Why Pedestrianizing Jackson Park Roads Won’t Cause Carmaggedon

There's no need for drivers to use Cornell or Marquette (southernmost east-west street in Jackson Park) to continue south on Stony Island. The Obama Library will be located on the patch of land currently occupied by a running track and baseball diamonds. Image: Google Maps
There's no need for drivers to use Cornell or Marquette (southernmost east-west street in Jackson Park) to continue south on Stony Island. The Obama Library will be located on the patch of land currently occupied by a running track and baseball diamonds. Image: Google Maps

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the Obama Foundation has proposed pedestrianizing stretches of the highway-like roads that run through Jackson Park, the future home of Barack Obama’s presidential library, to create a museum campus. The tone of the article, and quotes from some community members, suggest that this change would cause strangle transportation on the Southeast Side.

However, it’s actually a commonsense plan that would greatly improve the safety and utility of the green space, while returning the park to its roots as a place for relaxed recreation, rather than high-speed motoring.

The library would be located between Stony Island and Cornell, 60th and 63rd Street, currently home to a running track, football field, and baseball diamonds. The foundation has floated the idea of pedestrianizing Cornell, a generally six-lane road that serves as a major barrier between the east and west sides of the park, between 60th and 67th.

There’s also a proposal to pedestrianize Marquette Drive between Cornell and Lake Shore Drive, which would unify the two segments of the Jackson Park Golf Course, which are currently separated by four-lane Marquette. This would facilitate plans to upgrade the little-used facility into a tournament-grade course.

The way the Tribune article is written implies that opening these streets for car-free walking and biking would cause major hardships for drivers. The article refers to the change as “closing a major thoroughfare that connects Lake Shore Drive motorists to the South Side and a key route to Indiana and Michigan” and calls it “a critical connector” for local residents.

“It is my belief that [pedestrianizing the streets] will virtually cul-de-sac the Southeast Side of Chicago … and stunt the growth,” said the Reverend Byron Brazier, pastor of nearby Apostolic Church of God. This car-centric statement from Brazier isn’t surprising, since his father Bishop Arthur Brazier led a successful campaign to tear down a mile of Green Line elevated tracks between Cottage Grove and Stony Island, which ran by his church. This reduced transit access for Woodlawn residents.

As outlined by the Trib argument against pedestrianizing the streets is that drivers currently like to exit LSD at 57th, by the Museum of Science and Industry, and take Cornell south until it merges with Stony Island. From there they proceed on Stony to neighborhoods to the south, or to the Chicago Skyway.

But while drivers are currently using Jackson Park as a high-speed shortcut, that doesn’t mean that they have to do this, or should. According to 2014 Illinois Department of Transportation traffic counts, the stretch of Cornell between 57th and 67th saw 19,300 average daily trips. But while most of that segment is six-lane, studies show that roads with one travel lane in each direction plus turn lanes can accommodate up to 20,000 vehicle trips a day without undue congestion, which is why CDOT’s standards allow for “road diets” on streets with below-20,000 ADT.

Cornell Drive has as many lanes as Lake Shore Drive, but a fraction of the traffic.
Cornell Drive has as many lanes as Lake Shore Drive, but a fraction of the traffic. Image: Google Street View

Moreover, the four-lane stretch of Marquette between the Drive and Cornell saw a mere 2,300 ADT. So both Cornell and Marquette currently have far too many lanes for the amount of traffic they carry, which encourages speeding. At the very least, road diets would be appropriate for these streets.

Moreover, there’s no reason drivers need to take Cornell in order to continue south of 67th on Stony Island. The logical alternative is to take Lake Shore drive to its southern terminus at Marquette and then proceed south to 67th, then west to Stony Island. Another alternative is to exit the drive at 57th and that that street to Stony.

As the Trib article notes, park designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux originally envisioned the roads though the park as venues for pleasure cruises, not high-speed traffic conduits. Charles Birnbaum, president and chief executive of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, told the paper that “Slower-speed travel is what should happen.” He noted that the city could try pedestrianizing the streets on a temporary basis, as was successfully done in New York’s Central Park.

In a separate article, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote favorably of the proposal, noting that “Cornell is essentially a highway — a gash of asphalt that slices the once-serene Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park into isolated swaths of green.”

Kamin sensibly noted that this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposal either. While speed humps are probably a non-starter for these streets, the speed limits could be lowered, and lane reductions would calm traffic, shorten pedestrian crossing distances, and allow for additional green space. “Chicago’s Department of Transportation already is using such strategies in the Loop and in the city’s neighborhoods — generally, with positive results.”

Completely pedestrianizing these streets would be ideal, in effect creating a second museum campus on the South Side. But if that turns out to be too politically difficult (and, of course, local residents should be given a full opportunity to weigh in on the proposal), lane reductions would be a good consolation prize. Either scenario would make Jackson Park safer and better, rather than creating creating a traffic nightmare or killing commerce.
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  • I’d prefer is any diverted vehicles took Marquette instead of 67th. 67th is a neighbourhood street with several busy bus routes, and frequent pedestrian crossings connecting South Shore to Jackson Park. It is not suitable as a traffic sewer off of Lake Shore Drive (and it will be a traffic sewer regardless of whatever traffic calming initiatives are implemented). Diverting too many vehicles onto Stony Island will have a similar effect.

    While it’s a nice idea to pedestrianize Marquette, there isn’t nearly the need for pedestrians to have frequent access across Marquette as there is for 67th and Stony Island. One grade separated crossing for the golf course, and additional signalized or grade separated crossings on either side of the course covers all the relevant desire paths.

  • Jeremy

    It would make sense to put in temporary barriers to create a road diet and experiment with closed streets on weekends to see how things work. Then make a permanent decision at the end of the summer.

  • FlamingoFresh

    First ADT doesn’t tell the full story of a roadway’s demand. Depending on the area and time of day demand will be higher than other times. By looking at the peak hour (worst case scenario) then one can truly see the demand that occupies that roadway.

    Second one would have to look at how the vehicles removed from using 57th Street impact the capacity of the street that they would be forced to use, 67th Street, due to increased demand and a decrease in options.

    Obviously a traffic study will be performed and hopefully they look at multiple alternatives, road closures, lane diets, raised pedestrian walkways, etc. In addition to a traffic study some of these alternatives should be tested temporarily to really see how traffic is affected.

  • The ADT count is already normalized based on seasonality (and truck axles that may count that vehicle more than once). And knowing the “true” demand isn’t that helpful if we have intentions of changing behavior.

    In other words, we can divert people to go drive where it’s set up and appropriate for them to drive, not continue accommodating them where they are.

    What’s a raised pedestrian walkway?

  • FlamingoFresh

    Actually when ADT is normalized with truck factors and seasonal factors it becomes AADT.

    When I mentioned that the ADT or AADT doesn’t tell the full story of demand I was referring to peak hour demands. Everyone knows (for the most part) roads are the busiest in the AM peak hour 6-8 and the PM peak hours 4:30-6:30. Depending on the roadway a high percentage of daily traffic can occur in these few hours. This means that if these roads receive a majority of traffic during these peak hours then the current roadway layout may be adequate to handle peak hour traffic but be under utilized throughout the rest of the day.Obviously if you have all the data one can factor the peak hour factor (PHF) to the traffic volume to get the peak hour demand. Remember lanes not only have a daily capacity but they have an hourly capacity and if the demand is high enough in the peak hours then it could tell a different story than a whole day could.

    I’m also all for converting individual car drivers to shared transport but the notion behind figuring out the demand on these roadways is to see how this diverted traffic will affect the other roadway routes if they get dumped onto the other roadways. You don’t want to cause severe congestion on roadways without making sure these roadways can handle the additional demand or else this congestion will just trickle down the roadway network. If that is the case and there are alternatives to driving for this area then I’m for “forcing the drivers’ hand” into another mode of transportation.

    That’s the general idea behind a traffic study, however, when stakeholders and money is involved sometimes logic goes by the wayside.

    A raised pedestrian walkway is exactly what it sounds like. It’s like a raised bridge that goes over the roadway. It was an option if they didn’t want to fully close the road. The construction of this walkway may not be feasible if there isn’t enough room to get a proper roadway clearance. It’s just another thing to look at.


  • Courtney

    If the city improves transit access in the area and makes it more hospitable to bikers and pedestrians (while also improving air quality), traffic on this road will decrease. We are way past the need to give priority and first consideration to cars.

  • Mike

    The widening of Cornell through Jackson Park in the ’60s was part of a plan to provide better access from LSD to the Skyway, The plan also involved widening Stony, at the expense of a number of buildings on the east side of the street from 67th to 70th.
    At one point in the late ’50s, a plan was seriously considered to build a flyover bridge across Jackson Park, from 57th & LSD to 67th & Stony (and the Cornell widening was the compromise).

    I wish I had a solid number to quote, but at any rate, the number of cars that end up in Jackson Park Lagoon due to speeding/loss of control on Cornell is significant.

    Restoring some sort of rail access to 63rd/Stony would help quite a bit. One can dream…

  • Pat

    Pedestrian overpasses in the middle of the park? Not only would they look terrible and set a bad precedent, but they wouldn’t get much use.

    Where these overpasses get used is where you physically cannot cross at grade level (by fences/walls, sunken roadways or railways, highway speeds, etc.).

  • Jeremy

    If a street is designed to handle vehicles during peak hours (ie. weekday morning and evening commute), then the street has extra capacity during non-peak hours. Extra capacity leads to drivers speeding during non-peak hours. Since a park is used primarily during the afternoon and weekends, it is a bad idea to have a street in a park designed based on morning and afternoon commutes.

  • Jeremy

    If Cornell was placed to provide access to the Skyway, I wonder if the city will even be allowed to shut it down. Daley Jr leased the Skyway to private investors. The investors may be able to block closing Cornell if doing so hinders drivers from accessing the Skyway. Or city hall may have to pay a compensatory amount.

  • Mike

    It’s possible but I doubt it, in part because the Stony ramp to the Skyway is almost two miles from where Cornell exits the park.
    Cornell was originally sort of a meandering, slow path through the park, and even crossed the lagoon at the Darrow Bridge inside JP at one time.
    In any case, I believe Marquette being vacated is essentially a done deal, since the redesigned golf course plan depends on that happening.

  • At least to give a timing for peak flows, they occur southbound from around 5pm to 6pm, with the bottleneck with a few minutes delay approaching 57th and Science Drives (see bus travel times here). All northbound paths are capacity limited on the approaches before reaching Cornell or LSD.

    My take on capacities of the relevant roadways can be found here if your interested.

  • If any mode’s grade should change, the vehicles should be buried under the park. Although that’s not a good use of public funds.
    When you said raised pedestrian walkway I thought you might be talking about a different name for a raised crosswalk.

    I’m sure that CDOT will require a traffic study, but no matter what the peak hour demand is (it won’t be higher than 13,000 cars per direction, because that’s the 24 hour total), three lanes per direction is still overkill.

  • Mike

    Ald. Hairston has now come out against closing Cornell and Marquette. Citing no specific reason, she ‘thinks it’s a bad idea’.

  • There already are many pedestrian underpasses in Jackson Park (and along the entire waterfront) crossing Lake Shore Drive. They aren’t eyesores if done correctly, which isn’t all that hard in a park setting.

  • Pat

    Yes, but they all are under LSD, which is a de facto highway.

    I don’t see much room for them on Cornell without either altering the shore of the West Lagoon or shifting/narrowing the road.

  • True, Cornell just needs to be made safe for pedestrians by restricting vehicles.

    I do however believe pedestrian overpasses make sense for crossing Marquette, especially if the landscaping is redesigned to accommodate them.

  • FlamingoFresh

    It was merely an alternative to look at. Have you ever heard of “covering all the bases”? It’s what occurs when an entity properly looks at all options possible moving moving forward and eliminating them.