Wave of the future: is water travel the answer to Chicago’s congestion woes?

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En route from Navy Pier to the Museum Campus aboard a Shoreline Water Taxi.

When I visited Bangkok, Thailand, the endless daytime traffic jams made ground transportation a frustrating experience, but the Khlong Saen Saep canal boat service offered a speedy, fun alternative. Chicago already has a decent water-taxi system, so as our city moves toward Bangkok-style levels of street congestion, could expanded river and lake taxi service offer a hidden hope for fast, enjoyable transportation?

“Our waterways are a completely underutilized traffic network,” says Andrew Sargis, manager of Wendella Sightseeing and its Chicago Water Taxi. “If you look at a map of the city, the North, South and Main branches of the river parallel the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan and Wacker Drive. We should be using that network to move more people and goods and to fight gridlock.”

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Heading north on the river from Shoreline Sightseeing’s dock at 200 S. Wacker.

In operation since 1962, Wendella’s taxi service currently shuttles commuters and tourists from a dock at Madison Street (near the Ogilvie Center) to stops at LaSalle Street, Michigan Avenue and Chinatown, with one-way fares ranging from $3 to $5. Wendella’s competitor Shoreline Sightseeing also operates water taxis between docks at Adams Street (near Union Station), Erie Street, Michigan, Navy Pier and the Museum Campus. One-way fares usually cost $4 to $7, but drop to only $2 during morning rush hour–cheaper than the CTA.

“On a water taxi you avoid congestion and obviously it’s a lot more pleasant than being stuck in traffic,” says Shoreline sales director Amy Hartnett. “You’re in the open air, watching the river and our beautiful skyline go by. There’s no better way to travel.”

While Shoreline has no plans to grow its network, Wendella is looking to extend service up the North Branch to the North Avenue Turning Basin, transporting Metra commuters to the Wrigley Global Innovation Center, Whole Foods and other employers. They’ve already signed a lease for dock space with the Army Corps of Engineers and service could start as soon as this fall.

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We pass a Chicago Water Taxi, operated by Wendella Sightseeing.

Last winter 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack told me he’d like to see water taxis motor even further north to pick up train riders from Metra’s Clybourn Station, near Cortland Street and the river. “It’s literally a two-minute walk from the river to the station,” he said. “The idea’s a little outlandish but we put it on the table as often as we can, just to remind people.”

Sargis says that while the river north of Addison Street is probably too shallow for water taxis, in theory the boats could navigate the South Branch, Sanitary and Ship Canal, and Illinois and Mississippi rivers all the way down to New Orleans. He added that Wendella hopes to further expand its network in the future, depending on demand.

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Approaching the Michigan Avenue dock.

Pete Scales, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Chicago River and Lake Michigan harbors, says the agency is open to discussing new water taxi routes with private operators. But he cautions that factors like weather may prevent the water network from becoming a practical alternative to the street grid. After all, the Main Branch usually freezes during the winter.

And while Lake Express runs a popular high-speed ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan, Scales also has his doubts about the viability of ferry service from Chicago to Milwaukee or Michigan. While he says Navy Pier would be a logical hub for ferries, he argues that the Milwaukee-Muskegon ferry is successful because the boat trip across Lake Michigan is several hours quicker than driving around the lake. “A Chicago ferry would only be competitive if the boats could travel faster than cars, buses and trains,” he says.

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Having picked up more passengers at Michigan we cruise under LSD to Navy Pier.

A more practical water route might be water-taxi service from the Loop to Lakeside, an upscale housing and retail development that McCaffery Interests wants to build on a former steel mill site, located between 79th and 92nd streets on the lakefront. Tens of thousands of new Southeast Side residents might strain the existing transit and road network, but McCaffery’s Joe Bakhos says a lake shuttle would be a great alternative for commuters and could draw additional customers to Lakeside businesses.

Seventh Ward Alderman Sandi Jackson says she’s all for it, and Sargis says Wendella would be interested in exploring the idea. “Physically and logistically it’s possible,” says Sargis. “But the question is whether people would be willing to take a boat instead of the CTA, Metra or driving. The trip could take over an hour, and conditions are more of a factor on the lake than the river. Even in good weather you can get six-foot swells.”

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After switching boats at Navy Pier, we motor past a seagull-covered breakwater.

Fortunately conditions were optimal last week when I hauled my bicycle aboard a Shoreline water taxi to check out the efficiency and aesthetics of traveling from the Sears Tower to the Field Museum by river and lake. As soon as we left the Adams Street dock the ninety-degree day felt cooler and traffic noise faded away, and we cruised through the skyscraper canyons on the glittering green river under sapphire skies. Some fifteen minutes later the taxi arrived at a dock just southeast of Navy Pier, where I pedaled a couple hundred feet to another Shoreline boat docked on the pier, since their water taxis don’t travel through the Chicago Lock.

Soon we were motoring past a dilapidated wood-and-stone breakwater covered with hundreds of seagull. A lighthouse and a tall ship were visible to the east, and there was a stunning skyline view to the west. Reggae pulsed on the sound system as a breeze blew through the stubble on my shaved head. My serene, Thai-style water journey drew to a close as our vessel approached the Shedd Aquarium. I squinted my eyes at this gleaming Beaux Arts shrine and saw Bangkok’s lovely Wat Arun temple.

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

11 thoughts on “Wave of the future: is water travel the answer to Chicago’s congestion woes?”

      1. I actually think you’re right on… But don’t think it’s just Chicago—I’m in Barcelona right now, choked with cars and motorbikes, zero enforcement, narrow streets, and sidewalks used as parking for motorbikes. And the prediction is that this will only increase. Yikes.

  1. While travel on the waterways is a lot of fun, I don’t see it as anything close to a solution to congestion. This article covers a lot of the limitations, weather and time being the most significant, and the effect of these limitations shows in the pictures. There’s nobody on those boats. There’s simply not much of a demand at the moment, and it’s easy to understand why. If you have plenty of leisure time, the boats are great, but I can walk from the Sears Tower to Navy Pier in 15 minutes. I could walk from the tower to the Museum Campus faster than somebody who took the boat. As actual transportation for people commuting, it’s just too slow.
    There’s also the issue of capacity. These boats don’t carry that many people. Most of them have a maximum capacity well under 100, many of them under 50. Meanwhile, it’s a small river, and you can only fit so many boats in the river at a time. I feel that even if we ramped up boat travel to its maximum possible level, we wouldn’t see an appreciable drop in traffic on downtown streets or CTA.

    1. I’m not clear on how “not much demand” and “the issue of capacity” could both be a problem at the same time. Either there’s enough space to meet demand or there’s more demand than there’s capacity for.

      Moving on, I recently visited Vancouver, BC. They have a water taxi system as well and it’s one of the fun parts of the city. It attracts tourists, sure, but there were plenty of locals on the taxis, even later in the day outside of rush hour.

      The boats seemed to serve people walking very well. Instead of taking the time to zig-zag across bridges (albeit, in Vancouver bridges are much further apart than in Chicago) you can hop on a water taxi and get where you’re going.

      You can’t always assume everyone is looking for the fastest trip from point A to point B. There are a myriad of different factors people take into account and saying this will never work because “it’s just too slow” is a little short-sighted.

      1. They wouldn’t be a problem at the same time. Right now, the problem is that there’s no demand. Were that to change and demand increase, we would hit the capacity limit long before we would make a dent in congestion. Both can be true.

        I’ve only passed through Vancouver once, and only then for about two hours, so I can’t speak directly to how things work there. It seems to me, though, that the geographic orientation of the place precludes any real comparison to Chicago. There, they have a lot of navigable water largely protected from rough seas that are easily traveled without forcing anybody to lock through a dam. Here, we have an extremely narrow river that often freezes and that offers limited access to anyplace people want to go, and a large and open lake often subject to violent weather that also often freezes. (This is assuming anything ever freezes again.) This severly limits the services that can be offered and the dependability of that service. I just don’t see this as a viable option for a large number of daily trips.

        1. Hi, I’m not sure what you are talking about no demand? Come down to the Chicago Water Taxi Dock at Trump tower during rush hour and the boats are packed. The Chicago Water Taxi (Wendella Boats) run on a schedule so you know when they will be departing all the time. All but one of their taxi’s holds over 100 people FYI more than a bus! There is no way I can walk faster and there are no traffic lights or grid lock to interfere with my commute.

    2. Thanks for the feedback. It`s 2.3 miles from the Sears Tower to Navy Pier, or about a 45 minute walk, so the boat is about 3X as fast and probably as fast as driving in daytime traffic, and a whole lot more pleasant.

  2. I happen to work at 2 N. Riverside, which was the first building downtown embrace the river as an amenity and included the current Shoreline water taxi stop in its original design. I love taking the water taxi, but find it sort of limiting. When I need to get to Michigan Avenue, especially Trib Tower, I will use it. Problem is, the boats run every 15 minutes, which means that if you don’t time it right, walking is just as quick (though sweatier in the summer).

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