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Bus lanes aren’t enough: We must transform DuSable Drive into a multimodal boulevard

8:10 PM CDT on July 7, 2021

San Francisco’s Embarcadero was formerly occupied by a double-decker highway, but converted to a boulevard after the highway was damaged by an earthquake. Author Michael Podgers argues that this example suggests eight-lane DuSable Drive could be converted to a surface boulevard with four travel lanes with no negative effects on mobility.

Michael Podgers is a lifelong Chicagoan who advocates for sustainable mobility and urbanism in his free time. He holds a Masters of Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and  currently works in low-income and subsidized housing administration.

Podgers is an organizer with the sustainable transportation advocacy organization Better Streets Chicago. While potential design scenarios presented by the Illinois and Chicago transportation departments for the upcoming reconstruction of North Jean Baptiste du Sable Lake Shore Drive represent relatively modest changes to the status quo, Better Streets is currently pushing an alternative, less car-centric vision for the drive.

The opinions contained in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BSC. The piece was edited by Streetsblog Chicago co-editor John Greenfield, with the final draft approved by Podgers.

The status quo on DuSable Drive. Photo: John Greenfield
The status quo on DuSable Drive. Photo: John Greenfield
The status quo on DuSable Drive. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago’s lakefront is the city’s greatest natural asset. The parks hugging collectively represent our greatest public space. We are lucky to live in a city where leaders had the vision to keep our lakefront, in the words of early 1800s public officials, "forever open, clear, and free." The result is a beautiful public space unlike any other in the world.

Unfortunately, the lakefront has been marred by development that challenges the definition of "forever open, clear, and free." No such project has proven more egregious and destructive than Jean Baptiste Point du Sable Lake Shore Drive, the eight-lane highway conspicuously slicing through the middle of our lakefront parks.

It's long past time to right-size the drive and rethink mobility along the lakefront. Now is the moment to do so. For several years now, the Illinois and Chicago departments of transportation have been leading the Redefine the Drive community input process for the planned reconstruction of the highway between Grand and Hollywood avenues. However, none of the potential design scenarios presented even remotely challenges the status quo or pushes the boundaries of what’s possible. IDOT and CDOT have decided they want to rebuild the highway pretty much as-is, or even widen it further, and therefore that is all they will propose or consider.

The five design alternatives currently being considered. Click to enlarge.
The five design alternatives currently being considered. Click to enlarge.
The five design alternatives currently being considered. Click to enlarge.

[Streetsblog Chicago has been advocating for "The Exchange" design alternative, which would convert two of the existing eight mixed-traffic lanes to bus-only lanes. -Ed]

The concept plans presented so far are either insufficient to meet the challenges our city faces or, in the case of "The Addition" scenario, which involves adding two more lanes, would further degrade our lakefront. We need a bolder vision than what IDOT and CDOT are willing to provide, and we need it now. We must force the planners to go back to the drawing board, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get this right.

IDOT and CDOT’s planning team is aggressively pursuing the status quo: a highway. They ignore the realities of urban mobility and the ongoing climate crisis. Instead, their proposals lock in the worst aspects of the drive – crashes, pollution, noise, and congestion – for decades to come.

In reality, what we need is a plan to reduce congestion, provide more and improved alternatives to driving, and increase green space without the need for infill in Lake Michigan. We need a strategy that will make it possible for the lakefront to be a true, green respite that is calm and quiet, i.e. highway-free.

At Better Streets Chicago, fellow organizers, volunteers, and I are advocating for a new vision for the drive that stands in stark contrast to what IDOT and CDOT have offered. We envision a boulevard that runs along the western edge of the parkland instead of through the green space. We want a multimodal road (again, not a highway) with mixed-traffic lanes reduced from the current eight to two in each direction. We want to see gold standard Bus Rapid Transit built that can support local and express buses that aren't slowed down by private vehicles.

Rendering of an alternative layout for DuSable Drive from the Better Streets Chicago website.
Rendering of an alternative layout for DuSable Drive from the Better Streets Chicago website.
Rendering of an alternative layout for DuSable Drive from the Better Streets Chicago website.

Better Streets also wants to create bikeways built to Dutch design standards, entirely removed from vehicle traffic and safe enough for children to use, to make transportation cycling more efficient. While the Lakefront Trail, which is geared more towards recreation, would remain in its current location, the new bikeways would be located on the west side of the boulevard, providing more direct access to neighborhoods.

We also envision a boulevard with wide tree-lined sidewalks to improve the pedestrian experience. And significantly reducing the total lakefront roadway footprint will provide space for new parkland. This vision for the future will allow people to move more safely, efficiently, and sustainably than ever before.

This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It is a proven recipe for success. Portland turned a riverfront highway into a park decades ago. Following a 1989 earthquake, San Francisco removed the Embarcadero Freeway to build a multimodal boulevard. The road currently has wide sidewalks, plazas, light rail lines, street parking, and bike lanes. Although the former highway carried up to 100,000 vehicles a day, since its removal the number of average daily trips has dropped to fewer than 30,000 vehicles per day at the most congested intersection. This was done without decreasing the public's ability to get around the city. In both the Portland and San Francisco examples, the cities developed a renewed relationship with their waterfronts.

The Embarcadero Freeway, prior to its removal after the 1989 earthquake.
The Embarcadero Freeway, prior to its removal after the 1989 earthquake.
The Embarcadero Freeway, prior to its removal after the 1989 earthquake.

Rochester, New York, has begun actively removing downtown highways to reconnect neighborhoods while building safer multimodal roads and green space in their place. London, Paris, and Seoul are all removing or reducing the size of waterfront roadways. Furthermore, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has reversed decades of highway policy by promoting the removal of urban highways. If ever there was a moment to take a critical look at the drive and ask ourselves whether the drive is really what we want on our lakefront, it is now.

Yet, it appears IDOT and CDOT missed the memo. All they can conceive of is highway building and expansion. The evidence is the proposals they've come up with.

I became involved in Better Streets' advocacy for a new vision of the drive, because I, along with many others, felt like nobody else would do the hard work of pushing for something truly good and visionary. Working with Better Streets Chicago, I have learned that IDOT and CDOT have no interest building anything other than a highway-through-a-park. The planners actively avoid discussing alternatives and when pressed seem utterly incapable providing answers to hard questions.

Worse, an analysis of the planning team’s own survey of mobility habits on the drive by Better Streets strongly suggests private motor vehicle use could be reduced by 50-70 percent if the right design and alternatives to driving were provided. Drivers have said as much themselves by stating openly in the survey they would use alternatives if they were faster and more efficient. This can be achieved by building high-quality BRT along a boulevard, rather than mere bus lanes on a highway. BRT could move hundreds of thousands of people a day on local and express buses and support ridership on other CTA routes.

[According to the Redefine the Drive planning team, "Portions of North Lake Shore Drive carry as many as 155,000 vehicles per day. In addition, each day about 69,000 transit riders travel on the bus routes on (the) inner and outer (lanes of the drive.) -Ed.]

This is not to mention the thousands of people who would switch to cycling or walking if they became safer, more convenient options. Additionally, increased transit ridership due to improvements to 'L' service now being made via the Red-Purple Modernization Program, and infill stations on Metra’s Union Pacific North line (such the new station planned at Peterson and Ridge avenues in Edgewater) can help replace current private vehicle trips on the drive. The planners don't seem to understand that highways encourage car trips, creating congestion, while offering practical and appealing alternatives to driving helps eliminate car trips and makes the transportation system more efficient.

By not conducting a critical analysis of the complete mobility ecosystem along the lakefront, exploring ways to reduce private vehicle travel, or acknowledging changing travel norms and expectations, and by outright ignoring the actual voices of residents, IDOT and CDOT are doing a great disservice to all Chicagoans. Their actions amount to professional negligence.

This is made worse by the extremely limited pushback the proposals have received from local civic organizations and media outlets, including Streetsblog Chicago. These entities have bought into the idea that a highway is somehow an acceptable future for our lakefront, as long as the plan includes converting existing mixed-traffic lanes to bus-only lanes.

Rendering of DuSable Drive with two travel lanes swapped for bus-only lanes.
Rendering of DuSable Drive with two travel lanes swapped for bus-only lanes.
Rendering of DuSable Drive with two travel lanes swapped for bus-only lanes.

[The Active Transportation Alliance is leading a coalition of ten business and civic groups calling for dedicated space for transit on the drive, without widening the footprint of the highway. Here's a discussion of my recent comments about the issue during a WBEZ radio program. -Ed]

But bus lanes alone are not enough. We don't need transit lane on a highway. We need to do away with the highway outright and build something entirely different and less destructive.

We desperately need a better vision than the one being advanced by IDOT and CDOT and tacitly endorsed by the civic and media organizations with the power to force the planners back to the drawing board. We must not replicate the highway-through-a-park status quo, and merely swapping a couple of travel lanes for bus lanes would produce the change we need.

Instead, today's environmental, health, and transportation challenges demand that we transform the drive into a multimodal boulevard into a multimodal boulevard that includes the highest standard of bus rapid transit, plus commuter bikeways and pedestrian promenades to match. We need to reclaim our lakefront and turn it into the truly spectacular green space we deserve. We need to remove the highway through our parks.

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