Federation), the Fullerton Fiasco last year, and we see tangible progress and a finish line for the Navy Pier Flyover, which addresses the final war zone on the North Side. I would never have believed we’d have come this far in my lifetime, I wish I could go back and relive my twenties and thirties riding the Lakefront as it looks now!

  • Mike C

    Yes, that looks like the relatively new trail intersection just south of 31 St.

  • skyrefuge

    So let’s just look at one specific example, a much harder one than the one at 31st Street shown in the photo (where it’s not even clear why there is a connector between the paths at that point): the Diversey Harbor mouth.

    Currently there is a 20-foot wide bridge carrying the path over the harbor mouth, with no other land for additional passage. So what do you do?

    1) Put both paths over the bridge together. Sounds easy and obvious, right? Well, how?
    1A) Keep both paths separated on the bridge, so 4 individual lanes. That would give a maximum of 4 feet to each lane, probably less, since you’d want a physical barrier between the two modes. Cutting the lanes down to about half their normal width sounds like a bad idea.
    1B) Merge everyone into 2 mixed-mode lanes. The trouble there is that to get on the bridge, a southbound runner has to cut across a lane of oncoming, northbound bikers, then across southbound bikers to get to the outside of the southbound lane, and then back across those two lanes again once of the bridge to get back to their own path. That’s the nightmare scenario.

    2) Run pedestrians on the west side of Lake Shore Drive between Fullerton and the north side of the harbor mouth. Northbound runners be forced across the bike path at Fullerton, would cross the harbor mouth via the matching, narrower bridge on the west side of Lake Shore Drive, where then they at least cloverleaf under both LSD AND the bike path, ending up to the east side of the bike path again via a grade-separated crossing. I can see lots of pedestrians not wanting to go through the rigmarole and just getting on the bike path.

    3) Run the *bikes* to the west of LSD. This keeps the “bikes inland” rule intact, except when it doesn’t, due what is now an undesired grade-separated crossing that momentarily puts the bikes on the lake side anyway (unless the rejoining was delayed until Belmont or something). Also the bit under LSD would be a death-trap.

    4) Use all of that $12M to widen the bridge.

    At least for that point in the path, I would say that every one of these “solutions” is actively *worse* than the current situation. But hey, I’m sure these people who aren’t even detail-oriented enough to notice the runners in the bike lane in the press photo they released will come up with something perfect I haven’t thought of!

    And that’s just one bit. What happens at the Aquarium? The clusterfuck at the Waveland Tennis Courts? The brand new $60M Navy Pier Flyover (where the above merging nightmare scenario seems to be the only possibility)?

  • skyrefuge

    Hey, do you recall at all what the route was between Fullerton and Diversey in the ’90s? In Google Earth, I can’t see a path there until 2002 (when they rebuilt/widened the bridge over the harbor mouth), and then the path was initially hugging the revetment, ’til it was moved inland in 2003. Did it ride on the revetment? Or cross to the west of LSD for that section?

    Thanks for the perspective of improvement. Though at least so far, I feel like those updates probably had a lot more planning behind them (look how long the damn flyover is taking to build!) vs. the more politically-driven, “common sense”, “how hard can that be?” approach we’re seeing so far for path-separation.

  • Bill R

    Those evil billionaires ! I was thinking Rahm and his friends claimed to hate those evil one percent people. Guess it depends on whether they are fleecing their tax money, accepting gratuities, attending their parties or taking their hand outs !

  • Carter O’Brien

    It is fair to say I am trying to stay optimistic on the separation, let’s hope this will connect to IDOT’s plans in a win-win fashion. But I have been wrong before…

    Good question re: Fullerton to Diversey. I definitely recall a path east of LSD, but it may have been fairly primitive, I know there was a time when people had created their own “cow path” just to the west of the Theater on the Lake while some work was going on.

    I lived off of Diversey from 97-02 and I took that straight east, but going straight to the Lakefront at Diversey was always a janky prospect due to the weird bridge underpass and then having to go through a parking lot, etc. It hasn’t changed last I checked. So I usually just took the smoother route through the park and jumped on at Fullerton.

  • Jacob Wilson

    If it weren’t for historic wealth inequality we wouldn’t have to beg for handouts for essential infrastructure projects.

  • Pat

    I just don’t see how $12M gets anything significant done. Is the $12M to get some sort of match? Is it part of already budgeted funds? Is it part of the north LSD redesign? We’re spending $40M and 4 years on a bridge (4 years! Can you imagine that time frame for a badly needed vehicle bridge?).

    Rahm and the City made a big deal about “repaving” the Lake Path this summer when all they did was reseal it, closing off sections without warning. Still the same dips, puddles, cracks, and grooves as before. The same terrible trenches where it crosses driveways/streets. They ripped out the rumble patches for the visibly impaired north of Irving Park to boot, which as a cyclist I hate, but think are more important than my smooth ride. But hey, at least the pavement is blacker!

    I’m sick of half-measures for important corridors. They should have put in real trail separation when they did the Fullerton infill, but instead put in a small gravel path that I’ve yet to see someone on. The City can’t even keep the much used gravel path that runs west of Diversey Harbor free of lakes when it rains. $12M? Sounds like we’re going to get some paint on the sea walls.

  • ardecila

    This grant will purely be used for asphalt paving, it sounds like, so they will use the Burnham Park solution wherever possible and merge the two where it is not possible.

    It’s looking like the North LSD project will resolve some of these chokepoints (north of Grand Ave, at least).

    Anyway, I’m not in agreement that this plan is somehow worse than the status quo. This project will eliminate many miles of trail where pedestrians share with cyclists, and reduce those conflicts down to a handful of chokepoints where other strategies (rumble strips, chicanes, plastic bollards) can be used to slow everyone down.

  • aweg

    2/3 of Illinois corporations take advantage of tax loopholes which fully eliminate their property tax liability. Why are those loopholes created? Because people like Ken Griffin, Illinois wealthiest resident, make incredible donations to elect mayors and governors who’ll cater to their interests. This $12M donation is just another corporate bribe, it just happens to be paying for something every who reads this blog wants.

  • Jeremy

    Why shouldn’t the walking path be wider? People are more likely to walk shoulder to shoulder to have a conversation. A wider walking path is also more inviting, keeping people from walking on the bike path.

  • Dennis McClendon

    Yes, from Fullerton to Diversey you rode on the sloping concrete apron of the revetment, between a calf-scraping knee wall and a precipitous dropoff into the lake.

  • Rose Lynch

    Oh, nice! Once more runners get the crappy ole ditch on the side of the path that will flood all the time (just like now) and be filled with the plowed snow in the winter (just like now.) As usual the cyclists get the best deal. Well, you know what they say…..
    “If you’re sitting down it ain’t exercise.”

  • undercover epicurean

    If they paid their taxes in the first place we wouldn’t need the handouts. But then they wouldn’t get any credit for their acts of selfless generosity.

  • Carter O’Brien

    That gravel running path is in horrific shape, I’m really surprised the Alderman hasn’t made a big stink out of that.

  • Pat

    Out of sight, out of mind. That’s Smith’s (43rd) backyard, but I’m sure she’ll say its out of her hands and defer to the Park District.

  • Frank Kotter


  • Deb

    But, you can’t use it – it’s too dangerous.

  • Bruce

    Assuming you are talking about the last picture I know exactly where that is. This is on the south side, south of the new pedestrian bridge. It is just at the location south of that bridge where the old path which goes PAST the bridge now veers east, and the new path which goes UNDER the bridge currently passes just to the west. The asphalt you can see is now the “bike” portion and the underlying gravel visible in the picture is now covered with asphalt. The existing bike portion visible in the picture is in TERRIBLE condition and I was told a a public meeting last year that it would be fixed.

  • Huge success and much thanks to Ken Griffin’s well-timed and focused email. On same not e I think this city should write a check for $10K damage to his car on speed bump. Fair is fair.