Did You Know?

Although people of color make up about one third of the population, they make up 46.1 percent of pedestrian deaths.

New York City’s West Side Highway conversion

 As Chicago begins a long process to reconstruct North Lake Shore Drive, one of our city’s most iconic streets, the Active Transportation Alliance and a coalition of 15 civic organizations in the city of Chicago are calling for a bold vision to better meet the needs of everyone who uses the lakefront.

On Wednesady at 12:15 p.m. Active Trans will partner with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to give a lunchtime lecture about our vision to improve transit along the lakefront, build a people-friendly roadway and provide better access to our parks.

Leading up to that event, we’re working with guest blogger Ian Adams to share a series of stories of how other cities are rethinking their waterfronts. Please enjoy these examples from other cities, which we hope offer inspiration for how Chicago could better tap our lakefront’s full potential and transform our waterfront into a people-friendly place.

New York City’s West Side Highway conversion

If you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you know that space is at a premium. New York works to make the most of the space it does have and use it efficiently (think small apartments, tall buildings and a park on an elevated rail line).

West Side Highway in disrepair
Renovated West Side Higway area

For decades, the West Side Highway was an exception to this rule. Originally built in the first half of the 20th Century, the elevated highway ran along the West Side of the island, cutting off the interior of Manhattan from the Hudson River Shoreline.

The road deteriorated throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s and there was wide recognition that it needed to be replaced: the crumbling elevated highway had a tendency to flood in heavy rains and had low speeds limits because of its tight curves and narrow entrance ramps.

Sound familiar? Chicago’s North Lakeshore Drive has also reached the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. It too is plagued with high numbers of crashes and a large storm can send waves crashing down on the road and nearby Lakefront Trail.

Perhaps New York’s decision to use this opportunity to invest more in people-friendly infrastructure could serve as an example for Chicago.

The West Side Highway finally collapsed in December, 1973 under the weight of a heavy truck. This infrastructure sat unoccupied for years until its demolition was completed in 1989.

Rebuilding the elevated road came with a very high cost and lacked public support. Residents had grown accustomed to the West Side Highway being closed and the city was in dire financial straits. As a result, New York built a boulevard instead.

This new road was a much more balanced choice for the area. Although it maintained a major thoroughfare for vehicles, the design was safer and more aesthetically pleasing.

New York improved pedestrian access to the area and planted more trees and vegetation along the roadway. The city also built a bike path adjacent to the road.

In addition to all these improvements, the street proved much cheaper than rebuilding the elevated road and encouraged development in the area. By building a street with better bicycle and pedestrian features, New York invested in transportation options for all city residents. It focused on the best way to move people efficiently, not just the best way to move cars.

Chicago’s residents deserve a balanced approach to transportation investments as well. Over 100,000 people use the Lake Shore Drive corridor each day via public transit or bicycle.

This is in spite of the fact that buses are often significantly delayed in traffic and the Lakefront Trail is frequently overcrowded. If we improved these facilities with dedicated lanes for buses and expanded bike trails, thousands more would likely take advantage of this infrastructure as well.

For more on New York’s West Side Highway, please visit these links: