A boulevard is the safest option when reconstructing Lake Shore Drive

April 13, 2014 at 6:32 pm

The recently-released draft Purpose and Need (P&N) statement from the North Lake Shore Drive (NLSD) reconstruction project has at least some issues that need to be fixed before a final version is released. As a guiding document for the reconstruction of the Drive from Grand Ave to the northern terminus at Hollywood, it must seriously identify all of the issues in more detail than it does now. The draft document currently has about four pages dedicated to improving the safety and mobility of drivers, but only a few lines dedicated to bus passengers and a further page for people walking and bicycling along the lakefront and the links to inland neighborhoods. IDOT is also using freeway-standard traffic analysis tools to study Level of Service, another metric that takes into account only car traffic when it comes to streets. Hopefully this and other issues with the current draft statement will be rectified.

I wanted to focus on this, for now:

Vehicle speed studies conducted at twelve locations along the length of NLSD for a 48-hour weekday period showed non-compliance rates with the posted speed limit (40 mph at the time of the study) of 78% in the southbound direction and 95% in the northbound direction, with most compliance occurring only during periods of heavy congestion.

I can faithfully assume that IDOT would want to raise the 40 mph speed limit in this case, since most drivers are exceeding it anyway. I have driven on Lake Shore Drive dozens of times and it feels like an expressway that can be safely driven on at 50 or 60 miles per hour. So what’s the problem with raising the speed limit?

[t]he Drive is a parkway that should conform to the following general roadway standards: lanes should be no more than eleven feet wide with additional width only at curves and other special locations; regularly spaced emergency pull-off bays should be provided rather than continuous paved shoulders and where continuous shoulders are needed, they should be specially treated; minimum width access ramps should be provided; and design speed should be 45 mph or 50 mph with speed limits set at 40 mph or 45 mph. The median should be developed with appropriate plantings. Protective barriers, where necessary to protect pedestrians, should be blended with landscaping”.

(Emphasis mine)

That paragraph is from the Lakefront Plan, which reflects the fact that the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection ordinance states that “no roadway or expressway standards…shall be permitted in the lakefront parks,” where an “Expressway means any primary highway constructed as a freeway which has complete control of access and is designed for speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour.”

Apparently, issues with crashing are also related to the fact that the barriers are too close to the edges of the lanes and leave no room for error, or room for vehicles to errantly leave the lane without hitting something. On northern portions of the Drive, there are fewer crashes because there are fewer barriers, despite speeds being generally higher.

Image: Google Maps.

Image: Google Maps.

Drivers can’t be trusted to drive on Lake Shore Drive at the posted speed limit, and any DOT’s go-to strategy – raising the speed limit to coincide with the 85th percentile – is forbidden. It’s also unlikely that there’s any room to expand the Drive for any significant length, even if it were permitted. What are they going to do?

I believe these factors make a strong case for converting Lake Shore Drive into a boulevard that does not feel like an expressway. In my opinion, Lake Shore Drive has already overstepped the Lakefront Protection ordinance by routing pedestrians and bicyclists under or over the Drive and damaging the lakefront parks with pollution of both the air and sound kind.

Lake Shore Drive as it exists just north of Fullerton. 100 ft in width.

Lake Shore Drive as it exists just north of Fullerton. 100 ft in width.

The only feasible way to reduce speeds and therefore improve driver safety is to take away the “expressway feeling” of the Drive by reducing its size. This should be done for the following reasons, among many others:

  • Give the 60,000+ daily bus riders on the Drive a dedicated lane in each direction and respite from congestion caused by drivers in single-occupancy vehicles.
  • Separate recreational or athletic trail users from those using it for transportation purposes by dedicating additional space for bicycles.
  • Convert what are currently tunnels and bridges to at-grade intersections, with shorter crossing distances thanks to fewer car travel lanes, and possibly removing need for most bridge maintenance by removing the bridges.
Quick Streetmix of Lake Shore Drive as a boulevard, with wide bike lanes, bus lanes with a center median, and two car lanes.

Quick Streetmix of Lake Shore Drive as a boulevard, with wide bike lanes, bus lanes with a center median, and two car lanes.

Two lanes for cars? Am I crazy? No. Lake Shore Drive is supposed to be a boulevard, not an expressway. Short of extensive automated speed enforcement, the only way to ensure that most people won’t speed (and therefore drive safely) is to make it feel more appropriate to drive the 40 mph speed limit, something that can be accomplished by reducing the width of the roadway. To accommodate turns, crossings, et cetera at intersections, the extra space provided by the removal of offramps would be more than sufficient. To accommodate the lessened capacity for cars, we offer better alternatives or introduce a per-mile-driven electronic toll (most of us have an I-PASS, right?) to weed out people who could use an alternate route. The P&N statement already cites heavy traffic backups at several entrances/exits, such as Belmont, as a problem. This is because you’re taking tens of thousands of vehicles and dumping them onto smaller city streets that can’t (and never should) be widened. Reducing the capacity of the Drive would also reduce the amount of drivers on streets further inland. As I’ve already written, this would not cause carmageddon.

Lincoln Memorial Drive along Milwaukee’s lakefront is a much more appropriate design. Image: philontheweb2001/Flickr

If Lake Shore Drive is reconstructed to the same expressway-like standard, potentially with wider curves and more room for “driver error,” it will fail to reduce the number of crashes and will not solve any problems that currently exist. Its design should be one that matches more closely the feeling of driving down a city street a mile or two inland. What it makes up for in less car capacity it will make up for in greater accessibility and safety for all users. We can’t make it wider and we can’t make it faster. We can only fix it by making it a slower boulevard.