When Highway Designers Met Chicago (and Milwaukee)

The skyline is big and imposing in Chicago, so you might think the freeway interchanges would be too. But no. Though you'll find wide stretches, express lanes and plenty of traffic when you drive the Ike, the Kennedy or Dan Ryan through Chicago, the interchanges in and around downtown are mostly minor monsters. Instead of casting frightening shadows on the city landscape, they're often submerged or partially-submerged. The footprints are relatively small. And with the exception of the noxious Ohio Street connector, the ramps are shorter and do less disruptive snaking into city neighborhoods than you're likely to see elsewhere. I'd welcome confirmation (or not) from someone steeped in Chicago history, but in viewing freeways around the City of Chicago I see evidence of a typical story — "state DOT rolls overmatched city" — being rewritten. When the irresistible force of the state DOT met the immovable object of Daley machine (either one), the state heard the orders to "quit messing with our tax base" and had its engineers scale back its "grandest" highway visions.

In Milwaukee, a city served for years by "Sewer Socialists" not machine politicians has rarely held the cards necessary to prevail in such back-room negotiations. Aside from the deal that was struck to bring down the Park East Freeway stub in 1999 — when the state needed the full agreement of the city to access $241 million in contested Federal funds —  the city's main hope for stopping or limiting damaging freeway projects has been to take the struggles public. The results have been mixed and largely winner-take-all. Back in the 1970s, freeway opponents succeeding in stopping a proposed downtown loop (and extensions elsewhere in the city) before it made the city's jewel-like lake shore as ruinous as Cleveland's, but after the Park East success, city forces failed in their efforts to rein in the expansion of the already colossal Marquette Interchange and its many tentacles. A costly loss, it turns out.

To get an idea of how freeway design varies in the two cities just 85 miles apart, start with these Google satellite images. Both show interchanges that perform the same function — connecting two major highways near downtown—  both are shown at the same scale. Yet the Chicago interchange uses up about half as much land as the Milwaukee interchange, the aforementioned Marquette Interchange. Much as the "friendly confines" of Wrigley Field fit snugly between Clark and Addison streets and Sheffield and Waveland avenues, the Kennedy-Eisenhower interchange restricts itself to a box formed by the thoroughfares Halsted, Van Buren, Desplaines and Harrison. Although the interchange certainly depresses real estate values around it, its design at least recognizes the value of important surface streets and the city grid itself. To do this, highway designers must employ tighter, narrower loops and shorter ramps, which must be used at lower speeds.

The Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, by contast, opens up to accommodate more gradually sweeping ramps and bridges, prioritizing freeway speed ahead of concern for what happens on city streets and neighborhoods below. Seen at right, it treats the city grid as dispensable. Not surprisingly, whereas the Eisenhower-Kennedy interchange is treated as just another piece of infrastructure in Chicago, the Marquette looms over Milwaukee and is described by freeway supporters in mythic terms as shouldering a mighty load of metropolitan and state traffic (which turns out to be the not-so-impressive 4% of area trips on any given weekday). And Google is still showing the pre-rebuild interchange. Wait till the satellites (not to mention astronauts viewing with naked eyes?) get a view of the expanded Marquette.

In the meantime, here is how the Marquette now looks from the ground, St. Paul Avenue to be specific.

Where there was once city fabric like this...

...the traces of streets, blocks and property tax base have been completely erased, creating a condition the state DOT calls "roadside."

Look a little closer at ground level and you'll see how the contrasting approaches to in-city freeway design play themselves out in predictable ways. In fact, let's play a little game. I'll show two images of on-off ramps and you tell me which city each ramp calls home.

Let's try this again.

OK, is it as obvious to you as it is to me? At left, the ramps connecting the Kennedy Expressway with Adams Street in Chicago are short and narrow. As they approach Adams, they start looking and behaving more and more like regular city intersections, with tight corners that require cars to slow to a crawl before turning and aren't hard for pedestrians to cross. Although these short ramps are technically considered "functionally deficient" infrastructure because of their inability to move traffic at interstate speeds, the Illinois DOT simply reduces posted speed on this stretch of the Kennedy to 45 miles per hour so that merging can occur. The freeway flow is relaxed and drivers get a moment to enjoy the skyline views. The ramps in Milwaukee, meanwhile, are wide and sweeping and include design cues that suggest traffic should flow from the freeway and merge into city traffic, if the street signals are green or yellow. They're just another sign of how the re-designers of the Marquette have strived to "upgrade" the Marquette to "interstate highway standards" even those standards are optimized for rural areas where land is ample and cheap. As John Norquist says, the freeway inserts incompatible rural forms into the city to the city's detriment. Removing these forms unlocks tremendous value, which Milwaukee has seen after removing the Park East and seeing Fortune-500 Manpower locate its headquarters a block from the former freeway and Mandel Group break ground on the multi-phase North End on a freeway adjacent parcel.

Which brings up our last comparisons. Within a less than a block of the Kennedy, life in Chicago begins returning to normal and urban investment looks robust. In Milwaukee, the Marquette construction resulted in several buildings being removed and many ramps left buffers, berms and other undefined spaces more typical of exurban areas. Remaining buildings are more isolated from areas of intact urban fabric and redevelopment activity is more spotty, although it picks up in the Historic Thirds Wards where the priceless urban character would be even more valuable if I-794 had been turned into a boulevard.


Why the difference?

One reason that Chicago's Downtown ramps are smaller and less intrusive into the urban fabric is that Downtown property owners and merchants had enough clout, as they call power in Chicago, to force the Kennedy-Dan Ryan expressway to serve the downtown and not force downtown to serve the freeway. Chicago makes up more than 25% of Illinois while Milwaukee is about 10% of Wisconsin so WisDOT could more easily enforce their rural road standards on Milwaukee than IDOT could on Chicago.
It's interesting to note that almost all of the many interchanges along the Dan Ryan fit tightly against the freeway except one, the Ohio St. ramp which runs for half a mile from the Kennedy to Orleans St. in River North. The property along the Ohio St. corridor is degraded and of relatively less value than other streets connected by the other interchanges which were held within less than a quarter of a city block from the freeway. Like the overbuilt Milwaukee freeway infrastructure, the Ohio exit blights property along its whole length. Having reached the 40 year projected life of the Ohio ramp and of a bridge that carries it over the Chicago River, now is a good time for Chicago to consider bringing Ohio St. back to grade.

Regrettably, Chicago did, too

The Ohio feeder isn't the only interchange blighting Chicago's landscape. While the "Spaghetti Bowl," as Chicagoans call the Eisenhower/Kennedy (I-290 and I-90/94) interchange, is contained, the Dan Ryan (I-90/94) isn't. It's elevated south of downtown, between Roosevelt Road and roughly 31st St., overshadowing the South Loop, Chinatown and Armour Square neighborhoods; and its interchange with the Stevenson (I-55) is elevated above even the last row of U.S. Cellular Field's upper deck.

Sadly, these interchanges also killed electric interurban railroads whose continued existences would have made quite a difference in reducing today's VMT (especially when Cubs-Brewers games are on).

Construction of the Marquette Interchange and I-94 in Milwaukee was one of the final nails in the coffin for the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad, while construction of the Eisenhower (originally called the Congress Expressway) helped do in the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railway, whose right-of-way today is the Illinois Prairie Path.

As for knocking down the Ohio feeder? Now there's a great way for Mayor Daley to leave as lasting an impact on Chicago as he did with Millennium Park and as he hopes to do with the 2016 Summer Olympics.

What a difference a few years make

One of the more telling differences might be age -- and the influence of federal road design standards.

The Chicago Circle was planned by a city department, and even partly built, even before the Interstate Highway Act was signed (Encyclopedia of Chicago) -- which explains why so many of the ramps don't actually meet Interstate design standards. The Marquette Interchange, on the other hand, wasn't designed until after 1956.

Good thing that CNU and its members are working to change federal road design standards once again!

Marquette -- designed after 1956 and redesigned around 2004

Good research, PC. Apparently, the Chicago Circle has stayed relatively the same over its long life span, while the Marquette hews more closely to evolving "interstate standards." Its ramps got wider and curves broader with the 2000s redesign, bringing more rural-style transportation ideas into the urban space of the city.


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