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Here’s to a prettier Lake Shore Drive — but traffic comes first

Updated: September 10, 2013 6:25AM

It’s brainstorming time for the rebuilding of Lake Shore Drive on the North Side. People are throwing out a variety of ideas, all for the good. But any final plan for a rebuilt Drive must begin with this simple reality: Its primary job is to move traffic.

We can wish that planners had taken a broader view back in the 1930s when the Drive was constructed. Incorporating a rapid-transit line would have been foresighted. Avoiding such a big separation of the city from the lakefront would have made life more pleasant for generations of Chicagoans. More space for bike and pedestrian paths would have been ideal.

Now we have a chance to improve the Drive and the city’s shoreline. Planners are in a brainstorming phase, and all ideas are welcome. But when people get the drawing boards out, the need for a good traffic flow feels mundane and often is underestimated. That’s a mistake. As a high-speed road, Lake Shore Drive is a big part of downtown Chicago’s economic engine, and we can’t afford to substantially lower its traffic capacity to make room for other uses.

South Lake Shore already has been rebuilt from 23rd to 67th streets. Now it’s time to redo seven miles on the North Side, from Grand Avenue to Hollywood. Construction is expected to begin in about five years.

Although it’s decades old, there’s a lot to like about the Drive. It’s one of urban America’s most scenic roads. And it’s nothing short of amazing how charming and active our lakefront is in spite of the multi-laned barrier we have erected along the shoreline. Often, traffic moves surprisingly well, at least until it comes to the bottleneck on the north end, where the Drive veers into a sea of high-rises at Hollywood and Sheridan Road.

But there’s also plenty not to like. The roadway originally was envisioned as a more placid boulevard. Many of the 22 pedestrian underpasses need a significant overhaul. In rush hour, traffic on exit ramps backs up onto the Drive, creating hazards. In many places, getting across the Drive for a bike ride or walk along the lake can be intimidating. Often, people who live or work near the lake just don’t bother.

So it’s clear that a world-class city should take advantage of this rebuilding of the Drive to make the lake shore ever more charming and successful.

Planners and citizens are talking about setting lanes aside for rapid-transit buses, lowering the speed limit, building separate paths for pedestrians and bicycles and even moving the shoreline farther out into the lake to make room for additional uses and keep waves from flooding the Drive during big storms.

Many of the ideas are intriguing. Lowering the level of the Drive in places to create wide pedestrian overpasses, for example, would help connect the city to its lakefront. Planners might consider tolls for peak hours, so that people who want to get downtown in a hurry pay a premium.

What we can’t do is draw up bucolic-looking renderings that fail to make room for all the cars the Drive accommodates now. Where is that traffic supposed to go? North Michigan Avenue and other north-south streets already are gridlocked at times. We have no plans to add freeway capacity elsewhere around town.

Some people have proposed making room for a rapid-transit line on the drive, which would reduce the need for driving. 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.

We all look forward to a rebuilt Lake Shore Drive that’s a better aesthetic fit with the lakefront. But it had better move those cars.

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