Chicago Metro Rail Urbanism

Stuck in the Land of Missed Opportunity

» The development of Rosemont, just adjacent to Chicago O’Hare Airport, is indicative of the missed development opportunities that too often plague America’s transit systems.

Being bumped from a flight has its benefits: A few hundred dollars’ worth of free travel, a restaurant certificate, a little more time to avoid getting back to work.

Getting stuck in an airport hotel, on the other hand, is less exciting, especially when it is off-site. Take the fate of those staying in the accommodations of Rosemont, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago just adjacent to O’Hare Airport. I bunked there a few nights ago.

While in theory the town’s cornucopia of hotels are close to the CTA’s Blue Line rapid transit corridor, they are isolated from it perceptually. So is a major convention center, a movie theater, and a performance hall. Walking from the station situated in the median of the Kennedy Expressway (I-190) to the main strip of hotels requires passing under highway and rail viaducts and then along the thin pedestrian way that borders the featureless, six-lane arterial known as River Road. Normal people, apparently, are supposed to drive, park their cars, and then use the area’s skybridge system to get around. Forget the sidewalks.

What the transit user — usually a pedestrian — experiences is an automobile-dominated landscape that is far from the ideal transit-oriented development planners often argue is necessary to take full advantage of the millions spent on public transportation investments. Too many other Chicago neighborhoods, and many others around the country, suffer similar fates. It doesn’t have to be so.

Though the Rosemont Station, which is the penultimate stop on the Blue Line before it reaches its O’Hare terminus, was completed in 1983, planning for the line out to the airport began decades before. In the 1960s, Chicago went on a rapid transit construction binge, building more than twenty miles of new rail routes. Unlike the earlier elevateds that made the city’s transit system famous, however, these new lines were mostly built along highway routes: South along the Dan Ryan, west along the Eisenhower, and northwest along the Kennedy, each of which had land reserved in their medians for the trains to run.

About the same time, the village of Rosemont began to grow quickly thanks to the 1960 opening of the Kennedy Expressway and the continued expansion of O’Hare Airport. By 1969, Hyatt had opened a massive John Portman-designed hotel just next to the road. In 1975, the Stephens Convention Center commenced operations next door. Over the next 35 years, dozens of other hotels, office structures, and other facilities filled the land within a half mile of the rail station.

Peculiarly, though, taking up more than half of the developable land within half a mile of the Blue Line stop are surface parking lots or garages, as shown in the above image. How can this be possible with a transit station offering 24-hour service at high frequencies so close by?

One might suggest that the developers of the new buildings were simply responding to market reality: Americans like to drive, so rail station or not, automobiles will dominate. Indeed, the fact that there is so much parking there implies that the vast majority of people using the area’s facilities are driving there. But Chicago is a transit city, and the Blue Line offers convenient service downtown and to the airport much more reliably than does the frequently traffic-jammed highway. What gives?

Call Rosemont a case study in the importance of well-designed transit stations.

The transit authority made the first mistake by placing the stop in the median of the highway, a location that significantly limits the appeal of transit for people who have a choice. Nobody wants to have to stand on an open platform waiting for a train in the middle of a roaring expressway. Nobody wants to have to walk under or over said road just to get onto the train.

Even worse, the Rosemont stop is in the middle of a cloverleaf intersection, a site that effectively makes it impossible to develop any of the land directly abutting the line. It also forces people walking to and from the station to navigate the no-man’s land that makes up the “beautified” area of the highway off-ramps. Finally, the Rosemont station only has an exit to the north, forcing people who want to go to the more developed areas to the south to go under the road again. It is not a pretty situation, and it is shared by the Cumberland station, one stop east on the Blue Line, though at least that stop has exits on both sides of the highway.

Bad design has its consequences. At Rosemont, developers have constructed their buildings as if unaware of the nearness of transit. No restaurants or retail activity is designed to face the street; sidewalks are minimal; signage is clearly oriented towards the driver. Are people expected to ride transit in this environment?

For those like me bumped from flights and stuck in Rosemont’s airport hotels, this landscape limits accessibility significantly. One can brave down the arterial to the transit station (which I did, despite a hotel receptionist’s apparent ignorance of the Blue Line’s existence) or take a hotel bus departing once every 30 minutes back to the airport. Though I spent my evening patronizing a cafe and a restaurant in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, I have a feeling that, finding themselves in similar situations, many others — all without car access — would choose to simply remain in the hotel.

The position of the station and the poor consideration given to it by the design of the development around it are limiting transit use and, perhaps more importantly, diminishing economic activity in the Chicago region in general. Those thousands of people bumped from flights every year at O’Hare Airport could be eating at a restaurant in Wicker Park or shopping downtown, but most of them are probably stuck in their hotels.

32 replies on “Stuck in the Land of Missed Opportunity”

I once did a essay paper on this subject about how everything is the suburbs is built to the car’s scale if the car was a living creature and that how a car does very badly if not out of place in a older city core pedestrain system while at the same time humans can’t compeat angist it when they are in the car’s native habait. The main idea of this is how a alien city would be different then a human city with the car vs human needs as a example into the dementions of how a alien city would fit the creatures living it would be differnt than the dementions of a human city.

The only way to get rid of this would be to get the pedestrain subway station out of this car only zone.

Your comment reminded me of a video a transportation planning prof showed the class: It was made in the late 60’s which should fit the mentality of development along the Blue Line.

As for the nature of building transit stations within freeway corridors, all 5 stations in Toronto built within the Allen Expressway are enclosed so you’re not subjected to the car traffic while you’re waiting for your train. It could also be partly due to the environment as a whole and the microclimate of the corridor, being built in a trench. The trench was a man-made extension of a ravine which the expressway was supposed to travel through on the way to downtown before residents like Jane Jacobs put a stop to it.

As such, the on- and offramps are much more compact making accessing the stations on foot much easier. Unfortunately when the trench was dug it tore right through your typical post-WWII suburban housing, which means, aside from the arterial roads where stations are situated, there’s not much else to do in term of intensification without cries of NIMBYism.

Oddly enough I encountered a passing reference to Rosemont in an old discussion I was reading earlier today on GreaterGreaterWashington. Though I hate to bring the concept into the discussion so early it was about a small PRT system ‘planned’ for the area. Seeing this pop up promted me to go read more about it.

Interesting, but 100 million dollars seems a lot of money for something that could be replaced with a circulator bus, though I suppose the overnighters wouldn’t have any trouble finding transit with so many stations. Do they really need 4 stations on one block? If you were looking to link the hotel areas together with fixed transit to the airport why wouldn’t you find some way to extend the people-mover from the airport?

On a non-PRT topic…looking at the area on Google Earth the roads in the area appear to be falling apart. I’ve seen better maintained roads in Central America. If the roads are that bad I can only imagine the sidewalks. Interestingly the hotel parking lots appear exquisitely maintained. Presumably the hotels all offer shuttles to the airport rather than suggest people walk (or shuttle) to the transit stop.

Hopefully now the gadgetbahner propagandists don’t flood this discussion…if they do maybe they can propose a 3 mile high speed maglev from the airport to the PRT system.

Good post. A couple of years ago I visited the Morgantown WV peoplemover system and was given a tour by one of the staff, who said that, as the country’s longest-running PRT operators, they had been invited to consult with Rosemont on a peoplemover distribution network. Apparently the Rosemont PRT design was flawed from the outset because of throughput issues (I guess every CTA train would disgorge too many people at once) and it never got built. What we’re left with is what you had to endure.

This station is directly under the flight path for runway 9R/27L, and is very close to the path for 4R/22L. I’m not sure if there are any height or use restrictions in that area, but it’s quite possible. Unfortunately, airports often restrict density due to the need for clear zones and just the overwhelming noise of jet turbines.

From what I recall, one of the big problems with the Rosemont PRT system was Raytheon’s inability to do any sort of cost control, being used to the military’s lax budgeting practices (cue jokes about American transit capital costs).

The airport extension really is a giant missed opportunity—witness the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in DC. On the plus side, at a conference last year I saw plans very dense a very dense mixed-use redevelopment plan for a 1950’s-’60’s-vintage industrial and warehouse district in Elk Grove Village (I’ve not able to find the powerpoint online). Even though any rapid transit would run through the center of the planned Elgin-O’Hare expressway, the planners noted that better pedestrian access to transit was key to the redevelopment’s success stations in the middle of cloverleaves are definitely out, even if you might still have to walk under an overpass to get to the station.

Although they were careful not to have any sort of mode-favoritism in their plan, the undercurrent was that Elk Grove Village really wanted the Blue Line extended through O’Hare. This isn’t impossible—it’s been in the RTA’s plans for years—but it would require coordination with the O’Hare expansion plans, making for a very, very complicated (ergo expensive) project.

Couple things; 1) I think Mulad is right about height restrictions 2) a lot of the land immediately around the station is highway – the access road to the airport and two tollways which were all there before the el was built there and 3) the Forest Preserve (and Des Plaines River/Floodplain) is also immediately adjacent to the station, which all limit walkable development.

I’ve taken the train to the convention center if I remember right, its not far and there are shuttles to office buildings to the north in Rosemont – there seems to be a bit of bus traffic here too. I think the next station further east, Cumberland, has more immediately accessible walkable destinations, as well as nearby high rise residential (the buildings are taller as well I think – visible to the far right of the image above).

The suburbs around here are low density and have huge distances, not great for walking, especially with all the forest preserve around here. There is also a lot light industry and warehousing. Despite this, a lot of people take the bus to work here from the city. Chicago, however, really isn’t a transit city – most of the city away from the lakefront is very car oriented – every bungalow has a two car garage in back and the streets are still fully parked.

You should have snuck into the O’Hare Marriott to check out Kona Kai – the closed Tiki Restaurant with river and island dancefloor. Or taken Pace down to Hala Kahiki – way better than Wicker Park.

Wasn’t one proposal for the PRT a Monorail? I think Schaumberg (on the other side of O’Hare, by a large distance) also proposed one, maybe in the 90s (or in the 60’s when they proposed a massive, high density city with 40-story plus buildings there).

I think Metra’s Star line has killed any Blue Line expansion, despite some suburbs (like Elk Grove Village, where there are indeed Elk) wanting it for ease of bringing warehouse workers in.

Chicago resident here. Welcome to our town, Yonah.

The roads around the station are actually in very good shape, as are the sidewalks. It is, however, a nightmare to traverse on foot. The River Road cloverleaf is part of my daily commute (long, boring story) and I’m regularly struck at the courage or desperation needed to be a pedestrian in the area.

The station parking lot (between the expressways) is nearly full on a daily basis with park-and-riders, so to that extent it’s successful. The adjoining CTA/Pace bus terminal also seems busy during peaks. I don’t think there’s any way to improve the pedestrian experience without reconfiguring the interchange.

PRT, for what it’s worth, would have been very tough to implement. Throughput issues aside, it would have been very difficult logistically and physically to build a station big enough to serve demand without seriously impacting personal vehicle and bus movements. (As an engineer, of course I’d have loved to try to solve it.) This is another negative consequence of the station’s location in the expressway median.

The Rosemont Blue Line Station is just one of many poorly planned transit options around O’Hare. Metra’s NCS line, which connects downtown, many western neighborhoods and many northern ‘burbs, has two stations just a half mile away from the O’Hare Airport Transit System, with only vast parking lots and Mannheim Road (not a very ped friendly road) separating them. How many additional fares could Metra collect with a direct connection to the ATS?

The issue of transforming the suburubs is a difficult one. By the time the Blue Line station opened at Rosemont, there was already momentum behind the auto-dominated urban form.

The Washington region is going to face this issue in a few years in Tysons Corner, where the 4 Metro stops are in areas completely dominated by cars. It’s great that advocates and planners were able to get the Silver Line route out of the Dulles Airport Access Road median in Tysons, but Routes 7 and 123 are both microfreeways, anyway. And all of the existing building stock in Tysons was designed only with the car in mind.

The transformation is likely to be long, tedious, and imperfect.

FYI, many airlines will offer you a voucher or credit equal to the value of your stay at their contracted hotel, even if you stay elsewhere. You might have to be pushy about it, but make it clear that you have a hotel where you’d prefer to stay, and that you’d like the dollar value of the voucher in another form instead.

I try to do this all the time because the contracted hotels are always in terrible locations, convenient to nothing except the hotel.

As for Rosemont, I’m not familiar with the area but based on the aerials: why not, as a first step, the CTA give away the surface parking area at the station to a developer in exchange for them incurring the costs of building structured parking (that replaces the loss) into development? Would there not be a market for this there? The parking lot is used during the weekdays, so fill it with night time/weekend heavy uses… a hotel, a movie theater, restaurants, etc. Maybe there’s not a market for these given that those uses all happen to be located on the other side of the tracks, and maybe I’m just used to super expensive East Coast markets where land is so valuable that developers will do anything for it.

Said developer would also be required to front the costs of building direct pedestrian access between the station and the area to the south, and development wouldn’t need to be so tall (maybe 4-5 stories tops?) Is this unrealistic?

I’m wondering after taking another look at the aerial shot if there might be tollway right of way which precludes development on the site beyond parking (zoning can be changed more easily) since it’s right next to the toll plaza. I know Rosemont is building another entrance to one of the tollways, but I’m not sure where exactly. It’s an awkward site to develop and with cheaper and easier land elsewhere I think it’ll be a while before the the “right” project came along that needed both access and visibility.

I think I’ve mentioned before that something similar happened to a friend (funnily enough, who commuted to the Rosemont station for a while) stuck in Dallas and his hotel staff freaked out when he stated his intention to take the bus into town, he did and had no problems (I think he had to walk a block or two). He liked the train system if I remember correctly – once he got to it. I mention this because it seems that it’s a common problem with airports.

The Rosemont PRT project was dropped due to project management issues at Raytheon, corporate and political issues for this military contractor, and changes in management at the RTA. Raytheon originally got into PRT because the Cold War ended and they thought their products would no longer be in demand. (Remember the ‘peace dividend?) However, the start of the Gulf War, and the resulting sales boost for Raytheon’s anti-missile defense system, the Patriot, created new opportunities, and the PRT development line was canceled.

The reason the Rosemont project was estimated at such a high cost was that this was to be a second test track for a brand new technology, with many issues to be worked out. However, the RTA’s significant investment in PRT did prove the concept, which was a very important contribution, and others are advancing it today. ULtra’s Heathrow PRT is in final testing stages before revenue service starts, Vectus has a full test track running in Sweden, and the Masdar system is in development.

As for Rosemont, PRT was seen as a way to link together a broken urban environment. The idea was to implement PRT as a circulator for the CTA station, in place of existing diesel vans/buses that the hotels currently run to O’Hare and around the area. It was a good call by Yonah to get out of there and go to Wicker Park.

I am a Chicago area resident, in the surburbs.

Chicago transit in the suburbs is oriented mostly to park and ride(CTA or METRA) and then riding it to downtown Chicago where you can then walk to work or shopping. There is some newer developments in older suburban downtown’s the emphasize walk-ability but this is a much newer phenomenon and geared to people driving to a parking garage on the outskirts not arrival by transit. Rosemont is building such a development but it envisions most people driving to a garage not arriving by transit. Even Pace, suburban bus service, is oriented to taking people to CTA or METRA and then continue downtown.

Building of the Blue/Red line in the middle of the expressway was seen as a cheap way to add updated service in the 60’s to 80’s when these were built since it was assumed most people would arrive by car or transfer from a bus not walk there.

“Being bumped from a flight has its benefits: A few hundred dollars’ worth of free travel, a restaurant certificate, a little more time to avoid getting back to work.” – you must live on a different world. I live one where it’s your fault that you get bumped, then you have to pay for expensive hotels, and if you’re lucky you get 10$ worth of vouchers for a day to use at the airport McDonalds.
That’s why people want trains.

What airline are you flying? With major US carriers (and foreign flag carriers as far as I know) a $300 travel voucher is just about the minimum. Usually when I fly I listen hopefully for the call for volunteers to take the bump, though I am rarely so lucky.

If you want to get bumped, don’t wait to listen for the call. Ask at the podium is there’s a chance that the flight will be overbooked. If they say, “Well, it does look like a very full flight,” you can ask to be put on a list. If that airline’s policy does not use such a list, hang around the podium so when that announcement does come, you can bolt to the front of the line before others get off their seats.

I think it’s instructive to look at the fact that the presence of O’Hare Airport and the Convention Center massively subsidizes the town of Rosemont, so much that the village actually turns a profit and mails checks to the small population of residents every year.

In other words, Rosemont has absolutely NO incentive to do any sort of urban planning. In a world where every other city has to compete to bring in businesses and residents, Rosemont just kicks back and watches the money roll in.

Is it any surprise that the former mayor (and father of the current one) was in with the mob?

Chicago needs to annex these greedy freeloaders and be done with it.

Maybe the whole experience should center around the skyways, which can lead directly to the station, be air conditioned/heated, and possibly have moving walkways. It seems easier to take this approach to creating a “walkable” area than it would be to reconfigure the actual streetscape.

This is exactly what I was thinking … a shallow ramp from ground level to a skybridge is fine in this case, given the distance to be traversed to get anywhere on the southern side, and slidewalks along the connector to the existing skyway would shorten the perceived distance once in the skyway system.

Regarding airport-related height restrictions:

Several office towers and hotels in and near Rosement are already quite tall, by suburban standards. The Westin and Marriot hotels are both about 11-12 floors high, and several office towers that have been built in the past 20 years are about the same height. Rosemont is acutally far enough from O’Hare’s runways, that you *can* build that tall.

The issue here isn’t one of upward density, but INFILL density. Yonah is refering to the excessive parking-lot space that dominates Rosemont, and also the low-density restaurants with their sprawling parking lot…like the typically suburban one-story McDonalds (plus parking lot) on Higgins and River Road, and the one-story Giordano’s pizzeria (plus parking lot). These restaurants can easily fit into the first floor of a new 6-story building on that same spot. And since Rosemont relies heavily on out-of-towners for business (due to O’Hare proximity), is that much parking space really needed? Even some of the office buildings, which -obviously- rely on local workers with cars, never have filled parking lots.

Of course, there *will* always be *some* need for parking space. For starters, many people who work in Rosemont’s hotels, convention centers, etc, need to drive to Rosemont from nearby areas which are not transit friendly. Westin also rents space for banquets (weddings, etc), and people who rent such space from Westin will want their guests to be able to find parking.

As Rob also mentioned: many of the CTA’s outlier stations…stations like Rosemont which are at or near the ends of their lines…these stations have parking facilities. The idea is to get suburbanites to drive to their nearest CTA station, where they can then take the train to work downtown…which is a necessity, because anywhere in the inner city along the lake (including downtown, obviously), parking is scarce and expensive, and almost EVERYONE that works there needs to take the train, unless they don’t mind sitting in traffic for 2 hours and forking over $20 a day for parking. (Of course, this also begs the question, why isn’t there an effective bus feeder system, but the answer is because the suburbs are too sprawling/car-oriented for that).

I think the solution Rosemont should aim for is this one:

More infill density, and fewer land dedicated to parking space. All the parking lots, or low-density one-floor developments can be filled in with denser development. However, it would also be a good idea for Rosemont to build one community multi-level parking facility, for everyone to share…whether they’re CTA commuters, people that work in Rosemont, Westin’s wedding guests, and so on.

Not all median freeway transit stops are as bad as this one. I regularly use the Rockridge BART station. The access is good. The neighborhood is very walkable. Coming into the station can be pleasant. And the view from the platform can be nice too, sunsets over the Golden Gate. Not to say this is ideal, but I think this is one place where the freeway median stop was done o. k.

I was thinking about the Rockridge station too, but I agree it’s the ONE decent one that has probably ever been done. Orinda, Lafayette, Pleasanton (both east and west) and particulary Pittsburg/Bay Point are all much, much worse.

Comparable to the Rockridge Station is Chicago’s Irving Park station, also on the Blue Line. The surrounding streets aren’t quite as narrow and leafy, but it’s a decent pedestrian environment. The interchange on the Kennedy is very compact, so it doesn’t create a huge soul-sucking void.

The underpass leading to the station entrance has been nicely streetscaped and CDOT usually keeps it pretty clean.

Jefferson Park is also quite walkable… it’s in the middle of a “town center” of sorts, although it’s not one of those suburban master-planned things.

Comparable to the Rockridge Station is Chicago’s Irving Park station, also on the Blue Line. The surrounding streets aren’t quite as narrow and leafy, but it’s a decent pedestrian environment. The interchange on the Kennedy is very compact, so it doesn’t create a huge soul-sucking void.

The underpass leading to the station entrance has been nicely streetscaped and CDOT usually keeps it pretty clean.

Jefferson Park is also quite walkable… it’s in the middle of a “town center” of sorts, although it’s not one of those suburban master-planned things.

Now I understand more why the PRT project never took of in Rosemont. Still, it’s a shame that it died and has never been revived because form what I can gather that Rosemont station really could use something in the way of either PRT or a people mover of some sort. Also at one time the O’Hare people Mover was supposed to be extended to the Metra line and the PRT was supposed to go there as well. I believe that if all this had happened or could happen in the future, a bumping like what you experienced would certainly be at least somewhat more palatable. Is it any wonder that I’ve seen airline flight crews taking the CTA from the downtown? I think I’ve seen airline crewmwmbers in other cities taking rail trnsit from downtown to the airport and vice versa.

For a Chiacgo resident, this article rings so true. I used to be a daily commuter to the Rosemont station, where I would transfer to a Pace bus (the suburban bus system).

The portion of the blue line that runs in the median of the Kennedy Expressy is an ugly expereince for the transit rider. I don’t see how any “choice” rider would choose this on a daily basis. This stop is a case study in how not to design an attractive station, and how to squander transti oriented develompent opportunities.

As a transit rider, you stand 30-50 feet away from cars and semi trucks zipping by. When the traffic is moving, it’s very loud. Whether the traffic is moving or not, you suck in exhaust fumes waiting for the train.

I have spoken to people at in top positions at the Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) who believed (and still do) that the median rail line was an incredibly good development. The reason the project was believed to be so good was because a single right of way was used for auto and rail transit. (I shoudl also note that a commuter rail line also runs immediately west of the expressway for long segments , creating a massive transportation corridor).

The issue of the undesirablity of expressway median stations has caused me to question the design of median lane BRT systems. From the perspective of the transit rider, I can’t see how this is a partiuclarly enjoyable experience.

What I have noticed also that people who commute from these stations have also failed to mention is these outlying stations in the median during the months of November thru March. I lived at the Cumberland area stop for almost two years in the high-rises mentioned by a previous poster. After walking 4 blocks on the ice and “breezy” weather, you get to stand in the median and brave the 40mph wind generated by these stations while waiting on train. Just ask all those people standing upstairs ready to push people down the escalator as they run when they see their train inbound from O’hare headed downtown. Rosemont further limits development (or at least they did when I lived there) by having the maintenance yard just west of the station in the middle of the tracks.

Now on to the subject of Airlines and their hotels. I was in Chicago (southern by birth) working for an airline and I can tell you from the inside that most airlines use the hotels in the Higgins/Mannheim intersection area or further to the south in the Mannheim/West Irving Park area, so the distance to the station makes most of the hotels not offer shuttle service to anywhere but the airport. Lets look at this for a moment.

1) Wait to the half/top of the hour for the Airport Shuttle.
2) 10 min to the airport (On a good day.)
3) Down to the O’hare station where there will be more waiting for the next “Inbound train” (not long)
4) 45 min ride downtown if there is no construction.

That adds up to between 1-1.5 hours just to get downtown and for someone without a car wanting to take in the sights it might make sense, but for most who have been bumped from a flight and are already tired, that’s alot of business lost. (I’m just saying….)

Being from Chicago (I’m headed back home tomorrow for Spring Break) I think it should be pointed out that the Rosemont development is definitely a north-south development. The built-up area extends roughly 2 miles from the northern tip (where River Road intersects I-294) to the southern end (generally recognized as W Foster Avenue – south of here there are suburban residences).

Development parallel to the Blue line is constrained by the Des Plaines River, which has a park on either side of it. Building onto this area would likely be bad in terms of environmental impacts. Thus, the main reason why Rosemont is not transit-accessible is (at least in my opinion) that its development was inherently limited by natural and man-made obstacles that altered the main axis of development.

This is also evidenced by the poor road connections into Rosemont. Ironically, it is actually very easy to get lost trying to get to Rosement while driving.

I am very familiar with this location. Once again, your insights are 110% correct. Walking in this area is an endurance test.

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