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.