Coalition Calls for Adding Transit Lanes to Lake Shore Drive Without Widening It

A rendering of Lake Shore Drive with mixed-traffic lanes converted to dedicated bus lanes. Image: IDOT
A rendering of Lake Shore Drive with mixed-traffic lanes converted to dedicated bus lanes. Image: IDOT

During the public input sessions for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction study, the Illinois Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the coastal highway, has indicated that it favors adding “managed lanes” to the road. These would give priority to CTA buses, as well as motorists who pay a toll for the privilege of a somewhat quicker trip. The department also hasn’t ruled out the idea of adding bus-only lanes, but if the existing number of lanes for cars were maintained, that would require widening the drive into a ten-lane behemoth, which would gobble up precious Lakefront green space.

But recently a coalition of civic and business organizations wrote an open letter to the project team, Governor Bruce Rauner, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposing a more sensible plan: converting two of the eight existing mixed-traffic lanes to transit lanes. The coalition includes the Active Transportation AllianceEnvironmental Law & Policy CenterFriends of the ParksIllinois PIRGLincoln Park Chamber of CommerceLakeview Chamber of CommerceMetropolitan Planning CouncilMidwest High Speed Rail AssociationRespiratory Health Association, and Sierra Club Illinois.

“The reconstruction of North Lake Shore Drive is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ‘redefine the drive’ and create a transportation corridor that prioritizes moving people rather than cars,” they state in the letter. They note that for Chicago to successfully compete with other U.S. and global cities, our transit system is going to have to accommodate more ridership in the future.

The coalition points out that currently North Lake Shore Drive is often congested with cars, mostly single-occupant vehicles, during rush hours. There are about 3,300 bus trips on the highway per day, carrying some 69,000 people, compared to 161,000 car trips carrying 256,000 people, according to the purpose and need statement for the North Lake Shore Drive reconstruction project. While buses carry 21 percent of the commuters while taking up only a small fraction of the space of cars, transit riders get stuck in the car-generated traffic jams as motorists.

The groups note that giving buses dedicated lanes would create a new rapid transit route at a low upfront cost. (They also point out that light rail could carry far more people than buses, although IDOT has written off that idea as cost-prohibitive. And while they acknowledge the department’s proposal for managed lanes would be better than the status quo, they note it wouldn’t be as effective as bus-only lanes, because the buses would still have to deal with car traffic.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

“Creating a new transit service with its own dedicated lanes will make transit service faster and more reliable, creating a better service for people who already rely on transit while also attracting new riders who would otherwise drive,” the letter states.

It’s worth noting that the coalition doesn’t just include the usual suspects in terms of local sustainable transportation and environmental advocacy groups. It also includes two of the key local chambers of commerce, who understand that improving transit access while preserving or expanding lakefront parkland would be good for local merchants’ bottom line.

Coverage of the letter in Crain’s referred to this effort as a “campaign to effectively shrink the size of North Lake Shore Drive, turning over one lane in each direction for exclusive use of buses.” But, of course, dedicating lanes for bus use wouldn’t be reducing the usable space on the eight-lane highway at all, but rather reallocating the space so that a larger number of people could travel more efficiently.

Sure, the remaining six mixed-traffic lanes might become more congested for drivers (although, with less car capacity on the road it’s likely that some of them would choose to switch travel modes, or avoid unnecessary trips, a phenomenon known as traffic evaporation.) But as coalition members have pointed out, car traffic is going to be congested on Lake Shore Drive whether there are six lanes for drivers or ten. In the latter scenario the additional capacity would only encourage more care trips and the lanes would simply fill up again.

Local architect Jacob Peters counted the number of buses scheduled on Lake Shore Drives express CTA lines between 7 and 8 a.m. on weekdays, including the #134, #135, #136, #143, #146, #147, and #148, and found that 102 buses run during that peak hour. He tweeted that dedicated transit lanes would be “a great use of space when you’re dealing with a corridor that averages a bus every 35 seconds during rush hour.”

You can add your name to the coalition’s letter by filling out this online form. Let elected officials know that you’re in favor adding transit lanes to Lake Shore Drive without widening the highway and destroying green space.

  • David Henri

    John, thanks for providing the link for the online form. It works just fine.

  • Random_Jerk

    I know it’s a dream, but I wished LSD was burred ALL THE WAY….
    Also I think, in general in US, local governments are way accommodating to cars. Close one lane for bus only. Nothing will happen. People will whine for a while and they will get over it. It will force them to use the transit. They will like it after w a while. They just don’t know it yet. Sometimes tough love is good.

  • Cameron Puetz

    As maligned as American streetcar projects are by both transit advocates and opponents, the lakefront bus routes really could benefit from being converted to streetcars. These are very high traffic bus routes with the potential to have varying levels of separation along their routes. These streetcars could have dedicated right of way along most of their north side lakefront run, transition to street running in mixed traffic down Michigan Avenue, and finish their route street running in transit traffic along the Loop Link corridors. Alternately a lane could be taken from Michigan to dedicate to mixed streetcar/bus traffic.
    Considering that many of these routes run with over stuffed articulated buses, there’s enough ridership to really benefit from the larger vehicles available on streetcar systems. Also with the portions of dedicated right of way, the conversion could reduce trips times.

  • Chicagoan

    I would settle for LSD being buried from Randolph to Roosevelt, honestly.

  • So if the numbers are like 140,000 to 70,000 then that’s pretty much 3 to 1. So 8 lanes divided by our one third share is close enough to 2 lanes.

    Two lanes are deserved by bus riders. We just want our fair share of the drive. It’s not buses that are congesting the drive, it’s cars.

    Blow the congesting car snot out of our lanes and back to their own lanes.

    It looks like pretty straight forward argument to me.

  • Cameron Puetz

    From Randolph to Monroe you wouldn’t even need to lower LSD. Just extend the decking that Maggie Daley sits on over the road.

  • Tooscrapps

    The tramways in Milan would be a great example to follow. Many run both on their own ROW and in mixed traffic on narrow streets. They have level boarding platforms, stop bumpouts, and all door boarding with tapcard/POP systems.

  • Tooscrapps

    The height of the the FDR Bridge makes neither sinking, nor decking really feasible. Even if you were to deck it, then you just have a cliff right on the lake… which actually would be a pretty cool promenade (ala Brooklyn Heights), but would really be a detriment to the LFP.

  • JacobEPeters

    It was the total per hour rush hour buses scheduled on the 134, 135, 136, 143, 146, 147, & 148 since those are the 7 buses that utilize North Lake Shore Drive during rush hour.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Many European cities have systems like that. I’d also look at the Twin Cities has an example of a newly built system that got it right.

  • Courtney

    I don’t see the advantage of streetcars. Having them in Chicago would be like a novelty toy. I’m all for a bus-only lane on Sheridan Rd from Uptown to Rogers Park and the buses would be equipped with ticket enforcement cameras for any car traveling in the lane or parked in the lane. I’d love this for all buses honestly.

  • rwy

    Do people ever stop whining? 2 nights ago I went to a town hall meeting where people where whining about bike lanes that where put in a couple of years ago.

  • Tooscrapps

    Yup, just speaking from personal experience!

  • Chicagoan

    As Cameron mentioned, streetcars have the ability to offer better capacity in comparison to a bus, especially if a few of them are linked together. The issue with streetcars in the United States, the most recent ones anyway, is that they’re definitely novelty toys, as you’ve mentioned. Cincinnati, Detroit, and St. Louis have all recently built streetcars with little purpose (Especially St. Louis). I could see major benefit to a streetcar line/transit corridor going from Hollywood Avenue & Lake Shore Drive to Oak Street Beach, then turning onto Michigan Avenue and going from Michigan Avenue until it joins up with the Loop Link infrastructure. This would be great in bus form too.

  • Anne A

    I wish that Loop Link lanes had camera enforcement. Yesterday at lunchtime I watched a driver pull in front of a bus that was stopped on Madison between State and Dearborn. That driver blocked the lane when the bus was starting to move because she had to yield to peds crossing Dearborn. The bus driver ended up causing a little bit of gridlock because the stupid car driver was finally able to turn so late in the light cycle. Charming. I wish this was a rare thing.

  • Chicagoan

    The instigator in me wants to charge the living hell out of people who drive into the Loop. With so many high-quality transit options to get there, there’s no excuse to drive. Single-occupancy vehicles are a nuisance.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The main advantage here is that they can be bigger. In many applications that’s irrelevant, but in a corridor like the lakefront where an existing system running articulated buses on short headways is overcrowded, a larger vehicle can improve service.

    Streetcars are also more efficient and easy to electrify. Steel wheels on rails have less rolling resistance than rubber tires on pavement.

    The are also some less tangible benefits. Streetcars can also offer a smoother ride and a more aesthetically pleasing right of way when tracks pass through a park. The wheels will always be on the rails, so instead of requiring a wide ribbon of pavement like a bus, there can be plantings around the tracks. For example these tracks in Nice:
    https://www.google.com/maps/@43.7095736,7.2928732,3a,75y,235.68h,79.75t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1shhZkw3LuFDTwh0P1lY2BHg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!5m1!1e2

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Got it, thanks. Edited accordingly.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Toronto is an example of a well-functioning North American streetcar system, which just got better after they banned many types of car trips for a major street. https://usa.streetsblog.org/2017/11/17/toronto-shows-how-easy-it-is-to-speed-up-surface-transit/

  • JacobEPeters

    Since the coverage area of the express buses is roughly 21.7 miles of roadway. Speeding up those buses through dedicated lanes, prepaid boarding & other BRT improvements would serve a much larger area for a much smaller cost than rebuilding the corridor as a single fixed guideway rail line.

    Regardless dedicated transit lanes on Michigan & LSD are necessary for both of these options to provide dedicated reliable transit access that will improve capacity along the corridor.

  • what_eva

    I walk through there toward the tail end of morning rush (8:30-9ish) every day and I would guess I see a car making that illegal right turn from Madison onto Dearborn at least twice a week. I also frequently see drivers in the right lane drifting over into the Loop Link lane and we’re talking people in sedans/SUVs, not big trucks. I love the bus drivers that come up honking at the morons.

    On a similar note, I do not get why deliveries are even allowed in the loop before 9:30 AM. There’s often delivery trucks partially blocking the lane by the Walgreen’s at State/Madison (there’s a bit of a spot for them to park as the lanes shift for the station, but they are often blocking the buses at least a bit.

  • what_eva

    The problem I have with a streetcar (and the concern I have with center bus lanes) is that there are large sections of the drive where the housing isn’t that close to the drive.

    From North to Belmont, the park gets pretty wide and has the lagoon and harbor as an additional barrier. Belmont to Irving is really the only spot where the housing is right on the drive. North of Irving, the park on the west side isn’t as wide as south of Belmont, but it’s still additional walking and less dense until you get up to Edgewater where you again have wider swaths of park between the housing and the drive. Additionally, for center running you’d need bridges or tunnels for the stops, meaning they’d be less frequent than the current bus stops.

    The current solution is that the express buses get off the drive and go into the dense housing streets. 134/143 uses Stockton/Sheridan, 135/146 use Inner Drive, 148 uses Clarendon, 136 uses Marine and 147 uses Sheridan. If you do a streetcar, how does it get to where people actually live?

    The related concern with center bus lanes is how do the buses get to the lanes? Do we build additional ramps for the buses at Fullerton/Belmont/Irving/Foster (maybe skip Foster as traffic isn’t gridlocked that far north)?

  • Anne A

    I’ve used those Toronto streetcars and been happy with the quality of service. The downside is trickier biking conditions on some streets, especially at the intersections of streetcar lines – locations like Queen & Spadina. A friend who lived in TO for a while had a scary crash at that location, and I’ve heard of other people having bad crashes due to the tracks.

    https://www.google.com/maps/place/Queen+St+W+%26+Spadina+Ave,+Toronto,+ON,+Canada/@43.6487406,-79.3964519,67m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x882b34db6fd31957:0xa053da94f3b61d50!8m2!3d43.648767!4d-79.3962577

  • Courtney

    While it’s an older article, I found this useful:http://humantransit.org/2009/07/streetcars-an-inconvenient-truth.html

    I’m just not seeing the tremendous benefits in tearing up roads to add the infrastructure for streetcars. While Sheridan Rd. is not my biking street of choice (I still see a few brave souls biking it), I would be concerned about the safety of cyclists.

    I could easily see equipping buses and traffic lights with the tech to allow buses to delay or trigger the lights as need be to speed up traffic, allowing all-door boarding, bus-only lanes, etc being of greater benefit than a streetcar. Agree to disagree. =)

  • Sally Wright McLinn

    This makes sense for rush hour. I live off LSD and during rush hour the drive is packed and very slow, but it lets up about 10 a.m. So I would be in favor between 7-10am for a toll fare.

  • Sally Wright McLinn

    Ask Detroit how their Q line is going….not very good.

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