The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.

Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.

The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.

A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.

The lakefront expressway

Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.

Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.

But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.

Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.

But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.

As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.

But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.

Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.

Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.

It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.

Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.

The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.

A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.

Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?

Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future

Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.

After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.

The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.

Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.

A reworked drive that doesn’t add up

From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).

The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.

The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.

Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.

It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.

Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.

None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.

What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.

Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.

The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.

Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.

Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.

But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.

There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.

These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.

But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.

The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.

Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.

Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.

* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the route.

Photos from (a) Flickr user Roman Boed (cc); (b) Flickr user Yonah Freemark (cc). Maps above from Redefine the Drive and Social Explorer.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Carter O'Brien

    It’s hard not to laugh at the idea that drivers stay under 45 mph on LSD, that’s for sure. It actually raises the question of why this practice receives such lax law enforcement. It’s also bizarre that pickup trucks are banned (and ticketed), while huge SUVs are permitted.

    • rsolinski

      ^ Pickup trucks are not banned from Lake Shore Drive if they are personal vehicles. However, any vehicle with a “B-truck” plate is banned, since such plates are intended for use on commercial vehicles and thus trigger the city ordinance. The well-known workaround is to purchase a specialty plate, like a Firefighters or Police memorial (but any will do, you can get environmental or conservation plates if you are #abolishthepolice). Such plates are intended for personal vehicles and will not subject a pickup truck to a ticket.

      Also I ABSOLUTELY see drivers on Lake Shore Drive traveling at a slower average speed than the Chicago expressways. The majority of drivers respect the 45mph speed limit or respect it indirectly by only driving 10mph above it (that being 55mph). Anybody driving faster than 55 is an outlier for sure, whereas 70 is a more common speed for the expressways.

      The design of LSD helps keep speeds down, with no shoulders, tight curves, tight barriers and close trees. Unfortunately, those features also make the road deadly to those driving at excessive speed and/or driving impaired, so IDOT engineers are probably trying to eliminate them.

  • rsolinski

    The status quo of Lake Shore Drive doesn’t offend me. As I noted above, the restriction on large trucks and the lower average speed make LSD a more urban-friendly roadway than the traditional urban expressway. The fact that it was originally built in conjunction with lakefill/park expansion means that it is woven into the parks pretty well and the city generally, and caused no displacement or tears in the pre-existing urban fabric.

    Also, I don’t find the alternative visions all that compelling. Any kind of transit line with stations will struggle to build ridership, because those stations will be surrounded by protected parkland on one or both sides. The current branching bus system works pretty well at taking people to where they actually live, IDOT’s planned bus lanes (what Jarrett Walker calls “open BRT”) will only improve the efficiency of this system.

    My only concern is with the increasing complexity of this project. The plan view around Oak St looks like a spaghetti bowl with three layers of ramps for cars, buses, and pedestrians. Do we really want that much clutter on the lakefront? Could we even afford it if we did want it? The best urban landscapes are usually legible and easy to navigate, but this is just getting ever more convoluted.

    • Benjamin Recchie

      I agree. Unlike other urban expressways–the Embarcadero Freeway comes to mind–Lake Shore Drive was not grafted on top of existing urban fabric but rather built anew on lake fill. It cuts no neighborhoods in half, no significant portions are built on pylons or a trench, and, to be honest, it’s a really pretty drive, both in terms of landscaping and vistas. As a Chicagoan, I can tell you it’s probably the least disruptive freeway (or freeway-like route) in Chicago, especially compared to the behemoth Dan Ryan Expressway only a few miles away.

      Eliminating LSD wouldn’t by itself result in as much usable land as you might think–on the South Side, the lakefront is also separated from neighborhoods by a railroad ROW, six tracks wide.

      I can see the wisdom of downgrading the design speed from some portions of the Drive, or adding at-grade intersections, or adding express bus lanes without adding car lanes. But it doesn’t seem like demolishing it wholesale is a worthwhile idea.

      • Matt

        It’s funny you should mention the Embarcadero Freeway, as that was the first thing that popped to mind when I started reading this article. Lake Shore Drive is horrible, etc etc, with the Embarcadero Freeway being the prime example of a city actually following the author’s advice. Yes, the waterfront is accessible now, but at the cost of practically rendering the Golden Gate Bridge an irrelevance to anyone trying to get through San Francisco. Let’s rip out a freeway and replace it with surface streets feeding a giant bridge — what could possibly go wrong. Cities are not the centers of the earth — they have an obligation not only to the people who live in them, but also to people who need to get from one side to the other. Freeways are a great way to allow that to happen without turning the surface streets into parking lots.

        • Dave

          It’s not San Francisco’s responsibility to make sure people in Marin County can get to San Mateo County or vice versa as quickly as possible. It is San Francisco’s primary responsibility to serve the needs of the people who live or work within it. If people in Marin County find themselves routinely needing to go to San Mateo County (and vice versa), perhaps they should think about moving there. Choosing a home that is appropriate to one’s work and lifestyle needs is part of being an adult.

          • Jeff Wegerson

            I am under the impression that Marin County actually fought to be excluded from the BART system? They clearly want to have their cake and eat it too.

  • To quote myself, “Chicago … appears to be only city in Western world whose most prestigious housing overlooks what is for all intents and purposes a freeway” (see https://www.liberallandscape.org/2016/06/01/apartment-buildings-on-arterials-in-chicago/). This is a very odd situation, and maybe the time really has come to change it. I very much appreciated the essay.

  • Peaton

    What you write is interesting and sad, but I think we will continue to see roadway capacity favored, even in circumstances such as this which are vexatious, until such time that there is a paradigmatic shift in federal policy. Yes, localities may have options to do things differently, but it is swimming against the current. Road projects are easier for MPOs, so they will do more of them. Vague goals about sustainability and equity are also easy, but have little bearing on action. It is the same as with sprawl. As long as we build more roads, have bad transit, don’t change land use law, and keep the housing finance system the same, we should never expect the status quo to be more walk-able. As you have so thoroughly described in past posts, unless there is a very different transportation bill, almost everywhere we are going is in a car. Changing federal policy has to be the focus of progressive transportation advocates, otherwise the status quo is the endless horizon of the crabgrass frontier, even in our largest cities.

  • Vinnie

    “New opportunities for development…allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows.”

    So I think this is the bit that reveals the understanding gap here. It’s Chicago — no one’s opening their windows for 9-10 months out of the year anyways. Lakefront development all the way up the shore in the neighborhoods sounds great on paper until you realize how few days a year people are going to take leisurely strolls where they might stop to do the sort of spontaneous, environment-driven consumption this sort of development thrives on. Too much wind, cold, snow, sleet, and rain between October and May, too much heat in July and August. Yes, that much moreso than in New York or Boston.

    LSD really isn’t that bad currently, as other posters have pointed out. Its surface-level, and the beaches are cutoff from the city grid but its just an extra few minutes down an underpass when you’re going to them. The bulk of the year folks want the lakefront view, not pedestrian access, and the current design allows that.

    That being said, I’m not liking what I’m hearing about this planning process — its plenty wide as it is & doesn’t need more lanes. If anything, maybe the left lane becomes buses only during rush hour, where buses use them. Squeezing in some additional width for the paths, so there are separate ped and bike parts, would be nice, but again, there’s maybe 6 months a year they will be lightly used. There’s much quicker ways to get to where you’re going for most of the city on bike or foot anyways.

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