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Lake Shore Drive proposal: 35 mph speed limit, lanes for bikes, buses, trains

Rendering plan for lake Shore Drive. |  Thom Greene Greene   Proppe Design Inc.

Rendering of a plan for lake Shore Drive. | Thom Greene, Greene & Proppe Design Inc.

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Updated: September 7, 2013 6:24AM

State and city transportation officials Tuesday kick off three days of public hearings on how to overhaul North Lake Shore Drive, but a coalition of 15 civic groups has already proposed a dramatic reworking of Chicago’s famous scenic drive.

The “Our Lakefront” plan would reduce the speed limit from Grand Avenue to Hollywood from 40 to 35 mph; create bus-only or high-speed-rail lanes; construct a nearby lane for high-speed bicylists; reduce parking and add greenery.

The idea, say supporters, is to return Lake Shore Drive to the original vision conceived by city planner Daniel Burnham in 1909.

Lake Shore Drive was originally designed as “a boulevard. It was a pleasure drive early on,’’ said Lee Crandell of the Active Transportation Alliance, among the 15 groups that helped to write the “Our Lakefront” plan.

“It’s slowly turned into a freeway,’’ Crandell said. “We want it to feel like a boulevard.’’

Illinois Department of Transportation officials say the seven-mile-long northern end of the drive is 60 to 80 years old, an indication that it’s time to start thinking about rebuilding that portion of the drive. South Lake Shore Drive was rebuilt about a decade ago.

The seven-mile northern segment contains 22 bridges or viaducts, which may also be in need of repair, although IDOT assessments still have to be done on them, said John Baczek, IDOT project and environmental studies section chief.

Just rebuilding what’s there now would cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,’’ Baczek said. Planners hope to tap federal and local grants to pick up the tab for construction, which would start in 2019 at the earliest.

However, IDOT and the Our Lakefront Coalition agree that any LSD North plan also should address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who use that stretch of the drive and its surrounding areas every day. That includes commuters racing to work on their bikes, marathon runners in training, speed walkers, more leisurely bicyclists and slower-paced dog walkers and strollers.

Wendy Jaehn, executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association, which is part of the “Our Lakefront” coalition, jogs along that stretch of the lakefront daily.

“I’ve been clipped by bikers almost weekly,’’ Jaehn said. “There have been numerous citings of pretty severe conflicts. It could be runners clipped by bikers. Or someone stepping into the path of bikers and getting injured.’’

On Saturdays, Jaehn said, her organization has 1,500 runners jogging along the lakefront, usually running two-by-two for motivation, and consuming about half the biking/running path. Running leaders alert their followers to convert to single file when they see bikers headed their way, but even so, they’ve been “sworn at” and yelled at” by bikers, Jaehn said.

A frequent problem area is the narrow underpass areas that offer North Side neighborhoods walking or biking access to the lakefront. Cyclists are supposed to walk their bikes through some of those area, but sometimes don’t, Jaehn said. “Our Lakefront” plan would like to see those access points widened to alleviate congestion.

And, Jaehn said, although there is one special limestone running path as well as a biking path from most of Hollywood to North Avenue, there is only one path for walkers, bikers and joggers from North to Grand. That area in particular needs a dedicated high-speed bike trail, she said.

The “Our Lakefront” group hopes that reducing the speed limit to 35 mph will reduce LSD crashes, which now average three a day. Creating visual “cues,’’ such as more greenery, also would slow down traffic, Crandell said.

The high-rises that line North Lake Shore Drive create enough density to warrant a more extensive transit system, which is why “Our Lakefront” proposes dedicating some lanes of LSD to express buses, or bus rapid transit or even high speed rail, Crandell said.

To accommodate the growing number of cyclists, “Our Lakefront” advocates creating a bicycling-only area near north Lake Shore Drive. Slower-paced bicyclists and walkers would be funneled to a separate path closer to the lake.

“Our Lakefront” also proposes reducing parking areas along the lakefront; creating additional park land between Ohio and North Avenue; and addressing the spillover of the lake onto LSD south of Oak Street, perhaps with a landfill.

IDOT’s Baczek agrees that any north Lake Shore Drive plan should address all the needs of lake front and drive users.

“We have 70,000 people on buses; 70,000 to 150,000 driving cars; 20,000 using the trails, millions of visitors going to and from Lincoln Park,’’ Baczek said of the area’s daily usage. “We have a lot of needs out there that need to be addressed with a comprehensive solution.’’

IDOT and Chicago Department of Transportation hearings will be 6-8 p.m. Tuesday at Gill Park, 825 W. Sheridan; Wednesday in the atrium of Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson, and Thursday in the South Gallery of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2340 N. Cannon Drive.

As long as Chicago will be investing hundreds of millions of dollars on North Lake Shore Drive, it might as well “build it right,’’ Crandell said.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to build for the future,’’ Crandell said. “All options should be on the table.’’

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