How would you change the expressways in Chicago?


The Bronzeville Gateway that’s hidden or shrouded on its north side by the Stevenson Expresway. Photo by Curtis Locke. 

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) asked an unusual question on its Facebook page on Friday:

The Chicago area has a lot of expressways. In recent years, more new expressways have been built. If you were given as much money as you needed and were given the green light to implement any plans for the expressway system, what would you do?

Yesterday I was reading an article on Streets.MN, a land use and transportation blog, about removing urban highways in the Twin Cities (Minnapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota):

If the Twin Cities were to rid themselves of one highway, what one would it be? Or, what segment of one highway could be removed?

It noted that highways around the country have been removed over the past couple of decades, including the conversion of two elevated highways in San Francisco to boulevards (each was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989). It also linked to this list of 10 highway removal projects that may happen in the near future.

Then also on Friday, Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) president John Norquist (whom we interviewed in November 2011) presented a paper with Caitlin Ghoshal (also from CNU) titled “Freeways Without Futures: Possibilities for Urban Freeway Removal in Chicago“.

This white paper examines factors that make Chicago’s I-55/Lake Shore Drive and Ohio Street candidates for urban freeway removal.


A 15-minute video of Norquist’s presentation at the Transport Chicago conference. 

I went back to the interview to find out what he had said about I-55 – Stevenson Expressway – and Ohio Street feeder ramp on the Kennedy Expressway:

The city collects no money from the Stevenson [whereas it collects taxes from retail-filled streets], and the buildings that are along it are depressed in value because it’s there. If the Stevenson east of I-94 was converted to a street more like Congress, a boulevard that connects to the street grid, that would add a lot of value to the city.


That’s until you get to Ohio, where the traffic engineers had their way and rammed a grade-separated highway all the way up to Orleans, which suppresses the property value all along it until you get to Orleans. So anything like [turning the Stevenson east of I-94 into a boulevard] will create the kind of urban complexity that people like.

I liked that idea so I responded with a brief answer on the MPC’s Facebook page:

We would replace the I-55/Lake Shore Drive connection with a boulevard so that the northern entrance to Bronzeville at King Drive is no longer in the shadow of a monstrous viaduct.

We would also convert the Ohio Street feeder ramp that connects the Kennedy to River North and points beyond with a similar boulevard so that traffic is calmer.

How would you respond to MPC’s original question about changing expressways in Chicago?

Updated June 4, 2012, at 16:55 to embed the video of Norquist’s freeways presentation from June 1, 2012. 

26 thoughts on “How would you change the expressways in Chicago?”

  1. While not an expressway, the proposed teardown of the Western Ave viaduct at Belmont serves a similar purpose to some of these.

      1. I don’t think we can afford to maintain these viaducts, but I’m not convinced that removal will always spur development, particularly if the area is undesirable for reasons in addition to the viaduct.  In other words, I could see some new development happening at Belmont & Western because it’s in a high value area, but probably not as quickly at Ashland & Pershing.  However, the viaduct removal at Ashland & Archer seems to have helped with the strip mall development.  I’m not sure what was there before.  Is it an improvement? 

  2. I love this idea – Ohio and Ontario are scars on River North, and the Stevenson east of the Dan Ryan serves almost no purpose (except to cut through what could be vibrant neighborhoods). 

    Do you have a link to Norquist’s full paper? I only see the abstract at the link you posted (and can’t seem to find the full paper online).

  3. The notion that expressways depress property values is too simplistic.  The Ohio feeder is lined with luxury residential developments, except for a PMD along the west bank of the Chicago River where such development is not allowed.  Property values are low along the Stevenson because it’s the South Side, not necessarily because of the expressway.

    I’m not against expressway removals – but in Chicago, we need all of them.  Maybe the Eisenhower east of the Circle could be replaced with a multi-way boulevard.

    1. Ohio’s essentially a glorified off-ramp—there’s not a huge hit to mobility if it’s curtailed west of the river or even if it’s just replaced by ramps to Grand, Milwaukee, and/or Halsted (if it’s possible to replace it with just ramps on Grand, you could end up eliminating the whole interchange, which takes up a triangle of prime land between Grand, Milwaukee and Ogden). With respect to the I-55/LSD connection, Clark, State and Michigan can probably carry people downtown as easily as LSD, and there»s not a travel huge market going from the Stevenson to destinations south on Lake Shore Drive. With other freeway removals—the Embarcadero comes to mind—surface streets have been more than able to take care of freeway traffic. So I don’t think we really need these two small pieces of infrastructure—no one’s suggesting getting rid of the Kennedy or Dan Ryan.

      1. You raise an interesting point – I’m all in favor of redesigning the Kennedy/Ohio interchange in a more compact form.  The engineers would scream bloody murder if you tried to shrink the turn radii of the ramps, but it IS an extremely wasteful use of a space in a desirable area.

        The importance of the feeder can’t be understated, though.  Without it, you’d have massive volumes of traffic coming through the complex 6-way intersections on Milwaukee and conflicting with the heavy bike traffic through there.  You’d also overload the relatively few streets that connect across the river.

  4. Here’s a few ideas on my wish list, most of which I know have no chance of happening:
    1. HOT lanes on any expressway with four or more lanes in each direction.
    2. Toll the express lanes of the Dan Ryan.
    3. Toll the express lanes of the Kennedy.
    4. Enclose the transit stations in the medians of the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. I hate the nosie levels on the platforms.
    5. Create a boulevard-style roadway above the Dan Ryan and Kennedy in the West Loop to serve as a collector-distributor system for the roadway (not sure what to do about the Circle Interchange yet).
    6. Create a connection between the SB Edens and the WB Kennedy.
    7. Create an east-west expressway in the north suburbs, maybe along Willow/Palatine, or extend the Edens Spur west along Lake-Cook Rd.
    8. Extend four lanes of Lake Shore Drive (two each direction) north to Devon or Touhy.

    1. 1. HOT lanes, please.
      5. Did you see how much money the state is spending on the Circle Interchange study? $40m. That seems very expensive. 8. What are the benefits and drawbacks for this extension? How would the extension coincide with this plan?

      1. 5. I didn’t see that.  I guess whether or not it is expensive depends on the scope of work included in the study.  I’m not familiar with it, so I can’t really comment.  Generally though, a Phase I study costs 6-8% of the construction costs.  So $40 million could be appropriate for a $500 to $670 million project.  Given the complexity of the Circle Interchange, this price range seems likely to me.

        8. Benefits and costs would have to be determined by an environmental study (probably an EIS).  I think the obvious benefits are reduced automobile travel times, improved multi-modal access via an extended Lakefront Trail (coincides will with the Friends of the Parks plan you linked), expanded parkland and recreational facilities (new marina?).  Adverse impacts would probably include water resources, acquatic life, some community impacts in terms of loss of private lake access, and visual impacts.  The cost would also be enormous.  Another thing that excites me about a LSD extension would be the potential to redefine Sheridan Road as a lower volume street.  Maybe a three-lane road with bike lanes?  Or maybe some kind of bus lanes similar to what is being done on Jeffery?

    2. I’m with you on #4, but understand that the platforms are already very narrow and would feel even narrower if they were enclosed.  The Eisenhower has plenty of room to widen platforms, but not the Kennedy or Ryan.  Unfortunately, the Kennedy and Ryan stations have much higher ridership.

      It would be possible, at relatively low cost, to rebuild the canopies with glass platform doors along the platform edges and no pesky columns down the middle.

  5. Since the rights-of-way for those expressways are there, and since the damage is done and the scars will take decades to heal anyway, why not use those rights of way for expanded rail transit? 

  6. Tearing down the Ohio St feeder doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is the main pathway into River North from the Kennedy and is pretty packed day in and day out. Most highway removals have been of underutilized highways. The River North area has gotten by fine with the Ohio St. Feeder.
    I-55 from Cermak to LSD can get a road diet definitely (maybe down to 2 lanes each direction), but I see removal tough there too because its the main pathway to Soldier Field and also heavily utilized by McCormick Place traffic.
    I don’t think there are a lot of great candidates for removal in the city limits at this point. The Kennedy, Ike, Stevenson and Dan Ryan are all pretty full during rush hour.
    Getting more transit into the city and relieving pressure at Ogilvie and Union Station would be more valuable to the city, IMO

    1. I think the Ohio Street feeder could be converted to a boulevard-style road that has the effect of calming (slowing) traffic before it enters River North. There’s a phenomenon that once people exit highways, they tend to keep driving at highway speeds even though the posted speed limit has dropped considerably.
      The boulevard can be a transition from the highway to the neighborhood streets.
      Again, I think it would be good to see a road diet and surface road for I-55 (from Dan Ryan to Lake Shore Drive), mainly to remove the noise and sight pollution from the neighborhood.

  7. I’d like to see the full CNU paper instead of just the abstract.  I’m not sure I buy that property values are actually depressed along Ohio Street and I don’t see many obvious benefits of the Ohio Street proposal.  There are plenty of new condos and townhomes built right up against the roadway on both sides of the river. 

    The street grid is also not disrupted much by Ohio Street.  Kingsbury goes through.  There are no streets between Kingsbury and Orleans.  Immediately west of the river, the Tribune has private property.  Union is disruputed by the roadway, but Halsted and Milwaukee both continue through. If the problem is walkability along Milwaukee or Halsted, something like what Columbus did on High Street over I-670 would work well:

    I also wonder if CNU has thought about the vertical profile needs of Ohio Street.  Clearly, we don’t want a major roadway to cross a major rail line (the UP-N and UP-NW Lines) at grade due to delay and safety concerns.  Since Ohio Street has to go under the rail line, it has to go under Halsted, too, due to the close proximity.  An Ohio Street boulevard would probably be able to get back up to grade at Milwaukee, but a signal at Milwaukee would be so close to the Kennedy that it could easily cause traffic to back up on to the expresway mainline, which would create serious safety problems. 

    I guess if the Tribune left its location and the rail line serving it were abandoned, there could be some opportunites for redevelopment between the River and Union, but I really don’t see much other upside to this proposal.

        1.  This paper didn’t discuss any facilities in Chicago.  I’ll be interested to see the revised version.

      1. I’m not sure what she means. I was in attendance. Caitlin was present but did not present–only John presented.

    1. Here’s the 15 minute video of his presentation (I haven’t watched it yet). the way, I edited your comment to remove a couple of typos. 

      As for the paper, here’s a message from Caitlin: “Given the feedback from the conference, we’re actually re-tooling the paper (it was in draft form at the time of the conference) to improve the analysis and marry the work with our Sustainable Street Network Principles.”

  8. Remove 1 or 2 lanes at the north end of LSD to help disperse traffic, just as LSD does on the south end around the Museum of Science and Industry.

  9. I think the idea of removing downtown off-ramps is not to accommodate all those cars on other streets, but to keep them from pouring into the Loop.
    The next generation is already driving 25% less than their parents. How will the city respond to accommodate their contempt for driving and congestion and their desire for convenience and walkability? Maybe replace the ramps with park & ride connected by high-capacity convenient rail transit.Can we agree that in order to grow the economy and the population (tax base), we’re going to need to bring more people and fewer cars into downtown every year? 

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