Reducing traffic capacity on Lake Shore Drive will not cause traffic mayhem

August 12, 2013 at 6:24 am

This past Friday, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an alarmist editorial regarding the Lake Shore Drive redesign (“Redefine the Drive”), which stated that the number one priority of Lake Shore Drive is, and shall remain, to move traffic. The editorial called plans to add a public transportation right-of-way and reduce the speed limit “intriguing,” then proceeded to state:

But before investing in the huge cost of rail rapid transit investment, we need extensive documentation that it would lure a large number of people out of their cars. We have not yet seen that.

Actually, there is research that proves public transportation can lure a large number of people from their cars. Public transportation is a more efficient way of travel when density permits, and as much as half of the people moving on Lake Shore Drive at any time are on a bus (despite not having any dedicated lane). Furthermore, research conducted in the UK (and follow-up research), which compared over 70 transportation projects worldwide, showed that reducing traffic capacity often did not cause the mayhem the media predicted – some traffic was shifted to other streets, some people took transportation instead, and some traffic just disappeared altogether.

Disappointed/upset that a newspaper would seemingly refuse to research the topic they wrote about, I submitted a Letter to the Editor, which was published, albeit not in full. Here is the full text I sent:

The Editorial “Here’s to a prettier Lake Shore Drive – but traffic comes first” argues there is not “extensive documentation that it [public transportation] would lure a large number of people out of their cars.” This is untrue. There have been extensive studies that have shown reducing traffic capacity to make room for public transportation, pedestrians, bicycles, or green space does not cause the traffic mayhem newspapers predict; rather, it reduces traffic.

One such study titled “Disappearing traffic? The story so far” [1] based on over 70 case studies worldwide shows that such alarmist predictions are rarely as bad as anticipated. We need not look further than recent examples in the US to find this is true: two weekend freeway construction projects in Los Angeles sparked fear of a “carmageddon” that never emerged. Even unexpected events that sever transportation links do not cause long-term mayhem. The Embarcadero freeway that collapsed after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was not rebuilt – and San Francisco is no more congested as a result. In fact, the waterfront is now open, with a surface boulevard and light rail. It’s a pleasant place to visit.

Lake Shore Drive is being redesigned with everyone in mind – not just auto traffic. All transportation projects should be built with moving people in mind, not traffic. Repurposing parts of Lake Shore Drive for bus or light rail are more efficient uses of space and will lead some people out of their cars, not cause more traffic. The evidence is in, and it proves that the alarmism exhibited in this Editorial is unfounded. Chicagoans and planners should recognize this and prioritize moving people, not just traffic, as the number one priority.