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Pain in Asphalt

A scheme so crazy it just might work

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For the first few months of their campaign, Michael Burton and his allies were stuck on the far fringes of local planning and politics. But now, to the amazement of city planners as well as themselves, they're attracting some attention with their proposal to "depave" Lake Shore Drive.

"I know there's a knee-jerk reaction against any idea that breaks the mold of conventional thinking," says Burton, a 35-year-old planner who helped organize the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront. "But I don't think this is that extreme. They've depaved highways in other cities. Most people would support us if they thought about it. It's just a matter of time."

The campaign is rooted in the bike riders' association Critical Mass, whose Chicago branch was formed in 1997. "We're far too disorganized to be a real organization," says Gin Kilgore, a 25-year-old cyclist. "Anarchists are more organized than we are." The members of Critical Mass like to take long rides--once aggravating city officials by riding on Lake Shore Drive--and they often meet to discuss things such as riding in the winter or riding on sidewalks, an issue that recently popped up in the papers when a couple of north-side aldermen proposed that the city impound the bicycle of anyone caught in the act on certain stretches.

"When bikers complain they usually complain about other bikers or joggers being rude," says Burton, who's also a member of Critical Mass. "They don't see the whole picture." Jim Redd, another Critical Mass member, says, "The real issue is that there are way too many cars in the city. Chicago wasn't designed for all the cars we have."

As Redd and Burton and other cyclists rode and talked, they decided that the city needed a major mind shift on matters of transportation. And they were impatient with slow, incremental progress. "It's just chipping away," Burton says. "They'll spend millions and millions of dollars to move the lanes of the drive from the east to the west of Soldier Field. And then they propose to build more lanes there as part of the new Bears stadium deal. What sense does that make? Part of the problem is that the planning process is so often controlled by developers, who have their own self-interests. The planners in the city will privately tell us, 'Oh, we're really with you.' But publicly they're reluctant to champion ideas that are bold. They're so cautious--they're afraid to upset the status quo."

Burton believes the city's planners need a major push from the public if the city is to truly encourage biking, bus and train riding, and other alternative forms of transportation--and thereby break the gridlock on the streets. "For a while last year Jim [Redd] and I thought of liberating Milwaukee--making it car free," he says. "But that didn't catch on. We realized that we had to do something big if we wanted to capture people's imagination. I started to think, What's an icon people care about? And it dawned on me--Lake Shore Drive. Let's get the cars off of Lake Shore Drive!"

He says it seemed like such an obvious idea he wondered why it hadn't been championed years ago. "We take the most precious piece of property in the city and devote it to eight lanes of automotive traffic. Does that make sense? Developers and planners like to talk about the best and highest use of land. Well, is that the best use of the lakefront? Wouldn't it make more sense to have it devoted to parkland? Wouldn't that increase the value of adjacent property? Wouldn't that make the city more livable? Aren't we always looking for ways to scale back pollution? People don't equate what they're doing with the effect it has on everything else, but, yes, there is a correlation. We have such public reverence for men like Montgomery Ward and Daniel Burnham, who worked hard to protect the lakefront from development. Keeping the lakefront free and clear is part of the city's legacy. I think when people put it all together they will support us."

Burton and Redd began raising the issue with fellow cyclists, who were overwhelmingly receptive. So last summer they took the next step, printing up T-shirts and creating a Web site (www.foreverfreeandclear.org). They also hosted bike rides to publicize the issue, and they argued their case during last summer's Bughouse Square debates. "At that debate we tried to be rational and clear," says Burton. "We pointed out that highways had been depaved in other cities, such as Portland, Milwaukee, and Toronto. We note that it's not just about bicycling, that we want people to start considering alternatives to driving. If we take up Lake Shore Drive, obviously more people will have to take buses and trains and other public transportation."

At the debate the idea generated some catcalls and jeers. "People came up with the usual comments, like 'Hey, I like driving there,'" says Burton. "We said, 'Well, if they had a road through the Grand Canyon, would you drive there?' See, people don't even know what we're missing. We've never even been allowed to appreciate it. We haven't even experienced it for what it is. Driving on Lake Shore Drive is like watching something on TV. It's not real. You feel you've been there, but you haven't. The way to experience it is to feel the grass between your toes or to feel the lake breeze on your face. It's amazing how little resistance we get when we talk to people this way. I think most people really do want cars off of Lake Shore Drive."

But a random survey of pedestrians near Buckingham Fountain found some very hostile opponents. "This has got to be the dumbest idea," said one Chicago resident who identified herself only as Pam. "First of all, it will never happen. And second of all, I don't want it to happen. People love their cars. People want to drive on Lake Shore Drive. This is so stupid. Why are you even talking to me about this? Why are you wasting my time?"

City officials are a little less hostile in their remarks. They acknowledge that Chicago was never created to handle the traffic it has, but they say it would be unrealistic to take away the drive given that there's so much traffic to handle. "There's no strong reason for eliminating any portion of Lake Shore Drive," says Brian Steele, spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation. "It is a critical artery into and out of the city. It contributes to a great deal of Chicago's world-class status. Eliminating it would have a pretty devastating impact on the city."

In what way?

"Anytime you eliminate a critical artery there will be negative economic impact," he says. "The inability of people to access the central city, the inability of people to get to parking garages that serve them in the daytime. I don't believe there will be any support for depaving."

Steele also says that critics such as Burton are overlooking all that the Daley administration has done to meet the needs of bicyclists. "Over the last ten years the city has invested millions of dollars in bike-path improvements that have achieved a lot of the goals that this group is trying to accomplish," he says. "As you probably know, Chicago is constantly regarded as one of the top cities for bicycling, and a lot of that has to do with our lakefront improvements. The Diversey bridge is a perfect example of that investment. The configuration of the old bridge was not the most user-friendly. So what did we do? We listened to the people, and we made the necessary changes. It's been straightened and widened."

Last spring the Campaign for a Free and Clear Lakefront organized and publicized a few bike rides, but the city didn't mention two of them in a pamphlet it printed promoting bike rides in May and June. Redd and Burton sent out a press release, and Mark Lawton wrote about it in his column for the Lerner newspapers. He quoted Ben Gomberg, the city's bike coordinator, saying, "We didn't feel a ride that talked about a car-free lakefront drive, which is not part of the city's plan and vision, is in the city's interest."

Burton took the snub as sort of a compliment. "The fact that they would want to suppress the idea shows that they don't want it to grow," he says.

Steele says that's an exaggeration. "The Critical Mass people submitted four ideas for bike rides, and we printed two of them," he says. "The other two we didn't feel were appropriate. So we didn't take all of their ideas, but we took some of them. That's what we do--we balance the needs and desires of all sorts of people."

Over the next few months, the campaign intends to come up with more specifics on its depaving plan. On August 14 at 6 PM, Burton and his allies will gather at the meeting house at Bicentennial Plaza, in the northeast corner of Grant Park, to hold a brainstorming session with an architect from Toronto who's designed other depaving schemes. "From there we will come up with a more concrete proposal," says Burton. "The short-term plan might be something as simple as reducing the lanes from Roosevelt Road to Ohio, just to give us more space in Grant Park. The longer-term plan could be something like getting rid of the whole drive. There's not even a consensus among bike riders on this. Some people want all the concrete landscaped. Others want the pavement to remain for cyclists. There's a lot of debate. But unlike the city, we're not afraid of debate."

Burton acknowledges that the plan is at best a long shot. "I know we have a lot of work to do," he says. "I have no delusions that it will happen tomorrow. Believe me, I have had people shake their heads and walk away when I raise this idea. I only ask that people have an open mind. It's cool to challenge people on these things and make them reason through why they value what they do. Real changes only come when people question their values and examine their views."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jon Randolph.

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