Lost on the Dan Ryan

February 21, 2012

Listen to John Schmidt talk about street signs on Eight Forty-Eight

We've been having some fun recently with the technicalities of Chicago street names. Yet sometimes it's important to be precise. Take the matter of our busiest expressway.

Driving north on the Dan Ryan from the Skyway junction, you encounter a series of overhead signs directing you to the express lanes. The signs warn that if you enter the express lanes, your next exit is 22nd Street.

Chicago doesn't have a 22nd Street.

The city had a 22nd street until 1933. Then Mayor Anton Cermak was killed, and the name was changed to Cermak Road. In some of the western suburbs it's still called 22nd Street. But those towns are at least ten miles away from the Ryan.

Okay, most of the streets crossing the Ryan have numbers for names, so using "22nd Street" is just following that pattern. Right?

Except--Roosevelt Road isn't called "12th Street," and Pershing Road isn't called "39th Street." Only Cermak Road has its name discarded. (Is there some anti-Bohemian prejudice at work here?)

Things get nuttier as you head further north. Now you come to Exit 53. The sign there reads: "Canalport Avenue-Cermak Road."

They finally put Cermak on a sign, and they've still made a mistake! When you get to this exit, you've already overshot Cermak, and have to backtrack three blocks to find it. It would make more sense to call this exit "18th Street." That's the major cross-street.

So what's the reason for all these misleading signs? It's actually very simple--somebody messed up when the Ryan opened in 1962, and the city never corrected it.

Expressway signs are pretty big, but they can be changed. Until 1968, the next-to-last exit on the Stevenson was labeled "South Park Way." When the street was renamed for Dr. King, the old exit signs were quickly replaced.

The Ryan was rebuilt a few years ago, and all the overhead signs were temporarily removed. That would have been the time to correct the mistake. I still can't figure out why it wasn't done then.

Most drivers on the Ryan don't care about these signs because they don't need them--from experience, they already know where to get off. That's not the case with tourists or other drivers who aren't familiar with the Ryan. Nobody knows how many people have gotten lost following these bogus signs.

The Ryan is an interstate highway, so the signs may be the responsibility of the federal government. Since we have a South Sider in the White House--and his former chief of staff as mayor--ii should be easy to get a few signs fixed. 

After 50 years, it's time to make things right.

And if you know of any other misleading signs around town, post them in the "Comments" section.