Should I reconsider my support for the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection plan?


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

Tony writes…

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!


Tony Harvath


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.

View Larger Map

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!

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36 thoughts on “Should I reconsider my support for the Damen-Elston-Fullerton intersection plan?”

  1. A couple thoughts. 1. Putting congestion meters in place at the Fullerton/Elston/Damen intersection would help that intersection, but simply exacerbate problems down the line, creating another problem to fix. 2. I live at Lincoln and Winnemac and I see how the Lawrence/Lincoln/Western intersection stalled development heading north, but I sort of love it. It kept all the classic dive bars and stores north of Lincoln and Western open (St. Paulie, Cardinal, Lincoln Lanes)! In the end, these projects always come back to philosophy. Cities and states tackle all traffic issues with the mindset to facilitate ease of driving, when the more economical long-term solution is lessening the need to drive.

    1. I don’t buy that the redevelopment “stalled development heading north”. The development moved south because both the Old Town School and the Library, the big magnets for pedestrian traffic, are south of Lawrence, on the same side of Lawrence as the L stop.

  2. There are many people who are happy with the Lincoln rerouting plan. That area of Lincoln Square is the closest thing the city has to a pedestrian oriented street. It is much easier to cross the Lawrence/Western intersection than it would be with a diagonal street running through it, and bus routing around the Western Brown Line stop is more logical than without the Leland intersection (although there are some simple improvements that could be made). That being said, this area, and Lincoln Square are polar opposites. There isn’t a river and a highway/railroad corridor hemming in the Lincoln Square area; there isn’t more than a half mile corridor of poorly developed auto-oriented big box stores directly north or south on Lincoln; there isn’t a highway entrance serving a majority of Lincoln Park residents who might be reverse commuting to areas along the I-90 and I-94 corridors; nor was there on opportunity to divert Lincoln around the intersection of Lawrence and Western. All of these things are why I continue to believe that this intersection redesign is part of how a city properly plans for all users. The only way to reduce traffic issues that plague this intersection is to redevelop the areas surrounding it to be less car dependent, and to provide better transit options for those passing through and to this corridor. Even with that, this intersection would be dangerous. We need Elston to be rerouted…we just don’t need it to be 4 lanes wide, look at Lawrence just east of Lincoln Square.

    1. What are examples of redevelopment that is less car dependent? Also how do we offer better transit options if we are cutting vehicular lanes in half? I have been on a bus thru here and it is painfully slow at rush hour with four lanes of traffic.

      1. I’m afraid that 4 lanes of Elston will bring more traffic and the property “realignments” along with road/intersection changes in the project will make this area more attractive to retail development, but only in the style that permeates this area: strip.
        That is, assuming CDOT lines up funding and can acquire property. I wonder if eminent domain/condemnation will have to be executed.

        1. Why not rehab the area instead of reworking? I see a disconnect here. People want slower/less traffic, but want more retail/commercial options but not strip mall or big box oriented. I am not sure what type of entity is left to fill that ideal space.

          Also, If you are going to open a store today, what is really important to your survival as a business? Access to people, lots of people. We need to broaden our scope of planning, beyond the streets and cars. What is it that makes a certain area attractive? Why should someone open a store in one location versus another? If we want good stores that people like shop at, then we have to accept the unintended consequences of traffic. When stores survive they pay taxes which in turn help all of us. The discussion of Elston/Fullerton moves from a bike/car traffic plan to what do we really want, how do we handle it and what can we accept as a result of it.

          I think that is what long term urban planning is all about.

          1. I beg to differ, again using Lincoln Square as an example. Most of the local businesses have weathered the recession in an area where parking is increasingly at a premium. My take is because they serve the neighborhood. A lot of customers are like me – residents who do their shopping on foot and/or by public transit. In fact, after over a decade here, what I treasure is my ability to get nearly everything I need – food/drink/books/pet supplies/yoga/entertainment, etc. – without the need of a car. Village living within a major U.S. city…

        2. Why when suddenly large swaths of land become available for various reasons (factories closing, etc.) the default things to build there are strip malls? In the case of the recent redevelopment along the river in the Elston and Clybourn corridors, the result is huge big-box stores and endless deserts of parking lots. Why not build dense housing there instead, along with walkable commercial districts? There are so many things that are better than essentially trying to build the suburbs in the middle of a city.

          1. It could be a situation of available transportation infrastructure: since there is none other than car infrastructure, only build structures that are easiest for those who use cars. Then it becomes a kind of feedback loop.

          2. Who is developing multi dwelling housing these days? Are they the same people selling refrigerators to eskimos? This is a real estate deal and that is all about timing.

          3. so you are ok with towers being built in the low rise area? The area is not zoned and will not be zoned for residential hi rise. Plus we will be over run with more cars than we can imagine. Low rise condo development would be the ideal, and those are not the flavor of the day right now, there is a glut on the market. Single family homes might work here.

      2. @jacob peters, still wondering what redevelopment that is less car dependent is. Seriously, we need solutions that are realistic for all parties.

        1. sorry, I was out of town and away from the internet for a good spell last week. There are a lot of examples of development that is less car dependent. Most of the city has been developed with retail that greets the street, and not a parking lot. So, do you want me to start naming neighborhoods? Or do you want me to start by naming developments that are planned across the city and country in which residents live above retail? I’ll be glad to do either, but I wouldn’t want to clog up the comment board with a phone book worth of examples. There are solutions that are realistic for all parties, and we’ve been building them for hundreds of years.

          1. I see what you mean. But if you are a merchant what would appeal to you? LAZ street parking or a lot? I think a developer is going to pick the option that has parking. People on bikes and pedestrians can be handled easily but survival is based on volume.

      3. A bus will be slow regardless of the number of traffic lanes. Build 10 lanes and drivers will spread out laterally to fill them out and be in the shortest queue.

        For a bus to be faster it must have its own lane.

    2. (reading this a bit late). Not sure if this has been brought up before, but I was wondering if a roundabout is really what this intersection needs, it would help out traffic quite a bit and would be more compact allowing for development of more intensive uses (as opposed to the weirdly suburban uses around there). Any thoughts?

      1. It was briefly considered. I inquired about using roundabouts in my letter to CDOT as part of the public comment processing. Here’s the response from project manager Bridget Stalla:

        “A roundabout was evaluated early on in the study, but was eliminated from further consideration for a number of reasons. Roundabouts are designed to accommodate vehicles entering, changing lanes and exiting safely. At this location, the roundabout would have six legs, requiring a very large radius, which would have greater impact on more commercial and residential properties than the proposed design. Similarly, providing a roundabout at any of the three intersections would impact significantly more right of way. Turbo roundabouts require users to carefully select their lane based on their intended destination prior to entering the roundabout. Turbo roundabouts also work best at the intersection of a major and minor route. Based on the existing conditions and driver expectations, this design would not be an appropriate fit for this location.”

      2. I am extremely doubtful that Chicago drivers would tolerate or obey a roundabout under any circumstances; it’s very foreign to the car-culture here. Small side-streets are trying to put in traffic circles as a calming device, and not only are they regularly ignored (treated as a median planter, so people turning left just turn left past it instead of going around, or go around it on both sides) or purposely driven OVER, even when landscaped, planted, and with big shiny reflective diamond signs on them.

        In my old neighborhood, the ‘traffic circle’ at the end of my block would be regularly run over, so that the reflective sign spent more time bent horizontal to the ground (and this is a standard traffic-sign pole — I have no IDEA what the protestors were using to run it over with!) than fixed and vertical.

        1. I think there is a big difference between tiny somewhat confusing roundabouts between 4 one way neighborhood streets and a large main junction roundabout between several arterial streets. People aren’t going to drive straight through something like this as the scale is a lot larger and there is plenty of other traffic involved. The arterial example while a bit confusing, would still work and would solve a lot of the traffic issues that happens at intersections like these, provided of course the Geometry made sense (which as Steven stated it doesn’t).

        2. There have been a bunch of roundabouts installed in the suburbs recently, and people there seem to have figured them out.

          1. Those ones have a much lower capacity.

            I specifically asked the CDOT project engineer about turbo roundabouts that are used in Europe (duh) that handle 30,000 cars per day. They are turbo in that they have multiple lanes with each lane having a single destination exit (most roundabouts have 1-2 lanes and you can exit to anywhere).

            I like the Hovenring idea:

        3. If people are turning left instead of going around or even driving over it entirely, the traffic circle is still performing its primary function – slowing down car traffic.

          1. Lol. I dislike traffic circles. I think neck downs (bumpouts) are a more aesthetically pleasing solution that has the same effect of slowing down traffic, but also decreases crosswalk distance (to the benefit of pedestrians, so they’re less exposed). Traffic circles don’t allow cars and bikes to be side by side if they’re able to proceed (straight) through the intersection simultaneously.

  3. The Damen/Eston/Fullerton plan is different from Lincoln/Lawrence/Western, which combines Lincoln and Western traffic through the intersection at Lawrence. Under the DEF plan, all three streets maintain their independence. What would be nice is if a smoother flow of traffic can eliminate the need for two travel lanes in each direction on all of these streets, and thus make it more bike and pedestrian friendly.

  4. I bike Elston everyday. As bike commuter for about 20 years, I am cautious but feel comfortable on my bike. Riding the same route everyday makes the commute somewhat predictable. I just rode thru Clybourn/Division last Friday night. Traffic was light but I was really observant and cruising as fast as possible to keep in the flow. There are some odd positioning points for bikers thru the intersection. I think the Elston fix would cost A TON of money and end up just slowing everyone down.
    I am not sure there is a benefit for anyone except for the workers on this deal. For bikers on Elston, you might see some advantage with the re route calming traffic. But what about those riding along Damen or Fullerton? With light timing, a cyclist might actually be riding next to faster traffic and we’ve actually added an intersection. What about those cyclists turning left or right to any of those streets? Left turns become interesting with the flow thru here as it is on Lincoln/Western. I occasionally take Lincoln to the loop and the Western intersection is for your “A” game!

    What about a simpler and cheaper move. Widen the intersections by a few feet on each side, repave and upgrade the area to eliminate the massively deteriorated asphalt, and maybe have 1 cycle of timed lights just for peds and cyclists. I have no idea if pressure sensors can be installed in the street for cyclists, but that could trigger the bike cycle when cyclists are present – no need to have this running in the dead of winter or in other “off riding” hours.

    We all need to share the road. No matter how much we hate cars and traffic, I sure as hell want an ambulance with a combustion engine on call if I need to get to a hospital! (and I want my pizza HOT AND FAST when it’s delivered!)

  5. This is more than a traffic project. This is a huge safety improvement, regardless of whether or not Tony understands why.

  6. I think we need to stop looking at this as a cars vs. bikes issue. Interesting to note that despite this entire conversation, transit isn’t even mentioned. The Damen (#50) and Fullerton (#74) buses are quite popular, and they have to sit in traffic with the cars. Improving travel flow will also help buses and improve connections with the Blue, Brown, and Red Lines nearby. It’s great that we’re making this city bike-friendly, but when it’s 20 degrees outside with 6″ of snow on the ground, transit will always have a far higher mode share than cyclists. I feel comfortable saying that we’re all here and following Steve and John’s blog because we’re interested in efficient throughput and travel throughout the city by all modes, not just cycle-centric.

    Furthermore, this isn’t just a local issue, this is a systemic perennial congestion spot that causes more congestion upstream and downstream. The Kennedy is less than a quarter mile south of this intersection, and delays regularly queue all the way onto the off-ramp. Yes, cars are bad, but queuing on an off-ramp is a serious safety issue.

    Logan Square is hardly a fitting parallel — and barely a parallel at all. Logan Square functions as a traffic circle with Milwaukee Avenue cutting through. There’s a lot more space for pedestrians and vehicles to circulate there than at the DEF. Drawing from the Logan Square comparison though, the new “infield” created by the proposed realignment of Elston can function as a plaza/park/meeting place, if appropriately designed and constructed. I plead ignorance though, I don’t know what the plans (if any) are for that space in the new design.

    1. There is no plan for the “infield” as the city won’t own it. The city will only acquire the land to build the new roads and sidewalks. The current owners will be the next owners.

  7. Steve,
    Whether you should reconsider your support for this project really comes down to whether you think it will improve modes such as transit, biking and walking…or hurt them. I suspect that you have come to the latter conclusion.

    And do we really believe that more capacity at Elston-Fullerton-Damen can exist in a vacuum? Or will added capacity there simply cause more jams at other intersections at which CDOT will continue its vicious cycle of further capacity increases?

    Is there never a line?

    I humbly submit that we should go in the other direction and make this section of road more like Lincoln Avenue or Clark Street. Those who prefer suburban road patterns, big boxes, and parking lots will still have oodles of choices available to them.

    P.S. More capacity was recently added to the Halsted Street Bridge over the North Branch–along with token concessions to pedestrians and cyclists–and the result has been a disaster. The new bridge and the areas to its north and south are now drag strips! Even with marked bike lanes I avoid the entire area because painted lines on the ground are little protection from an SUV cruising at 50 mph.

  8. From the many meetings I have gone to concerning this intersection, the main purpose was to improve safety not address congestion. I suggest that if you have a better idea, then you should suggest it. I definitely think Bike and pedestrian safety should be part of the plan. I have suggested that there be a cul -de-sac on the south side of Fullerton and old Elston

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