An overhead view of the new design. View all images and site plans.
Ed. note: In the spring of 2011, I suggested friends and readers of my blog Steven Can Plan write letters to the Chicago Department of Transportation about the distinct lack of bicycle infrastructure in the plan to redesign the intersection and streets at Damen Avenue, Fullerton Avenue, and Elston Avenue. It’s more than an intersection overhaul. I then reported that it appears the letters you and I sent were positively received and bicycle infrastructure was added to the plan. The project, now set forth, will have three separated intersections (which should reduce the complexity of traffic signal cycles and automobile turning movements) all connected by roads with four travel lanes. Elston and Damen Avenues will have protected and conventional bike lanes, respectively. A Grid Chicago reader emailed us three weeks ago to ask us to reconsider our support for that design.
Tony Horvath lives in Lakeview and is a business analyst for Merrill Corporation. He doesn’t own a car but remembers the intersection from when he used to own a car and drove through it often. He commutes by ‘L’ but has also biked through the intersection and in the area. -Steven
I feel that the Elston plan is one of the biggest gaffes Chicago can make. I urge you both to rethink what is going to happen there and join me in speaking out against it.
Consider these points:
Car Centric Plan
Increasing capacity is very auto-centric and the Chicago Department of Transportation has—intentionally or not—turned the debate here into an exercise on how to route traffic. Everything else—bike safety, land use, aesthetics—is secondary. But this is a bigger planning issue and we shouldn’t settle for a traffic solution. To show how convoluted this has gotten, remember that at one point CDOT was considering an overpass for either Fullerton or Elston…which is exactly the problem that they are trying to SOLVE at Belmont and Western! CDOT looks at every problem through the lens of how to move more cars through an area and screw whatever happens down the street.
It Doesn’t Solve the Congestion
The congestion “problem” really only exists in the evening rush hour. And the source of this problem is too many cars trying to exit/enter the Kennedy from Exits 47B and 48A. Add in a complex intersection and traffic snarls all around. But if capacity is increased it will only result in more drivers trying to jam through the area anyway. Any “fix” will be short-lived.
We would be much better off putting congestion meters on these ramps and jacking up the price at rush hour until drivers opted out. People who live within a defined radius of the intersection could be exempt from paying and the money could go toward real improvements (BRT?). Politically difficult? Absolutely. But wouldn’t transforming Elston into a place where the Brand Brewery would have been repurposed instead of making way for a Wendy’s or Chik Fil-A be worth it?
The bike lane ends prematurely on southeast-bound Elston Avenue, leaving cyclists in the lurch.
Similar “Solutions” Haven’t Worked Either
The plan that CDOT has come up with is very similar to what was done at Lincoln/Western/Lawrence years ago. And traffic is still murderous there. And it practically stopped development and revitalization on Lincoln north of Lawrence now that Lincoln has been disrupted. The only people who have been happy with this scheme have been the owners of the McDonalds that got multiple curb-cuts out of the deal.
Allowing right turns on red, along with short signalized road segments promotes a lot of weird backups and movements. Looking southeast on Elston Avenue.
Diagonals are Opportunities Not Problems
Elston is a diagonal street. In Chicago, diagonals make up the best biking routes (because the distances they save from a cycling perspective is actually quite considerable). They’re also the best pedestrian routes because their multi-spoked intersections put many more places within a short walk from their hubs. Look at the great intersections in this city and you will see that an overwhelming number of them are where the grid and a diagonal meet. This means that this intersection is an OPPORTUNITY for something great and not merely a traffic problem.
A mile to the west is Logan Square where an almost identical intersection exists—less an influx of cars trying to enter/exit an expressway—and it is a great example of a real place. There are plans to put an apple orchard there, for Christ’s sake!
Elston has real potential to become more like Clark, Lincoln or Milwaukee Ave. But the current plan will turn it more into a Northwestern Highway or Higgins Road.
Look, we’re all city nerds and I hope you guys keep an open mind here. If you would like to meet to talk about this I would love to do that. I seriously hope that you will reconsider this plan in its entirety and come to the realization that this road needs a diet and not a bigger belt!
I asked CDOT spokesperson Pete Scales for the status of the project:
CDOT obtained Phase I approval from IDOT in September, allowing us to initiate our acquisition process. No land has been acquired to date. Phase II Design (Construction Plan Preparation) will likely commence in January 2013. We are still lining up funding for construction, which will start at the earliest in Summer 2014.
After Tony brought up these points to me, I was reminded about the intersections of Orleans, Sedgwick, Division, and Clybourn. It’s essentially a highway interchange without the ramps and flyovers. If you’re cycling through here, you’re always in the wrong place: put yourself in the lane that takes you where you want to go lane and you’ll be harassed by a driver because “you’re in their way”. Put yourself to the right as practicable and you won’t get to where you need to go. Try to merge 100 feet before the lanes shift and you won’t find an opening.
When I travel through this intersection, it’s usually southbound on Clybourn, east on Division, to Wells. I bike east in the the hashed area on Division Street between Sedgwick and Orleans. Did you know there used to be a bike lane on Division between Orleans and Wells? You can see it if you view Google Earth historical satellite imagery. It, like many bike lanes in Chicago, was never maintained and restriped; you can see some remnants if you look closely while walking by.
The more I look at this intersection, the more insane I think its design is: there are 8 lanes in a residential and shopping area, and there isn’t even a highway nearby!