If you’ve ever driven the Kennedy Expressway to O’Hare—or to the far Northwest Side—you know about this bottleneck. You sail through the Edens junction, and suddenly everything comes to a screeching halt. Traffic crawls along for the next few miles, until you pass Harlem Avenue. Then the highway opens up again.
Why does this happen? It all goes back to the original design.
In the 1950s, when Chicago’s expressways were being built, they were geared toward moving traffic to and from the center of the city. Crosstown travel was rarely factored into the planning. Therefore, there was no ramp from the inbound Edens to the outbound Kennedy. Likewise, there was no ramp from the inbound Kennedy to the outbound Edens.
The Kennedy-Edens junction was complicated enough, with three railroad lines and busy Cicero Avenue right there. Building two additional ramps would involve additional land clearance and be wildly expensive. Therefore, the planners didn’t bother with them.
During the 1960s, a Crosstown Expressway was proposed as an extension of the Edens south along Cicero. This meant that a full Kennedy-Edens interchange would be built. But the Crosstown was never constructed, and the Kennedy-Edens junction remained as it was.
So today, if you’re on the inbound Kennedy (I-90) and want to access the outbound Edens (I-94), you drive through the junction and take the first exit at Keeler. Then you turn left on Keeler, drive under the Kennedy, and take another left up the next ramp. Now you’re on the outbound Kennedy, and can get to the Edens.
You can follow the same procedure going from the inbound Edens to the outbound Kennedy—drive through the junction, then use the Keeler exit/entrance maneuver. But most drivers follow a different route.
Want to get from the inbound Edens to the outbound Kennedy? Exit at Cicero-Foster, then drive west on surface streets. After a mile or so you can get on the outbound Kennedy at Foster, or at Nagle-Bryn Mawr.
Now you have all this traffic getting on the outbound Kennedy at Foster, and at Nagle-Bryn Mawr. Meanwhile, there’s a significant curve in the expressway that slows things down in the stretch between these two entrances. Result—a three-mile jam back to the Edens junction.
So, how to solve this mess?
1—Eliminate the Sayre exit. This exit was actually meant to serve Talcott Avenue, which was Illinois Route 62 when the expressway was constructed. The exit is little used today, and is only a few hundred feet from the Harlem exit.
2—Build segregated acceleration/deceleration lanes along the outbound Kennedy between Nagle and Harlem. There’s lots of space for them, though the greenery would have to be sacrificed.
I’m not a traffic engineer, so I don’t know if this is the best solution to the problem. But the present arrangement sure isn’t working.