John Norquist – photo courtesy of the Congress for the New Urbanism
Whenever I visit Milwaukee I’m impressed by some of the more progressive aspects of its urban planning, like the many well-preserved old buildings, bike-and-ped-friendly bridges, the Milwaukee Public Market and the vibrant riverfront. Much of the credit goes to John Norquist, who served as mayor from 1988 to 2004, when he left to take his currrent post as president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).
This organization, headquartered in Chicago, promotes walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly, mixed-use development, advocating for urban design practices that were common before the rise of automobile after World War II. I recently caught up with Norquist by phone to discuss his achievements as mayor, and how preserving mass transit was the best thing Chicago ever did. We also talked about how this town could improve its economic prospects by restoring missing sections of its street grid, and how traffic congestion can be a good thing for cities.
What were your proudest accomplishments in terms of promoting sustainable transportation when you were mayor of Milwaukee?
Well, we tore down eight-tenths of a mile of freeway, the Park East Freeway, and replaced it with a surface avenue. We also converted a lot of the one-way streets to two-way streets, which improved connectivity. Then we also went through several rounds of conflict with the state department of transportation (WisDOT) over bridges that they had jurisdiction over and forced them to put sidewalks on the bridges and narrow the lane widths. Those are three of the things I’m proud of because I don’t think anybody else would have been weird enough to do those things.
Demolition of the Park East Freeway – photo by Vanishing STL
And you promoted light rail in Milwaukee?
Yeah but we never were able to get it over. The right-wing talk show guys would always promote it to their listeners that somebody from the city would come out to the suburbs and steal their TV set.
Why was there so much resistance?
I think the Republicans from the suburbs around Milwaukee found light rail to be an issue that excited their base at election time, so they ended up running against it. It’s unfortunate because it’s worked so well in Minneapolis and other Midwestern cities that have done it.
Yeah, why wouldn’t suburbanites support a rail line that would help them get to their jobs downtown?
Well, if you don’t experience it you can be led into the realm of fear, or it can be characterized as a boondoggle. In Chicago it’s hard to understand that because there’s so much rail transit, between CTA and Metra. Metra is the second-largest commuter rail system in the country, after New York’s. So the suburban population of the Chicago area and Republican legislators in the Chicago area tend not to be blatantly anti-transit. But in a place like Milwaukee or Kansas City or Cincinnati there’s a lot of fear mongering that goes on, and trashing transit is a natural for radio talk shows because their audience is largely riding around in cars.
You were involved in promoting the development of the Milwaukee riverfront as well. It seems like Milwaukee has a more vibrant riverfront than Chicago, with a higher number of successful businesses like riverfront cafes.
I don’t know if I agree. Maybe Milwaukee has a disproportionately high number of riverfront restaurants for the size of the city, but Chicago is so big that if you actually counted the number of restaurants along the Chicago River, like Smith and Wollensky steakhouse, there might actually be more here.
O’Brien’s Riverwalk Cafe, 1 E Wacker, Chicago – photo by baldwinm16
What do you think Chicago does well in terms of its transportation networks and street design?
I think the most important thing happened in the 1950s in the aftermath of World War II, when vast transit systems were being ripped out across the country. Detroit had 300 miles of streetcar and commuter train tracks at the end of the war. Milwaukee had 350 miles of streetcar tracks and 198 miles of interurban tracks, similar to Chicago’s South Shore Line [to South Bend, IN]. St. Louis, Cincinnati, they all had vast systems. Except for Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Chicago all the rail systems were removed in the Midwest.
The best thing Chicago did was not tearing out its system. They did tear out parts of it. If you look at an old map of the CTA there were a few extensions of current routes. For example there was one route that went to Back of the Yards that was removed. But by and large it’s still intact and the Metra system, which was vast at the end of World War II, is still vast, although a few lines are missing. And the CTA has added some lines that didn’t exist at all, like the Orange Line and the extension of the Blue Line out to O’Hare.
1921 CTA El map showing additional lines to Back of the Yards and Humboldt Park
So that really saved Chicago. This city went through a similar decline as other big American cities in the postwar period, just because everybody was going for that suburban dream. But when people finally started to revisit that and think maybe the city isn’t so bad, Chicago was ready because it had its transit and it rebounded. The first skyscraper built in Chicago after the war was the Inland Steel Building [30 W Monroe, completed in 1957], and now it’s one of the oldest high-rises downtown.
So there’s been a lot of development and that would not have happened if the transit system had been removed as a lot of powerful people were suggesting be done at the end of World War II. Some of the business leaders were talking about getting rid of transit and having a new age with the freeways. They would have made Chicago a bigger failure than even Detroit, because of Chicago’s scale. Fortunately, Richard J. Daley eventually figured out it would be bad politics to take the transit system out.
Chicago’s an amazing place because the transit was retained. It kept downtown from decanting, like so many others did. Most big cities in America lost their department stores and they lost their dominance of the retail trade. That happened to some extent in Chicago. The big places like Randhurst opened up [Randhurst was Chicagoland’s first enclosed shopping mall, launched in 1959 in Mt. Prospect and demolished in 2008]. But Michigan Avenue is still a big-volume seller of retail, and State Street is doing OK.
The demolishion of Randhurst – photo by Cotarr
But in a lot of cities that’s completely gone. Most Midwest cities have no department store left in the city. Milwaukee has one, Boston Store, but that’s partly because the store has their office headquarters right above the store and a lot of the people that work in the office shop in the store, that’s what keeps it from closing. But there are no department stores left in Detroit at all. There’s not even a retailer that has more than 50,000 square feet in the whole city of Detroit.
What do you think Chicago could improve on in terms of street design and transportation?
It could build on its urbanism and complexity. Enriching the transportation network adds value. If you look at the Stevenson Expressway between I-94 and Lake Shore Drive, it reduces the value of the property around it. All it does is cram traffic into Lake Shore Drive and it’s made that section of the drive the ugliest section – it’s the most like a freeway.
Whereas, compare that to Belmont Avenue at Sheffield Avenue, where you’ve got one moving lane in each direction and parking allowed all day, even at rush hour. The traffic doesn’t move all that fast but in terms of the value to the city there’s probably a billion dollars or more of property value along Belmont in the city limits.
Belmont Avenue, looking east from the Red Line platform in winter – photo by John Picken
It’s the same with Irving Park Road and Devon Avenue. All the east-west streets north of downtown come down to one lane in each direction at some point near the lake and they all have parking all day. The traffic engineers don’t dominate it but the tax collector can gather a lot of revenue for the city from those streets. The city collects no money from the Stevenson, 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.
The traffic wouldn’t go quite as fast but a lot of people aren’t going all the way to Lake Shore Drive anyway. If you look at where the Kennedy goes through downtown Chicago [just east of Halsted Street] all the ramps are really tight up against the freeway and when you exit the freeway, say at Jackson, you’re almost immediately in the urban context. There’s no compromise made – the urban fabric does not try to fit itself to the freeway, the freeway has to fit itself into the urban fabric.
View from the Madison Street bridge over the Kennedy Expressway in the West Loop
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. People like living and shopping in places that are interesting and complex. If they want to go to a Walmart with a giant parking lot they don’t need to be in Chicago.
This city needs to learn its lessons. If we want to be like Detroit then we should continue to convert Lake Shore Drive into a freeway. I would oppose measures like softening the curve of the drive at Oak Street by the Drake Hotel. I think they should leave it as a hard turn. It’s not a deathtrap – there’re no statistics to support that notion. If they want it to be a death trap they should widen the curve. People will drive faster and then when people have an accident they’ll die. But with the curve so sharp, sure there’s an occasional fender bender or a more severe accident but they tend not to be fatal accidents.
But the Illinois Department of Transportation, they look at speed as somehow being a positive safety factor. You look at the documents that they’ve produced for the Illiana Expressway [a proposed toll road connecting Chicago’s south suburbs to northwest Indiana, bypassing the metropolitan area] and one of the major reasons that they want to build it is because they claim that I-80 is over capacity and as a result it’s a deathtrap. So I looked at the time of day for fatal accidents on I-80. None of them are at peak hour. They’re all at off-peak hours when the road is running clear. It seems like the accidents are all clustered around 2 am when the bars are closed – people are drunk and they’re driving at incredible speeds.
And so the idea that you should build the Illiana Expressway to create more road capacity, that’s not going to save people, that’s just going to kill more people. There may be other reasons they want to build it but that’s a really inaccurate way to describe it, to say that I-80 is a deathtrap because it’s too crowded. It’s actually a deathtrap because it’s not crowded at all. If it was more crowded people wouldn’t be driving so fast and they’d be less likely to get killed.
Anything else you’d like to tell me about what CNU is up to?
CNU is really focused on network theory. We have traffic engineers like Norman Garrick, who’s a professor at the University of Connecticut, and Eric Dumbaugh, who’s a professor at Texas A & M, and many others who have been working together to show how street networks work and that building grade-separated roads in densely-populated urban areas tends to actually reduce performance economically, environmentally and in terms of safety. We’re trying to advocate for the grid. We’re not against road building; we just think that roads need to be scaled right so that they add value to the places where they’re built, particularly in an urban context.
This kind of thing is true in small towns as well. You look around Illinois or Wisconsin and there are these medium-sized cities and that have these big bypasses and the downtown is dead, with antique stores being the only thing left. That’s a failure of vision, of understanding. The Illinois DOT is not the worst in the country but they have this tendency to think that their number-one goal is battling congestion. I wrote an essay called “The Case for Congestion,” saying congestion isn’t all bad. It’s like cholesterol – there’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol.
Places that don’t have very much congestion, like Detroit, wish that they did. All the billions of dollars that the Michigan DOT and the U.S. DOT spent on building bigger highways in Detroit has actually succeeded on the terms that they stated for why they needed those routes. They have defeated congestion. By that measure, Detroit is the most successful city in the world.
Detroit as seen from the People Mover, an elevated train, opened in 1987, that loops 2.9 miles around downtown in one direction. Photo by Maggo85.
But when you have congestion you don’t just have traffic congestion, you have people congestion and money congestion, restaurant congestion. You have all kinds of good congestion that come from being a crowded city. You can see that on all those east-west streets on Chicago’s North Side. Belmont’s carrying approximately 20,000-30,000 cars a day and it works just fine. If you don’t like it you don’t have to go there – it’s like Yogi Berra said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
That’s the kind of crowding you want. Rahm Emanuel should not make his highest priority defeating congestion because Chicago works pretty well as a congested city.
43 thoughts on “Talking transportation with former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist”
Great interview. I was especially intrigued by Mr. Norquist’s re-visioning of the eastern Stevenson corridor as a grid level thoroughfare. I always thought it was kind of ironic that this section of foreboding (detached from human scale) infrastructure abuts the relatively new Bronzeville arch on King Drive. The latter seems like an attempt to reestablish a neighborhood identity, the former diminishes this.
Why not take it one step further and have the expressway end around Ashland? This is where the expressway goes from being below street level to rising above it. Perhaps traffic could be diverted onto Archer Ave. This could really enhance the feel of some of the northern parts of Bridgeport.
Although I am highly pessimistic that something like this would be politically viable I do think that Mr. Norquist’s property value rational has the potential for broader appeal than the cars are bad arguments. The fact that such an initiative was successfully seen through fruition in Milwaukee gives me some hope.
Thanks for the fresh ideas!
I would love to see the eastern end of the Stevenson transformed into a boulevard. Between the oppressive nature of the huge elevated structure and the growth of McCormick Place, it’s fragmented and damaged the area along 26th St. Imagine what a street restoration could do for the south end of Chinatown and for Bronzeville?
Thanks for your comment. I agree that turning the Stevenson into a Congress-style boulevard east of I-94 would really help make Bronzeville more attractive to visitors.
I double checked and it looks like the Stevenson doesn’t go below street level until it dips to go under I-94 near Halsted and 26th in Bridgeport, as you can see in this Google map: http://g.co/maps/8ev6u.
This great interview is one of the reasons I read Grid Chicago every day. I think I am going to read it again. Thank you John/Steve for the work you do.
Thanks Matthew. Readers like you are one of the main reasons we write it.
I really liked what Norquist had to say as well because he really highlighted the fact that Chicago is a very special place due to its transportation network and made me glad that we having many bustling two-lane retail streets like Belmont. This reminded me that it’s time to do another article where I walk the entire length of a street and report on the interesting people and places along the way.
Norquist also reminds us that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done to make Chicago live up to its full potential to be an economically and environmentally healthy city.
Belmont is awkwardly four lanes from Western Avenue to California Avenue, a distance of only 0.5 miles. But the same goes for the streets north and south of Belmont that cross the river (Addison and Diversey). I don’t like it as I think it contributes to people driving their cars very fast and I bike here.
There are many more spots like that on Halsted, parts of Irving Park, Elston (although that recently changed between Western and Fullerton). Retaining these encourages kangaroo driving and exacerbates congestion where the roads revert to single lane.
In my birthplace Hilversum (Netherlands) they made the town center (of ca. 75.000) a labyrinth of single lane one way streets, separate bike and bus lanes, and pedestrian only shopping streets. Car parking is expensive. When I left there (about 30 years ago) biking was pretty much like Chicago; now Hilversum is a biker’s paradise, not entirely without problems; some stretches lack adequate space for emergency vehicles to pass; visitors in cars have a hard time getting through town. But at the central train station, people can rent bikes cheap (in combination with their train ticket) and public transportation works on a country wide access card similar to CTA’s.
A little known project is the new Halsted bridge between Goose Island (Hooker Street) and Division Street. It’s 4 lanes + 2 bike lanes wide. But Halsted on either side of it is 2 lanes + 2 bike lanes wide. As is typical for an agency that doesn’t give out information, CDOT has not revealed the reason for this change in street geometry.
It should be finished in 2012.
Maybe I am mistaken, or maybe I am not explaining it well. Unfortunately the computer I am on doesn’t have flash so I can’t bring up a street view to confirm.
Here is what I was visioning. I am a very Damen-centric person (probably the most quintessentially Chicago street good and bad in my opinion). I know for certain that Damen has that awfully massive Stevenson overpass complete with high speed on/off ramps.
Now I am picturing the “intersection” of the Stevenson and Ashland. South there is that strip-mall with the Dominick’s and north is the Ashland Orange Line stop. I am 99% positive that the expressway passes above the street here.
I took your linked map off of satellite view (and removed the labels and all extra stuff). It looks like the Stevenson rises above street level around 31st and Wood. I don’t know if you can picture this area but it is one of those strange isolated pockets that are often created as a result of an expressway dissecting a neighborhood. If one is driving East on I55 and takes the Ashland exit they are actually routed onto this section of 31st street before it finally hits Ashland.
This was the area I was proposing as the new Stevenson termination point. Forgive me if I am going into too much detail on a purely hypothetical matter.
Again keep up the good work!
I know exactly the area you’re talking about as I used to live nearby (Hillock and Loomis). I shopped at that Dominick’s and rode on Archer Avenue to the Target at Damen and 33rd. Where I lived is a small neighborhood cut off by the Stevenson – it feels secluded there.
I hate the divisions that wide highways bring. I wrote an article about this on my personal blog, Steven Can Plan. “There used to be homes here“.
Thanks for the link Steven. I remember a while back, maybe ten years ago, reading that Oak Park was considering or at least discussing the possibility of capping 290. I know Seattle did something like this. Unfortunately under the current economic conditions […]
It would be interesting to see a study done comparing the cost of capping a section of an expressway (ridiculously high I’d imagine) with the amount of real estate value created. Maybe 5-10 years ago when perceived real estate values were soaring one could have made a case for capping in high priced areas maybe somewhere around the circle interchange for example.
I agree with you untitledreality that termination of the Stevenson anywhere before the Dan Ryan is unrealistic. But since this discussion is about improving neighborhoods (and creating congestion) I believe my proposal would be more impactful. Were I to be lobbying (would it be Congress?) I would probably go with a more modest and universally palatable proposal.
This is exactly what Barcelona (Catalonia-Spain) has done. Almost all the highways and big arteries have been buried or capped. Granted, they had it a bit easier, with all the rock and such, and it has actually pacified some sections of previously very noisy neighborhoods. Sadly, it has also increased urban traffic, and its air quality now ranks near the bottom in Europe, not to speak of the noise…
The Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic recently wrote about a proposal to cap the Kennedy.
Wow, thanks (again) for the link Steven. It sounds like cost would be a huge barrier to overcome, not much of a surprise.
I have no training or background in architecture, structural engineering or commercial real estate so these armchair concepts I am throwing out probably don’t hold much real world value. However your piece on your personal blog “There used to be homes here”. alludes to the fact that at one point the houses that front the Eisenhower expressway had counterparts across the street (Congress Parkway, Van Buren etc).
With this observation in mind the area surrounding the proposal in the Tribune article consists of many high rises and upscale commercial/residential buildings. Couldn’t two new “Super Premium” development opportunities exist on either side of the capped expressway. We could still have the wonderful linear park created in the middle (ABSOLUTELY 100% accessible to to public) but bordering them would be the potential for new development. It seems to me that there could be a significant up-charge for a luxury condominium (built over the expressway) less that a half mile from the loop that overlooks a fantastic park.
Check out this map of all the “highly productive” uses along the Kennedy where the capping park would be.
Sell the parking lots for more productive uses like commercial and residential; build them in concert with a nice park design and the property taxes pay for the park.
This is actually replying to Steven’s post beneath… three of the parking lots on that map currently have high rise proposals in development. Two to the East of the Kennedy for office use and one West at Madison and Halsted for Residential/Mixed
Construction started at the Madison and Halsted location (actually at Monroe).
In response to untitledreality and Steven:
You guys seem pretty well versed in this proposal (or is concept a more accurate description in terms of reality?). Let’s stack another hypothetical on top the other hypotheticals. Do you think there would be enough “headroom” under the cap to allow for a uninterrupted pedestrian / bicycle path to run under the surface streets.
We have already razed neighborhoods and disrupted the grid to accommodate vehicular traffic. Maybe we should take advantage of this “accomplishment” by installing a pedestrian expressway as part of our reclamation project.
Apologies to Mr. Norquist for the tangental redirection of these comments. If there is a more appropriate place to move this discussion please let me know.
It would be fair to call it a proposal… something like Marshall Brown’s Scenario Plan http://www.marshallbrownprojects.com/#1719682/SCENARIO-PLAN-CHICAGO would be considered a concept in my opinion.
I am not 100% certain regarding the Kennedy capping, but I believe that in certain areas it would require additional trenching to provide the necessary headroom… so, no, there would not be space available for a sub surface pedway as it current stands… and why would you want to put everyone underground anyways? The at grade street is where bicycles and pedestrians belong, lets work on improving their relationship to the roadways we have.
Reply to untitledreality below:
Upon rereading my post I see that I wasn’t very clear. I agree that we would want a pedestrian / bike path above ground. What I meant was that the “ground” would be below street level so all the east / west streets essentially become overpasses.
It seems like the bridges over the expressway are arches, that is to say that they rise and apex at the center. Imagine if the newly created park didn’t rise and apex. would this give enough head room to allow for a ped path to go under them (picture the bridges over the canals of Venice but the canal being a bike path in this case.
Hope that makes more sense; sorry I wasn’t more clear before.
In Boston, portions of the Mass Pike (I-90) have been capped, and more capped portions are planned. Scan down to “Air Rights.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massachusetts_Turnpike
Lets be realistic here, terminating the Stevenson anywhere before the Dan Ryan junction is not going to happen, period. Creating a disconnect between the two would become a routing nightmare. Yes it would be nice to remove it from Bridgeport and let Archer be the dominant thoroughfare it once was, but the logistics don’t work out. Revitalizing the riverside portion of Bridgeport should be done through high(er) density development along the river given that portion of the neighborhood added residential heft, while improving Archer should (IMO) focus on sound and light deflection/containment from the Stevenson.
…I never understood why 55 utilized high mast lighting (or the Dan Ryan for that matter) and it should be corrected… along with sound diffraction barriers ala Japan and Europe to essentially make the highway non existent besides its mass.
Back on topic, terminating the Stevenson at the Dan Ryan and placing a grid based, boulevard akin to Congress that interacts with every N-S street from Princeton to MLK while minimizing the presence of the Dan Ryan onramp from Cermak would be a massive plus for this area…especially with the new investments being made at McCormick, Motor Row and the available property where the Harold Ickes homes stood.
This is a great topic for which I’m glad Norquist brought it up and a few people are talking about it on here. I agree that converting the Stevenson between Dan Ryan and LSD would benefit the Bronzeville and Motor Row communities, and perhaps some extent Chinatown because of those massive on-ramps at Cermak and Wentworth.
What’s difficult is determining how to keep this energy going; how can “something be done” about it? I don’t believe this road has been targeted as one to be modified in the name of economic development, or a simplification of the transportation network. Those neighborhoods, though, have been targeted as places to receive attention for economic development.
The space is much more productive as a place where people can live and do business than as a place where people can drive. (Has anyone else noticed that traffic on Stevenson between Dan Ryan and LSD is really light?)
“Has anyone else noticed that traffic on Stevenson between Dan Ryan and LSD is really light?”
I used to drive that stretch all the time when I would commute downstate and then again having went to school at IIT… it never made much sense to me to bypass the neighborhoods in such a fashion.
I definitely feel it would benefit Chinatown. Riding the Redline parallel to Wentworth I would see dozens of people walking passing over the Stevenson and it ALWAYS looked miserable. Considering the rapid fill and growth taking place in Chinatown it would be a benefit to free up this space to future development that is directly attached to the core of the community…. instead of the disjointed populating of Bridgeport by the Chinatown community, this would allow for a gradient between the two neighborhoods as well as an additional commercial corridor.
Another topic of Norquist’s that I am glad others are picking up on is that Urban communities thrive off of congestion. Congestion has been made into a bad word by DOT and planners of the past 60 years while in fact congestion in the correct scale creates tremendous value, value that extends far beyond the roadway.
Reading that part of the interview instantly brought back to mind passages from Rem Koolhaas’ retroactive manifesto “Delirious New York”…. culture of congestion anyone?
I’d like for Chicago transportation planners and traffic engineers to manage congestion in such a way that prioritizes bus traffic, as they move more people in the same space as two or three cars holding two or three people.
I’ve never read that manifesto.
How about one that prioritizes bus and bike traffic? More than enough space down Michigan avenue, just imagine, it could actually be a pretty street…
Even though the book is more oriented towards architecture, its history, documentation and theories regarding the evolution of Manhattan are very insightful… I would recommend it.
When will Grid Chicago start referring to Chicago’s elevated system by it’s real name, the ‘L’?
Actually I’ve given a lot of thought to this. I moved here 22 years ago but maybe since I didn’t grow up here I’ve preferred to write it “El” – “L” has always seemed a little corny to me. My spelling isn’t necessarily incorrect. Time Out Chicago magazine uses the same spelling because they figure it’s easier for non-natives to decipher.
But “L” is in fact how the CTA spells it, so I might be persuaded to adopt this spelling. Any other readers have thoughts on this issue?
I prefer “El.”
I think that either is acceptable. They’re both so commonly used that most people seem to understand the reference. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that “L” is kinda corny.
Maybe a little odd to bring up the now-abandoned L branch lines; Chicago’s rapid transit system is today the most extensive it has ever been.
And to keep it that way, let’s never tear down a station because of a local pastor again.
Just wanted to say thank you for posting such an interesting interview. The concept of the Stevenson turning into a Congress Parkway-ish street blew my mind.
Thanks for reading Andrew. Yeah, I think boulevard-izing, or maybe capping the Stevenson would be a terrific thing.
Minor correction, the CTA Stock Yards branch served the yards themselves, not Back of the Yards.
Did anyone actually say that the Oak Street curve or I-80 is a “deathtrap?”
Here’s a 2003 editorial in the Insider arguing that the curve should be rounded out because it causes crashes: http://www.insideonline.com/site/epage/8701_162.htm
So…no? My Norquist said:
It seems like he’s putting words in the mouth of public agencies that they never actually said.