Gimme shelter: pedestrian improvements to Congress Parkway


New crosswalk with pedestrian refuge island at Congress and Dearborn.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Wednesday evenings.]

Folks who walked to the Printers Row Lit Fest last weekend were a little less likely be killed by cars than in previous years. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is currently wrapping up the $18 million Congress Parkway Reconstruction Project, from Wells Street to Michigan Avenue. The rehab has already brought a slew of pedestrian safety improvements, including new pedestrian refuge islands, making it safer, easier and more pleasant to walk across and along the massive street that forms the southern boundary of the Loop.

Construction on Congress began in October 2010 and the road reopened to traffic on May 15, just in time for the NATO summit. CDOT expects the final tasks, including finishing planter medians and installing decorative trellises and lighting, will be done by June 30.

Congress has long been an iconic Chicago street, but it has also been a major barrier to foot traffic. Originally called Tyler Street after tenth U.S. President John Tyler, the name was changed to honor the U.S. Congress after Tyler became unpopular because he joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. The road originates as a freeway at the Circle Interchange, the junction of the Dan Ryan, Eisenhower and Kennedy Expressways, and then continues east to become an eight-lane surface road at Wells Street, dumping high-speed traffic into the street grid.


Looking west on Congress at Wells.

Before the rehab, the zooming cars, dearth of pedestrian facilities and abundance of grim buildings along Congress, like a Brutalist parking garage for federal employees and a windowless AT&T building, discouraged walking trips. But CDOT project director Janet Attarian says the agency did a number of things to improve safety for pedestrians and motorists alike, as well as making it a more appealing street to stroll.

“With the roadway itself we made a lot of moves,” she says. “The first one is that Congress is not actually a straight line in terms of true east to west. It sort of slowly shifts to the north as you go east. And so that was always a problem because the intersections did not always align completely, which led to a lot of accidents. Essentially we took the string and pulled it tight so that everything lines up and all the lanes are a consistent ten-feet wide.”


Birds-eye view of Congress before the rehab. Image courtesy of CDOT.

By tightening up the layout and improving the locations of left-turn bays, CDOT was actually able to remove a travel lane between Clark Street and State Street, widening sidewalks without impacting motor-vehicle travel times, Attarian says. “There are more than 60,000 cars on Congress a day and we had to actually design for [Year] 2030 traffic, which of course always gets bigger, never smaller.”


After the roadway reconstruction. Note that one of the westbound lanes between Clark and State has been converted to a sidewalk extension. Image courtesy of CDOT.

East of State Street, Congress narrows to six lanes, so unfortunately there was not enough room to provide pedestrian refuge islands there, Attarian says. In fact, when this section was originally widened in 1952, the city removed existing sidewalks and forced buildings like the Congress Hotel and Auditorium Building carve out part of their first floors to create pedestrian arcades. “There was this beautiful Louis Sullivan bar in the Auditorium Theatre that they had to rip out,” she says. “And if you go there and you look at the back side of the columns supporting that façade you’ll think, ‘Oh they’re all rough-cut and unfinished.’ That’s because they used to be inside the building and so they were never meant to be seen.”


The pedestrian arcade through the Auditorium Theater, formerly an indoor space.

West of State, the new refuge islands make it possible to cross the wide street halfway, then safely stop and wait for the next light cycle, which will be helpful for seniors, families with small children, and people with disabilities. In addition, CDOT added countdown walk signals at all the intersections and timed all the signals to give walkers one second for every 3.5 feet of roadway width. “Before, some of those traffic signals didn’t even have ‘ped heads’ [walk signs] at all, never mind countdowns,” Attarian says. “And many of the walk signals were not long enough for anybody but a really moving human being to get across Congress at one time.”

The agency also built broad, high-visibility red-brick crosswalks, and the wider sidewalks along Congress provide space for large planter boxes that will help protect people walking down the street. “We did, wherever we could, create a barrier between moving cars and pedestrians, because Congress doesn’t have any on-street parking,” she says.


Crosswalk at State Street.

The project also includes well-timed stoplights for drivers. “From a pedestrian perspective you might think, ‘Well that helps the cars,’ and yes it does, but it also helps pedestrians,” Attarian says. “The lights are timed to thirty miles-per-hour, so as much as people think it’s still Congress and people are still driving fast, it’s slower than they were going before, when people had the ability to get up to fifty, sixty miles per hour. You can’t do that on Congress now, or if you do, you can do it for a block and then you’re going to come to a red light.”

Although the Tribune’s Jon Hilkevitch reported that the rehab incorporates “better bike lanes that require less weaving, and bike parking,” Attarian says it includes neither. “He totally made that up because there are no bike lanes on Congress, there never were, and we had no intention of making bike lanes,” she says. “I think he confused them with vehicle lanes. First of all, there’s no room for bike lanes. We’d have to eliminate another travel lane which, while I would love to do that, but from a capacity perspective there was no way we could.”


Joe Guidice and Matt Radkte hang out in the Dearborn pedestrian refuge island.

Folks are already taking full advantage of the pedestrian facilities. Last Friday, as I hung out at Congress and Dearborn after work watching people traverse the new crosswalks, I noticed two guys standing in a refuge island talking for about ten minutes. Joe Guidice, a building engineer at the nearby Wyndham Hotel, had been heading north on Dearborn to pick up some dinner. Matt Radtke an engineer at the Dirksen Federal Building, was walking south to his car, and the two colleagues met up like the north-going and south-going Zax in the Dr. Seuss story. “We just bumped into each other and felt comfortable enough to hang out here,” Guidice said. “It doesn’t even feel like you’re standing in the middle of a busy street.”

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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.

15 thoughts on “Gimme shelter: pedestrian improvements to Congress Parkway”

  1. It’s a start, but I don’t think they’ve done enough to make this a comfortable street for pedestrians. Most telling quote: “We had to actually design for [Year] 2030 traffic, which of course always gets bigger, never smaller.” WHY?

    This is a city street, not an expressway at this point. The city should be making it less pleasant to drive here, in order to discourage drivers from taking Congress unless they’re headed into the Loop. Encourage drivers to exit to the Kennedy, Dan Ryan, and Lower Wacker, and reduce this [still] formidable barrier between the Loop and South Loop.

    1. Here’s another excerpt from my interview with Janet that gives a bit more of her perspective on this issue:

      John: Did you have to convince IDOT [Illinois Department of Transportation] that this was a good idea? Was it hard to convince them to let you take a lane out?
      Janet: Yeah, this project had to be approved by IDOT, needless to
      say. And it didn’t have just be designed for today’s traffic. Big projects like
      this have to be designed for future capacity. So you’re not even designing for
      your current capacity, you’re actually designing for future capacity.

      John: For the future, assuming that there are going to be more cars
      in the future.

      Janet: Right. Well, we don’t get to make those numbers. Those numbers are made up by CMAP [The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning] and then we have to use them.

      1. It’s as if those numbers (always saying there will be growth in car use) assume no change in transit investments and ignore the presence of transit within, oh, 250 feet of the project.
        Driving, as measured by VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has been decreasing nationally for several years. Hmm.

  2. As someone who has lived near Congress for 7 years, I can’t help but see this project as a missed opportunity.  I appreciate the new countdown signals, but it’s not enough.  Cars are not driving slower and I do not feel safer as a pedestrian crossing this “highway.”  Clark Wellington is right, this quote says it all: 
    “We had to actually design for [Year] 2030 traffic, which of course always gets bigger, never smaller.”

  3. Do we really need an 8-lane road in the Loop? CDOT should have given Congress a road diet east of the old Post Office building and added protected bike lanes. I see this project as a missed opportunity to install an actually useful bike lane in the Loop, since most streets there are too narrow for viable bike lanes. I guarantee that motorists will still be driving more than 30 miles per hour, despite the signal timing. We should be making it more difficult and frustrating to drive in the Loop and the rest of the city, while improving transit options. Why did they need IDOT’s approval for this project? Is it because Congress connects to I-290?

    1. State funds were used for the project. And IDOT has jurisdiction of many major roads in Chicago. This is often a factor in whether streets get bike lanes on them or not – the approval process is more complicated if a state highway is involved.

  4. There used to be lots of bike parking in front of 24 E. Congress (Hostelling International), Auditorium Theater and Robert Morris College.  The racks were all removed for this “improvement” and haven’t been replaced yet.   I still have hope that they will be.  

      1. Last night Chris told me they just haven’t started installing bike racks this year yet and whatever he said sounded reasonably positive about my getting it in front of 24 E. Congress.

  5. In that photo of the two building engineers hanging out in the pedestrian island, you can see how low the curb is. This curb will not stop or mitigate the speed of any vehicle. Even a bicyclist could mount the curb, without lifting the front wheel or falling, at 10 MPH. 

    People driving cars in Chicago have shown their adeptness at mounting curbs, sometimes even jumping their cars into buildings. 

    1. Running into a bus stop.

    2. Wrapping their car around a pole.

    3. Jumping into a building.

    1. As Kamin mentions, it’s important to remember that the project is not done yet. The planters, decorative trellises, and Buckingham Fountain-esque colored lighting will do a lot to beautify the street, making it a lot more pleasant to walk along and probably calming traffic a bit as some drivers slow down to rubberneck.

      1. Not likely. Due to the sheer wideness of the street itself, it still feels like a highway and still will encourage speeding. If anything, rubbernecking motorists are more dangerous, since they will not have their eyes focused on the road.

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