Good Bridge, Bad Bridge: two very different CDOT projects


Sidewalk / multi-use path on the south side of Fullerton prior to the bridge rehab. Photo by Michelle Stenzel.


After the rehab: bike and ped access on the south side has been eliminated to make room for a dedicated right-turn lane for cars entering southbound Lake Shore Drive.

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

I recently attended events related to two different Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) bridge projects. One of these spans will be a terrific addition to the city’s sustainable transportation infrastructure. The other one, not so much.

First the good news. CDOT’s Addison Underbridge Connector project will link up existing snippets of bike path along the Chicago River to create a nearly two-mile, car-free route from Belmont Street to Montrose Avenue. This new path segment will be elevated some sixteen feet above the river on piers.

View Addison Underbridge project in a larger map

The future car-free route from Belmont to Montrose.

Starting from the north end of an existing trail in Clark Park, just west of Lane Tech High School, the elevated path will continue north under the Addison Street Bridge, hug the east riverbank and then cross to the west bank to meet up with an existing trail in California Park. Eventually the path will continue under the Irving Park Road Bridge to Horner Park, where trails lead north to Montrose.

Janet Attarian, head of CDOT’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design section, outlined the plan to an enthusiastic crowd last week at Revere Park, 2509 West Irving Park. Construction could begin on the roughly $9.5 million project as early as 2014 if federal funding becomes available, she says. The Irving Park underbridge will be built as part of a separate CDOT project to reconstruct that roadway, which could also begin in 2014.


CDOT rendering of the elevated bike path.

Attendees were excited about the plan. “This will help my sixteen-year-old sister have a seamless ride from Montrose to school at Lane Tech,” says cyclist Jacob Peters. “Right now she has to go on side streets or on California Avenue. This is a fantastic project.”

I wish I could say the same about the new bridge CDOT opened last Friday on Fullerton Parkway over the Lincoln Park Lagoon at Lake Shore Drive. Rather than creating a new travel option for pedestrians and cyclists, this project took away an existing one. Here CDOT took an existing four-lane street with two sidewalks and removed the sidewalk south of Fullerton to make room for a dedicated right-turn lane for cars entering southbound LSD.

This kind of thing was commonplace under the Daley administration, when the city eliminated several crosswalks on Michigan Avenue and at Buckingham Fountain to facilitate driving. The Fullerton rehab was designed before CDOT’s progressive new commissioner Gabe Klein took over last year, the man who reinstalled the Buckingham crosswalk and removed a car lane in the heart of the Loop to create the Dearborn two-way protected bike lanes. So let’s chalk up the backward-thinking Fullerton rehab as a relic from the old regime.


Where the Sidewalk Ends: a ramp leads from the terminus of the sidewalk on the south side of Fullerton under the bridge to the north side of the street.

The new configuration essentially makes it impossible to safely walk or bike to the lakefront on the south side of Fullerton. The justification for doing this is that it removes a conflict point between the right-turning cars and eastbound bikes and pedestrians, but it does this by simply eliminating the non-motorized traffic.

Now that they can no longer continue east of Cannon Drive on the south side of Fullerton, pedestrians and cyclists are expected to cross to the north side of Fullerton west of Cannon. The other option is to take an extremely indirect route via ramps under the new bridge, then back up to the north sidewalk via a staircase or another set of ramps. In reality, few people are going to use this convoluted route.

The new sidewalk on the north side of the Fullerton bridge is twenty feet wide, which sounds like an improvement over the old thirteen-and-a-half-foot sidewalk. But the combined width of the two old sidewalks was twenty-seven feet. Since both eastbound and westbound non-motorized traffic is now funneled onto the same sidewalk, come springtime it may actually feel more more crowded than before.


The new, twenty-foot-wide sidewalk on the north side of Fullerton.

At the ribbon cutting Friday several speakers described the $12 million project, bankrolled by Federal Highway Administration and Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) funds, as a win for pedestrians and cyclists. “This is more than just a bridge that will get thousands of commuters more easily to downtown every day,” says 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith, known as a supporter of bike and ped safety projects. “It’s also a pedestrian experience, a bicycling experience, all in a more safe environment because of the way that traffic will now be moved all to this one side of the bridge.”

During the Q & A session I asked CDOT chief engineer Dan Burke how he thought the redesign would benefit pedestrians and cyclists, despite taking away access. “We think it will be a lot safer for all users,” he says. “We’ve separated vehicles from pedestrians and bicyclists. As you can see it’s the confluence of a very busy area.”


Alderman Michele Smith and Congressman Mike Quigley at the ribbon cutting.

Afterward, Burke explained to me that he felt there was a traffic crisis before the reconfiguration was done. “You would have excessive traffic backups through the morning rush hour from the onramp all the way onto Cannon Drive. We think this separation’s the best in terms of safety and accommodating all users.”

But crash statistics suggest there actually was no major ped/bike safety problem here before the rehab. For a post on this subject earlier this year Steven looked up the IDOT crash stats for the location and found there were only three bike or ped collisions with cars at this location between 2006-2010. On the other hand, there were ten, thirteen and fourteen crashes at the Drive’s intersections with Foster, Montrose and Wilson avenues, respectively, during this same period.


Quigley, Smith and Burke, far right, move a barrier to reopen the last lane of Fullerton.

“We’re forcing people on foot and on bikes to go an extra distance, to take extra time… and to take a non-direct path involving changes of elevation, just to get to the Lakefront Trail,” argued Bike Walk Lincoln Park blogger Michelle Stenzel in a post earlier this fall. “We’re making it harder for them and we’re discouraging their choices of transportation, in order to make the intersection more convenient for people who choose to drive, and thereby rewarding their choice.”

On the bright side, CDOT will be rebuilding all of North Lake Shore Drive in the future. If the Fullerton redesign is ultimately judged a failure, which I’m confident it will be, there will be an opportunity to fix the problem, perhaps by converting the new right-turn lane into a bike lane that will provide cyclists with a safe, direct route to the lake.

And hopefully the Fullerton rehab will be the last example of CDOT constructing a major infrastructure project with auto-centric priorities. It’s unlikely Fullerton would look like this if it had been designed under Klein.

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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.

37 thoughts on “Good Bridge, Bad Bridge: two very different CDOT projects”

  1. The thought that the Fullerton design is flawed is baffling to me. The “indirect” route added for those on the south side of the Fullerton is really not that bad, especially considering it does not require crossing traffic. The proposed design eliminates a significant amount of conflict points along Fullerton, and provides an extremely wide pedestrian/cyclists accommodations.

    Just because there are not extensive crash records does not mean that the design is not warranted. Locations such as these may not have a lot of crash records because, most often, the vehicles and cyclists/pedestrians are traveling at low speeds and crashes are narrowly avoided. A lack of crash records is not enough reason to keep the conflict points if they can effectively be eliminated.

    More importantly, appears to be the best design for ALL users. I challenge anyone to provide a design that can do better. Remember, one of the limiting conditions that likely was a factor in not providing pedestrian/cyclist accommodations on the south side of Fullerton is the width of the underpass.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. As you can see from the first photo, there were ped/bike accommodations on the south side of Fullerton (bicyclists were legally permitted on that section of sidewalk) before the rehab, so the width of the underpass wasn’t a factor in not providing these accommodations in the new design..

      1. Your observation of the existing width doesn’t necessary mean that it was not a restricting factor in the design. Note that in the picture showing the newly constructed improvements, the space between the back of curb and the bridge abutment has been significantly reduced. With the high volume of pedestrians and cyclists, providing one 20′ sidewalk is preferred over two 10′ sidewalks (one on each side). Sidewalks over bridges have required minimums, especially if cyclists traffic is anticipated (I do not know what these are off the top of my head), and it is possible these minimums are more than 10′, making the sidewalk on the south side cost prohibitive.

        What it comes down to is: would having sidewalks on each side of the road been enough of a benefit to pedestrians/cyclists to warrant keeping all those conflicts and the possible increase in construction costs? I simply don’t think so, given what we know.

        1. Thanks for the feedback. The sidewalks were formerly 13.5 feet, so in effect 7′ of right-of-way was taken from peds and bikes and given to cars. As the crash numbers show, there wasn’t really a safety problem here before, at least relative to the other lakefront intersections mentioned above. I never felt unsafe riding on the south sidewalk to the lakefront before.

          So essentially there are no benefits for bikes and peds – they’re forced to take an indirect route and lose right-of-way. Motorists gain right-of-way, plus speedier (in theory anyway) access to LSD. As Michelle wrote, why are we punishing people who want to walk and bike to the lakefront and rewarding people who choose to drive downtown?

          1. We are punishing them by making them walk/bike under an underpass to the other side of the street. That doesn’t really seem so bad – especially considering how difficult it can be to cross Fullerton at street level. The new underpass provides a safe way to cross the street at the same time it mildly inconveniences some people wanting to access the lakefront. Seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

            CDOT could have easily just removed the sidewalk and not provided the underpass at all.

          2. Thanks for the feedback. Once the underpass is open, try navigating it on foot and by bike, as well as doing the above-ground crossing at Cannon and let me know what you think. Also let me know whether you think these detours will be intuitive to people who are unfamiliar with the redesign.

          3. Will do. Any confusion as to how people should cross over to the lake can be mitigated with good signage.

          4. Dunno how heavy pedestrian traffic is there, but an underpass concealed from view doesn’t seem like it’d be very good in the personal safety department.

          5. Not entirely true…

            Some of that ROW is a net loss (the picture above shows there is about 4-5 of pavement behind the curb on the south side now). So its a little misleading to say this ROW was “given to cars”.

            Again the lack of reported crashes does not mean that there isn’t a safety problem, or more importantly, the high potential for a safety problem. As with the redesign of North Ave, elimination of conflict points decreases this risk for problems.

            I wish it were as simple as: “Instead of 20′ on one side, why don’t we have 10′ on each side?” There is a lot more that has to go into the design.

            It’s obvious that there is a large segment of the public that doesn’t understand why the project was designed this way. Have you reached out to CDOT for some explanation to alleviate these concerns?

          6. Again, that would be 13.5′ feet on each side. Yes, I discussed the project with CDOT chief engineer Dan Burke, quoted in the article.

            Trust me on this: I heard from several well-informed, longtime local transportation advocates, all of them less anti-car than myself (let alone Steven!), and all of them have come around to agreeing that this redesign is a loss for bikes and peds.

            It takes a while to wrap your head around the issue, especially since the underpass isn’t open yet. But come springtime I’m confident that we’ll be hearing a lot of complaints about the detour. Hopefully we won’t be hearing about unwary cyclists trying to ride directly to the lake and getting struck by two lanes of right-turning cars.

    2. Re: The Fullerton Path elimination – I drove this every morning to get
      on LSD pre-changes. Literally every day I saw a near-collision with a
      jerk (usually taxi) with a pedestrian
      on the south side of the stret (the ramp to LSD) because they were trying to avoid the traffic in the (legal) right-hand lane by turning right out of the left (straight-only) lane. Though I never saw
      anyone actually harmed, I’m personally glad they eliminated the south
      side sidewalk for pedestrian/bicyclist’s sake. I almost had a heart attack on several occasions, slamming on my horn hoping they saw the person before it was too late.

      1. Thanks for your perspective Michelle. It’s never a good idea to redesign a street to accommodate reckless driving. If there really was a major pedestrian safety problem (and the stats suggest there were actually relatively few crashes compared to other nearby lakefront intersections, perhaps a better solution would have been to give peds and bikes on the south sidewalk (it was officially a multiuse path there) a dedicated walk signal and allow cars to turn right only with a green arrow. This would have greatly reduced the conflicts.

        Sure, this would slow cars down a bit. But why should we make it easier for cars to drive downtown, something we don’t want to encourage, and harder for peds and bikes to get to the lakefront, something we do?

  2. The proposed addition to the river path from Addison north to Irving Park will be a welcome addition.

    The path north from Irving Park to Montrose already exists, so that’s nothing new.

    The real problem will be the next extension – continuing north from Montrose to Lawrence to join the existing North River trail. Much of this stretch of the river has been usurped by easements of the land taken by private hands, in violation of existing state law that guarantees waterway rights to the public.

    1. Sadly, as I understand it, there has already been a settlement between MWRD and the property owners whose docks are on the river banks. This would have been a wonderful bargaining chip in order to get ROW for a bike path. In leiu of that, the Streets for Cycling plan identifies the California/Manor corridor as a cycling connection through Ravenswood Manor. Let’s make sure that this connection is designed in a manner (no pun intended) in keeping with its importance in linking two uninterrupted 2 mile multi-use trails.

    2. Yes, Janet mentioned that that will probably be the last section of the trail to be completed, if ever, for the reasons you mention. Fortunately, the route from Montrose to Lawrence via Manor is a pleasant cruise through mellow Ravenswood Manor.

    3. Given how nice of ride Manor is, I would hardly see this as a gap. Building a trail here would be very difficult and expensive and provide only a marginal improvement over the existing on street route. This would be one of the last projects I’d like to scarce resources spent on. Really only an improved crossing at Lawrence, some better signage, and maybe designation as a bike boulevard are all that is needed here. A trail would be needlessly complicated and expensive.

      1. I got some great news from Alderman Margaret Laurino yesterday. It looks like a long stretch of the North Branch Trail will be completed from Foster to Devon in the near future. This means that, with only a few short gaps, you’ll soon be able to bike on rvier trails all the way from Belmont Street to the Chicago Botanic Gardens!

  3. “suspended some sixteen feet above the river on piers”

    Not sure suspended is the right word if it’s on piers. Doesn’t suspended mean supported from above, while piers would support from below?

  4. The new Fullerton bridge is actually a decent design. Fullerton is far too narrow for anyone to safely ride on between Clark Street and Stockton Avenue, so having a bike lane that goes to the lake would be a moot point. Further, the pedestrian underpass and approaches to the underpass at Fullerton are quite nice.

    You Grid Chicago people should stop looking at Google Maps and get out and do a site survey over a few days, instead of acting like traffic engineers.

    1. Thanks for reading Mark. I agree with you that Fullerton is not very bike-friendly east of Halsted, however, the Fullerton underpass is the only bike/ped access to the lakefront for the 1.5-mile stretch between Diversey and the overpass north of North Avenue, so it gets plenty of bike/ped traffic.

      Michelle Stenzel pointed out these numbers from the Active Trans/Park District Lakefront Trail counts in a blog post a while back. The full study is
      here: It says an estimated 3,352 to 6,825 people enter the lakefront trail at Fullerton on an average summer weekday (it doesn’t count people exiting).

      You might assume the total traffic count would be roughly double for
      people on foot/bike, counting entering and exiting. It’s interesting to
      compare to the nearest weekday Fullerton car traffic count, 18,500 ADT:

      I frequently used this underpass to access the lakefront when I took Webster and Belden, a very bike-friendly route from Logan Square, and then hoped on the south sidewalk of Fullerton to access.

      I actually shared your view that this redesign wasn’t that big a deal until I showed up for the ribbon cutting and did a site survey. Attempting to ride to the lake on Fullerton was a pretty scary situation that I think a lot of people unfamiliar with the redesign will find themselves in. Other knowledgeable folks have said that many pedestrians coming to the end of the south sidewalk may just shrug their shoulders and continue walking east in the street, a very bad idea. These things, plus the higher speeds the extra car lane will encourage, makes me worry that the crash rate will actually go up here.

  5. I’ve driven through Fullerton at morning rush and it can be a mess. A couple random pedestrians on the south side of Fullerton can cause a big traffic backup. Like Ryan says, just because there aren’t crashes doesn’t mean there isn’t a conflict.

    OTOH, I go through this quite frequently as a pedestrian as well. I get off the 151/156 at Stockton and walk to the beach. So, bus drops me on the south side. In 2011, I’d just stay on the south side. In 2012 (construction), I’d cross at Cannon. In 2013, I’ll likely cross at Cannon again rather than take the convoluted underpass. I suspect most other pedestrians will be with me.

    All that said, I think the solution is overkill. From driving and walking through there at many different times of day, the only traffic backups seem to be at morning rush for an hour or so.

  6. I consider the lake to be the most valuable part of the city. I am baffled that there is such poor access to the lake. For the vast majority of people in the city it is not easy to drive to the lake, walk to the lake, or bike to the lake. Aside from being an immense ugly carbuncle of noise, pollution, and traffic that spans the most valuable land within the city, it also creates a massive barrier to the lake. It is time to reduce the amount of lanes on LSD by half, and add a significant amount of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings to the lake. As climate change creates a more tropical Chicago, with beach weather year round, it will be ever more important to have easy access to the lake, and everyone would agree that beaches are much nicer when there aren’t large highways running right next to them.

    1. Agreed. One of the great triumphs of Chicago urban planning was keeping our lakefront largely green and open to the public. Building an 8-lane barrier between residents and all that green space was one of the biggest mistakes.

      1. If climate change is ever extreme enough to warrant beach weather in January then access to the lake is the least of our worries.

    2. I seriously doubt that climate change will turn Chicago into Florida in a short amount of time, let alone at all.

      The city should completely tear down Lake Shore Drive – like so many other cities have done – to provide clear, unobstructed access to the lake for all users.

        1. What would be the point of tearing down an elevated expressway just to build a surface expressway? Tear down Lake Shore Drive, and extend the parkland into the area it used to occupy. Better yet, turn part of the former ROW into bike lanes and rail lines.

          1. Lake Shore Drive could be made more useful for transit if a lane was used exclusively for CTA’s high-demand bus routes that already use its highest-capacity buses.

  7. While I agree that the net loss of 7′ of pavement for pedestrians and non-motorized traffic is considered a loss, it actually is reforming the Fullerton underpass to follow conventional norms of several other north side Lake Shore Drive on-ramps. If you notice, there are not pedestrian crossings on the South sides of Montrose Ave, Irving Park Rd or Belmont Ave at their “intersection” with Lake Shore Drive. From a safety standpoint, you are preventing pedestrians from crossing a traffic pattern occupied by vehicles with the expectation of entering a higher-speed, limited access roadway. As an avid cyclist and pedestrian who does not own a car, I can see the social value of preventing absent-minded pedestrians from crossing these ramps as I have witnessed near-accidents caused by obstinate pedestrians at the Montrose on-ramp location.

    1. Interesting points Louis. One big difference between Fullerton and those other intersections is that each of those intersections has a dedicated bike/ped underpass alternative within two blocks north or south. Fullerton is the *only* crossing option for a 1.5-mile stretch.

      Also, those three crossings are still reasonably safe for eastbound on-street bike traffic. The new presence of three eastbound lanes, two of them right-turn lanes, on Fullerton has rendered the street un-bikeable.

      Which side of Montrose were those peds crossing LSD on, north or south?

      1. @twitter-6120282:disqus a great point. The majority of pedestrian crossings at LSD in that area on one side of the street: LaSalle to Irving Park (LaSalle, Fullterton, Belmont, and Irving Park). North of Irving Park all have access on both sides (last I saw this includes Montrose, Wilson, Lawrence, Bryn Mawr). One of the major difference in the two areas are the northern segments have much more ROW to work within, space is very limiting at LSD from LaSalle to Irving Park.

        1. Well there you have it. When you remove a logical pedestrian route, people aren’t necessarily going to behave the way you want them to. I often see this at Michigan and Randolph where they removed a crosswalk between the Cultural Center and Millennium Park, forcing people to make three crossings where they used to only have to make one. Plenty of people still brave the left-turning cars and use the old route, even though it’s illegal to do so now.

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