» 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.