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Then and Now: Bold Plans for Lake Shore Drive

For many Chicagoans, the scenic Lake Shore Drive along the coast of Lake Michigan is nothing more than an annoying stretch of traffic. But for residents in the area, it’s an important part of the neighborhood and community.

That’s why the Illinois/Chicago Departments of Transportation (IDOT/CDOT) are holding their first round of public meetings on August 6, 7, and 8 as part of their “Redefine the Drive” study. The study is phase one of a much larger reconstruction project for the highway.

So far, preliminary proposals have included anything from bus lanes and bus rapid transit to a speed limit reduction. The words “superhighway” and "tunnel" have been thrown around as well.

In light of these impending, long-overdue changes—some of the infrastructure is between 60 and 80 years old—it seems appropriate to take a quick look at its history. So sit back, grab a cup of coffee or tea and perhaps a fine spot to sit, read, learn, and most of all enjoy our newest “Then and Now” on Chicago's scenic Lake Shore Drive.


The Lake Shore Drive area's original usage dates back to 1882, when business mogul Potter Palmer convinced the city to build a new roadway in order to boost the property value of his lakefront home. For the next couple of decades, it was nothing more than a scenic boulevard, a lakefront path for carriage rides and strolls:

Lake Shore Drive in 1905

As the years passed and the auto industry’s stock began to rise in the early 20t‚Äčh century, this quaint lakefront path steadily expanded on both sides of the Chicago River to accommodate drivers in the growing city of Chicago. Events such as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 spurred even faster development to connect Jackson Park and Hyde Park to the downtown area.

By 1937, Lake Shore Drive—then known as Leif Erickson Drive—extended north to Foster Avenue and south all the way to Jackson Park. But it did not yet connect in the center. And so the famous double-level Link Bridge was built to form one continuous highway, along with the dreaded "S-curve":

Original "S-curve," photo by Charles Cushman, 1963

Lake Shore Drive did not earn its current name until 1946, and it was extended and reconstructed a number of times in the years after. In the mid 1940’s LSD was extended north to Hollywood from Foster; in 1970, Wacker Drive was extended east to meet with it and directly connect it to the downtown area; in 1982, the S-curve was reconstructed to soften the angle and to split north and southbound traffic around the Field Museum and Soldier field; and, in 1996 the split was eliminated with addition of lanes to the western side (the eastern side is now Museum Campus Drive).



Traffic on Lake Shore Drive

Today, Lake Shore Drive is primarily associated with beaches, museums, Bears games, and rush hour traffic. The communities around the historic highway want it to become more people-friendly, as it is a notoriously dangerous (and popular) road for pedestrians and bikers to be around.

In anticipation of the coming meetings for "Redefine the Drive," some organizations have already submitted ideas to the public. For example, the Active Transportation Alliance calls on the city to:

“Significantly improve the safety, reliability, convenience, accessibility, and comfort of all people traveling along the length of the lakefront” by redesigning lakefront entrances, adding bike-specific facilities, and utilizing placemaking and gateway planning to “enhance the identity and livability of Lake Shore Drive…”

Additional civic organizations have lent their ideas or support in anticipation of the meetings, including the Metropolitan Planning Council, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Friends of Downtown, and Friends of the Parks.

So what should it become—superhighway, tunnel, boulevard, or something else in between? Share your thoughts in the upcoming public meetings and in the comments below! 

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