Pier pressure: is there an alternative to the $45 million Navy Pier Flyover?


Congestion on the Lakefront Trail at the Lake Shore Drive south bridge house leads to frustrating experiences, especially for those on wheels. 

The section of the Lakefront Trail between Randolph Street and Ohio Street Beach cannot comfortably handle the traffic present in the many congested areas around the Lake Shore Drive bridge, Navy Pier, and Jane Addams Memorial Park. The narrow width, awkward curves, and blind spots make for highly dissatisfied trail users, that includes the gamut of Chicagoans and visitors, using Segways, four-wheel pedal cars, skates, strollers, bicycles, wheelchairs, or their own feet. There’s not enough room for the number of people who pass through here. This section of the trail is used by individuals on work and social trips, as well as groups meandering from park to park along Lake Michigan. The City plans to build an elevated structure, called the Navy Pier Flyover, to bypass the congestion, but at an extreme cost. We propose a different project to meet the same goals of comfortable passage on the path with a much smaller price tag.

The main problem areas are at the north and south ends of the Lake Shore Drive bridge, on the sidewalk between the bridge and Grand Avenue, at the blind spot where the trail meets Grand at the corner of Lakepoint Tower’s parking garage, and in the congested area inside Jane Addams Memorial Park and Ohio Street Beach. The Navy Pier Flyover is a planned structure on the Lakefront Trail that will “fly over” these trouble spots. The Lakefront Trail path as it currently exists will remain open for those who don’t want to use the flyover. Additionally, an “off ramp” will be built from the overpass to Navy Pier alongside the Ogden Slip – this part is superfluous to addressing path congestion, but may be useful for some path users. The project does not sufficiently address congestion at Ohio Street Beach.

The Navy Pier Flyover is going to cost a jaw-dropping $45 million. To put this in perspective, in 2008 the Portland, Oregon, Bureau of Transportation estimated the entire replacement cost of its then 300-mile bike network at about $60 million. We propose an alternative solution to combat the same problems at a much lower cost, and with a far quicker construction time.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), along with its consultants, have designed and will manage construction of the overpass. CDOT spokesman Pete Scales declined an interview request (saying “there isn’t anything new to report on the project”) and didn’t respond to our request for documents that would describe the public outreach process and Alternatives Analysis (a study where alternatives to the status quo are compared and a final alternative is selected*).

Timeliness is essential in understanding and discussing alternative solutions: last Thursday, CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein mentioned at a panel discussion hosted by the Nature Museum that the Navy Pier Flyover would begin construction this year. That was something new to report; he also mentioned it would cost $56 million. We double checked the cost with Scales, who replied that the cost is $44.5 million and is funded by the State of Illinois and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grants from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). CDOT plans to solicit construction bids later this year, but construction “would not likely begin until spring 2013”, Scales said.

Here are other bike projects the city could complete for about $45 million:

  • Give tens of thousands of high school students a bike, the tools and know-how to fix it, and mobility education.
  • Run Bike The Drive and Open Streets every weekend for years.
  • A bike sharing system twice as large as what is currently planned for Chicago (3,000 bikes at 300 stations for $21 million, 2x)
  • 264 miles of protected bike lanes (double the number of miles that CDOT proposes to have built by 2015)
  • 93 miles of resurfaced protected bike lanes (only the bike lane portion of a street that needs new pavement would be resurfaced)
  • The Bloomingdale Trail’s basic construction, “engineering and construction to build a safe, accessible park from end-to-end” ($46 million)


Elevated structures are costly. The Navy Pier Flyover would climb up and run next to Lake Shore Drive, between the highway and the Lakepoint Tower parking garage and roof deck. Photo from CDOT publication (.pdf).

An alternative proposal

The alternative proposed here would take less time to construct, cost a lot less, and wouldn’t require long and roundabout detours or lane closures for cars and transit buses on Lake Shore Drive. The proposal is divided into two components: Lake Shore Drive Bridge and Lower Lake Shore Drive (Bridge and Road), and Intersections.


Open an interactive version of this map, or view the embedded map below. 


When the Lake Shore Drive bridge sidewalk was damaged, CDOT created a detour on the roadway deck of Lower Lake Shore Drive that was wide and safe. This view is looking south. See a photo of the missing sidewalk

Bridge and Road

Modifying the Bridge and Road is the easy part because it’s already been done before. Instead of breaking through the walls of the bridge house and building a widened sidewalk to the east side of the existing sidewalk (as would happen in the Navy Pier Flyover project), a travel lane on Lower Lake Shore Drive would be converted to Lakefront Trail use (with preferential use for people bicycling; slower traffic would remain on the sidewalk). Multiple observations have revealed that relatively few people drive on Lower Lake Shore Drive in this area.

CDOT converted a travel lane to path use in 2009 after a portion of the Bridge’s sidewalk fell or was removed (see photos of the situation). Crews placed metal plates on the open grate bridge deck and constructed a guardrail between the two northbound lanes (bolted into the bridge deck). To divert trail traffic to this bypass, workers broke down a piece of concrete wall on the south end of the Bridge and built an asphalt ramp back up to the sidewalk on the north end of the Bridge.

We propose doing that again. Metal plates (of the non-slip variety) could be used, or concrete infill (like Randolph Street bridge, or the revamped Halsted Street bridge at Chicago Avenue). The divider should be tall, permanent, and of the strongest sort.


Looking north at the detour where there’s a temporary ramp back onto the sidewalk (in the background), north of the Lake Shore Drive bridge. 


Looking south at the detour. The photo shows the travel lane that would be converted to Lakefront Trail use. 


A rendering of the travel lane on Lower Lake Shore Drive that has been converted to bike use. The sidewalk remains. The rendering does not show a barrier that would be installed, to extend the barrier seen on the bridge. 

This alternative proposes modifying three intersections: (1) the Lakefront Trail with Grand Avenue, (2) the Lakefront Trail with Illinois Street, and (3) the three-way split of the Lakefront Trail within Jane Addams Memorial Park (Park). With an entire 10-feet-wide travel lane devoted to Lakefront Trail bike traffic, the intersections at Grand Avenue and Illinois Streets would need to be redesigned.

Intersection 1: Lakefront Trail with Illinois Street

Currently, path users walk and roll on the sidewalk and follow pedestrian signals at Illinois Street. People moving at higher speeds would use the converted Lake Shore Drive lane and those moving at slower speeds would use the sidewalk, where everyone travels now. New signals, with bicycle heads, would be installed for those using the converted lane at Illinois Street.

Intersection 2: Lakefront Trail with Grand Avenue

The lane conversion would stretch from south of the bridge to Grand Avenue (the westbound road). Grand Avenue is the second intersection where path users walk and roll on the sidewalk and follow pedestrians signals. To facilitate a safer and more comfortable ride from the Park to the converted lane, the traffic island and automobile slip lane would be removed to create a shallower slope from the street level to park level, where Lakefront Trail users on the converted lane would rejoin the existing path. This component is seen in green on the maps. This park extension creates additional queuing space and reduces the grade to climb from Grand Avenue into the park. New signals, with bicycle heads, would be installed for those using the converted lane at Grand Avenue.

Intersection 3: Lakefront Trail in Jane Addams Memorial Park

The third upgraded intersection is the area in the park around the B-Cycle station and ramp to the Ohio Street beach, and where the Lakefront Trail has splits towards Navy Pier and Illinois Street. Some of the path within the Park was widened this month, by adding a narrow, concrete shoulder on what used to be dirt (that flooded easily). Paths inside the park would be widened and the ramp to the beach would be moved to the east. The B-Cycle station and the walls to its west would be moved slightly to the east.

The need to improving conditions on the Lakefront Trail near Navy Pier is obvious, but state and federal tax dollars could be put to better use if the flyover isn’t built. We understand that the money used to design the flyover would have been spent in vain if this alternative proposal was constructed instead. But by shelving the flyover plans and instead converting existing infrastructure, the city would save tens of millions of dollars and make the trail safer and more pleasant sooner than later.

View Navy Pier Flyover alternative in a larger map


* There’s a common perception in planning and engineering circles that the alternative which the constructing agency wants usually has already been chosen before the Alternatives Analysis is conducted, and that the agency finds ways to make the other alternatives seem less desirable.

49 thoughts on “Pier pressure: is there an alternative to the $45 million Navy Pier Flyover?”

  1. Is the calculations section necessary? Can it be summarized briefly in the article, or posted elsewhere and linked in the article? Having a detailed description of a minor detail in the article where you would expect a strong concluding argument undermines your argument a bit. Like instead of giving the knock out punch, you are backing up your claims, defending your info.

    Map… perhaps a screenshot of the enlarged google map with key would be nicer than an actual link to google map. My experience … i clicked on the link, which is the only way to see the key. My comments were deleted and the map went crazy, as i accidentally toggled the maps mouse functions. An image would be simple and easier to interact with, as no real interaction is needed.

    Other than that, I think the article could be longer and more detailed.
    your proposals are clear enough, but would be stronger with more details, descriptions of current problems, etc.

    Remember, this is one of your more important posts, so don’t be shy!

  2. I ride that area south and north every day. Your suggestions are certainly sensible and would make what I find to be a stressful situation much easier and pleasant.

    1. Thank you. I don’t think I would have gotten the idea for this proposal had I not run into CDOT’s own (temporary) detour around the missing sidewalk on the Lake Shore Drive bridge.

  3. Obviously more sensible, in an economic and time turn around way. Do you think the city would look past this project because they wouldn’t want to erase all the work they’ve already drawn up for the flyover? These projects do take time to map out etc. but that doesn’t mean the time spent doing it is wasted. Good to look at the options, and even better to save money.

      1. Thanks for pointing me to that.

        Another way to look at this proposal, and I might be kicking myself later for saying this, is that it can be an experiment. A very cheap experiment to see if the proposal works. And if it doesn’t…

    1. It’s always good to look at the options. I just don’t know what they were.

      I’m hoping that elected officials, people who are in charge of deciding how much taxes to collect and how much of it to distribute, can look at this from the point of view that it’s an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars and grants. And that this alternative gets a serious inspection from City staff.

  4. A very good analysis, and certainly very common sense-oriented. This would be loads better than what we have now.

    However, I think fixing this area’s congestion problem in the most comprehensive, thorough and enticing manner is tax money well spent, even at $45m. It’s not like that money will be used for the alternative programs you mentioned, I’d bet this is use-it-or-lose-it funding. This is our lakefront, our crown jewel, and is totally worth the investment, which is of a more permanent nature than just bike lanes and thus unlikely to be forgotten about and neglected 5, 10 or 20 years from now.

    What I don’t see your scenario fixing is the bum rush of humanity towards navy Pier/River North from Grant/Millenium Park on almost every summer weekend and during Taste and other weekday evening events. I almost never bike on the LFT on Thursday or Friday in the afternoon rush hour during the summer season almost expressly due to the area that would be alleviated by the Flyover, the people will stay down, the bikes will be elevated, everyone will be happy. In your scenario when push comes to shove the bike lanes will likely get treated like the bike “lanes” on the LFT, and get flooded with people.

    Also, Navy Pier is Illinois’ largest tourist attraction, drawing over 8 million folks a year. The flyover totally removes all of the conflicts at Grand for cyclists and pedestrians. That alone justifies the project IMO.

    Also, in this economy Chicago desperately needs these kinds of projects, they are stimulators in terms of jobs and money getting circulated in the City – look at FDR’s legacy; cutting government spending on infrastructure during a downturn just exacerbates a shrinking economy (the problem with govt is they never slow and cut the spending once recoveries are in full swing).

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. I agree that the flyover would be a beautiful piece of infrastructure and fun to ride on, offering nice views of the lake and skyline, and it would be a nice statement about the city’s transportation priorities. The question is, is it really worth spending 15X the cost of the Millennium Park bike station?

      1. I don’t think viewing this as an either-or is the best logical route to take, as if we’re going there I can think of a host of things the City spend far more money on that we could do without. There is over $1,000,000,000,000 in the TIF kitty right now, and some of the projects slated that are in the multi-million range are laughable in terms of benefits to society.

        So that aside, yes, it’s worth the money, because once this baby goes up the problem is solved – it’s a permanent fix. You’re easing the lives of 8 million people going to Navy Pier even without considering cyclists.

        To Calvin’s point, *some* pedestrians are good about staying out of the way, but I have ridden this path well over 1000x, and when foot traffic reaches critical mass, there is simply no room for anyone to move – and it’s compounded by tourists busy gawking at the river, the ferris wheel, etc.

        Chicago (and the country) has been getting increasingly screwed out of infrastructure funding since we went on a two-front war and cut taxes. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, we are not going to be able to “horse trade” the flyover for anything even remotely this important.

          1. Ha, you’re so right, that’s what I get for trying to spell it out, mea culpa!

    2. The bicycle lane section could easily be fully separated from the pedestrian sidewalk. Bicycle traffic is heavy here, and pedestrians try to stay out of the way. Right now they cannot, because there is no room. I completely agree with you about supporting infrastructure improvements, but as the bridge is already spacious enough to support its usage, and I think building an extension would be superfluous and wasteful. Also, this proposal still calls for large infrastructure improvements, but questions the need to build an entirely new portion of bridge at an exorbitant cost. As pointed out in the proposal, much larger bicycle and pedestrian projects could be accomplished with a similar amount of funding.

  5. As Chicago sinks deeper and deeper into debt, and the US and world economies struggle and contract, challenging exorbitant and wasteful spending becomes more important. Thanks for taking a stand on this. Thanks for proposing a viable and cost effective solution. My favorite part of your proposal is that much of it has already been done successfully in the same location (during the sidewalk construction). Under current conditions, there is very little traffic on Lower Lake Shore Drive along the pedestrian bridge walkway, and many people, including myself, often swing out into the road to avoid the sidewalk congestion. The construction wasn’t very pretty looking, but, the reallocation of unused road space in a congested pedestrian location was beautiful, and it wouldn’t take much to beautify a future reallocation of this space. Great work and thanks!

    1. I should have mentioned that “many people” (including yourself and myself) drop into the northbound lanes of Lower Lake Shore drive to bypass sidewalk congestion all the way until the slip lane and traffic island at the southwest corner of the Jane Addams Memorial Park.

      If traffic wasn’t so light, no one would be doing this.

      1. Yes, the traffic on the bridge is very high speed, but fortunately there is not very much of it. Usually there are no vehicles on this stretch of the bridge in either lane, while the sidewalk remains very congested. The bridge is already spacious enough to accommodate all users. The northbound lane next to the sidewalk is consistently used by cyclists, joggers, and pedestrians, because it is not currently being used by anything else. Why would the city build more bridge, when there is already plenty. The northbound lane is already the flyover. Why spend $45 million of money we don’t have on something we don’t need?

      2. I also occasionally move onto the street in the northbound lanes of Lower Lake Shore drive, as I’m usually preparing to turn left onto Grand. Do you think the closure of Lower Wacker Drive is diminishing the number of cars on Lower Lake Shore (meaning that traffic will increase when that project is complete)?

  6. Keep in mind that Lake Shore Drive is U.S. Route 41 and that the Link Bridge is officially maintained by IDOT, so CDOT would have a tough road to hoe if they want to take a travel lane out for bikes.
    If cross traffic is the reason for the congestion, grade separation would be the best way to deal with it, as Carter mentioned. If through traffic is the issue, maybe the money would be better spent improving parallel routes further west, such as Columbus/Fairbanks.

    1. The issue is path through traffic, the diversity of modes/users here, and the sheer quantity of users. Cross traffic (I guess from Grand and Illinois) is not an issue.

      1. I think the cross traffic at Grand is a huge issue. The length of that green light for Grand creates a long wait time for cyclists and pedestrians, which makes everyone impatient and creates a jockeying-for-position issue when the light finally changes. And then there’s that damned building (which is certainly making Burnham roll over in his grave) which creates a colossal blind corner from the east and the south.

        1. With the converted travel lane I’ve proposed, there will be sufficient waiting room and pedestrians and cyclists will no longer jockey for the best position.
          The duration of the lights would be a consideration in the enhanced intersection I propose. If I could draw all of this, I would.

  7. As much as I agree that the enormous cost of this project is unfortunate, it really is a necessary cost. This area is a critical danger for all non-motorized users. More than probably any other path I can think of in the entire city. The solutions you present may be somewhat acceptable, but I don’t believe will entirely solve the problem.

    As the city implements new bike lanes, crosswalks, buffers etc to improve pedestrian safety, we’ve seen where these systems can still fail. Bikes and pedestrians still at some point are within close proximity to cars. Your solution keeps vehicles literally feet apart from cyclists which will not be safe in situations of pedestrian overflow. You also put far too much faith in users following signals. As someone who passes through that area everyday, no one obeys signals. Pedestrians and cyclists, not a chance, and cars frequently run reds. So the fact that you have level crossings in your alternative plan only marginally improves the problem with a much more complex intersection.

    This investigation is appreciated, but it feels sophomoric in nature. It’s safe to assume CDOT has made every attempt possible to explore different options, and if a safer and cheaper alternative existed, it would have been presented as part of the planning process. My thought is these alternatives simply didn’t fix the problem which is why we are given the flyover as our only option. But the public did have the chance to comment and explore alternatives….years ago. You’ve written this post 2 years too late.

    1. YES.

      “You also put far too much faith in users following signals. As someone
      who passes through that area everyday, no one obeys signals”

      I love/cringe watching those traffic engineering software programs that show traffic and pedestrians moving in a wonderfully neat fashion, all in a straight line moving at the same speed.

      The reality is that people en masse do not behave as a single organism, what we need are the programs that show what happens when the guy swerves over 2 lanes at the last second as he’s got his head cocked into a cell phone, the gal too busy with the radio to move when the light changes, the pedestrians who don’t seem to understand how a left turn arrow works and cross the street and send an intersection into total chaos (Michigan & Roosevelt, all day), etc.

  8. The 3 worst pinch points on the LFT are (in order): the LSD bridge, the Fullerton clustermess (where there is through traffic, a path entrance, a water fountain, and a hot dog stand), and that point just north of the Shedd where the path goes from the park around behind the aquarium. I’ve got some ideas on how to fix the next two, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on those points as well.

    The new wide path around the 31st street harbor is fantastic. I wish the entire path were like that.

  9. I despise this stretch of the path, but this simply isn’t a viable solution. While there are (at least) hundreds of streets that should undergo a road diet, the LSD bridge isn’t one. It’s a critical entertainment and commuter line that experiences variably huge traffic. Losing another lane would exacerbate the situation without offering any easing for most users, particularly those visiting the city for work or play. Additionally, bicyclists need more protection from cars at the intersections. Enhanced intersections are just a patch to an interchange that needs fundamental change.

    Also, framing this as an either this or that scenario (i.e. We could fund this alternative strategy or these others.) does a disservice to the alternative transportation community. Doing so creates a zero sum game within alternatives to automobile traffic. If you have to do a budgetary comparison, don’t ghettoize alternative transportation — offer alternatives across a range of policy fields.

    The flyover may not be the only solution, but I have yet to see a better proposal.

  10. It’s so rare that I agree with you so completely on something, I don’t know what to say. This is, in fact, a brilliant idea. The only possible downside I see is the point Scott Presslak brough up about IDOT having control of US 41, but I would think that could be worked around with a traffic study. And I’m not sure the choke point at Oak Street Beach is avoidable. Otherwise, good analysis!

    1. IDOT is already involved with the project because the NFP is a state-funded project attached to a bridge (and IDOT has some kind of jurisdiction on all bridges).
      It was only a matter of time where we’d agree 😉

  11. Nice breakdown of the alternative plan – makes complete sense to go this route and save $$ (and my first exposure to your fine blog – as a recent transplant of Chicago from Seattle, and a planning nerd, I already appreciate what you do!). BTW, has this plan been submitted to the City for review?

  12. Steven, What would the 45 million cover? Is it the entire stretch from Jane Adams park to south of the river? I thought the funding that was in place was only for the flyover part. The bridge crossing was too be funded separately. I cannot find any information confirming that right now, (here is a vague reference to it from Blair Karmin about funding for the first two phases being complete: http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/theskyline/2011/02/newly-approved-lakefront-overpass-is-no-bridge-to-nowhere-.html)
    I think the flyover part makes some sense (mainly because it separates through traffic from local traffic), but the bridge crossing design never made any sense. I think your proposed solution for that part definitely deserves a closer look.

    1. Information is very hard to find, even when you ask.

      I’ve just submitted a FOIA request to know more. Thanks for the tip on separate funding. It seems that the city will be issuing three different RFPs, one for each segment.
      The segments are:
      1. “Proposed bike path over the Chicago River”
      2. “Proposed bike path from the Chicago River to DuSable Park”
      3. “Proposed bike path from DuSable Park to Jane Addams Park”

      See what I’m quoting in this map: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/7463817118/

  13. Love it I pass through there twice a day by bike on my way to and from work. The fly over seems ridiculous and wasteful. I love your proposal. I can also say that I have driven a car through there countless times and have never seen congestion. over that bridge. What do I have to sign!

    1. We don’t have anything to sign right now.

      I rode over the segment in question today (in the “reverse” direction, southbound). I witnessed at least 7 people ride in the roadway northbound. I have some more ideas.
      We’re exploring the next steps with this proposal.

  14. Steven, I’m a big fan of yours and have a great deal of respect for what you and John are doing.

    I found your proposal to be very practical and pragmatic – it really is something that should have been implemented years ago when it became obvious that this entire stretch was dangerous for all users. Someone should have picked up on this solution during the sidewalk construction.

    After watching transportation enhancements funding decimated in the latest transportation bill – first by rolling back the spending to 2009, then by making 50% of the funds available to other projects based on a state’s needs – I’ve come to the realization that its not the merits of a project that matter, it’s the politics. Politicians work very hard to earmark funds to benefit specific constituents and those that can secure the funds (Rahm & Governor Quinn) are more interested in “grand” projects than what is pragmatic.

    The fact that the Flyover is being funded with air pollution mitigation funds and it also makes a bold “beautification” statement is a political win-win. As a few of your other commenters pointed out, there was probably little chance of using the $45 million for a host of much-needed smaller projects. I suspect this may have been the case with the Bike Share Program, as well. It HAD to be big.

    Keep us posted on how receptive the City is to your alternative. I’m hoping for the best, but I’m fearful that it may be too late.

  15. Brilliant. So of course they’ll never do it. You can spend $45 million to build something new before you can take a lane away from cars in this town. I’d also add that north-bound riders along this stretch often hop into this lane of Lower LSD anyway, to avoid the crowds. Then they swoop back on the path at Grand by that annoying traffic island.

  16. This post is genius. I hope they can find a better way to use that $45M for bicycling in Chicago.

  17. The flyover is well worth $45 million and would pay for itself quickly with increased tourism dollars. The flyover solves the big problem of this section by eliminating the at-grade crossings of Grand and Illinois. We’ve worked for over a decade to raise the money for a world class facility. Besides, the way transportation money works is that you can’t just decide to use it for something else. Good design costs real money. Chicago cyclists and visitors deserve a world class solution to the Lakefront path mess around Navy Pier and across the river. The money is there. The design approval was a hard fight, but we won. Let’s build it soon.

  18. I’m opposed to any design that relies on special traffic signals. People of all modes already routinely ignore the regular traffic signals that are already there. Furthermore, the signal cycles are _already_ biased in favor of motor vehicle traffic on the Upper Drive. If you think we have to wait forever for a green on the Path/Lower Drive now, just imagine how long CDOT would make us wait for our very own green, and how absurdly short it would be after all that waiting. Which naturally means that pretty much nobody on the Path would obey the special Path signal. Worst-case scenario, somebody dies. Best-case scenario, more bitching and moaning about cyclists running red lights, even our very own special red lights for our very own special bike lanes.

    With your proposal, we might as well make a $45 million donation to cagers for the the War on Bikes. If people get word that _the bicycle community_ is rallying _against_ a $45 million improvement on the fracking _Lakefront Trail_, we’ll never get funding for anything ever again. Do you seriously believe that a massive, coordinated effort to oppose a big Lakefront Trail project would bring the Bloomingdale Trail any closer to reality, instead of suggesting to the rest of the city that we hate trails and don’t want them?

    1. The upcoming Dearborn Street two-way cycle track through the Loop will have bicycle-specific signals at all intersections where there’s a turn conflict (which would generally be every other block, because of the cross one-way streets). If CDOT is to build this well, they will time the bike-specific signals so that one can ride through the entire cycle track without stopping (a “green wave”).

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