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Curious City

Seeing Red: What’s Up With That Stoplight On North Lake Shore Drive?

Stuck in traffic on North Lake Shore Drive after a long day working in the south suburbs, Erik Wood said he faced a problem that he’d love to eliminate if he ever had the power. The problem? The lone stoplight on North Lake Shore Drive near Chicago Avenue that slows the commutes of hundreds of thousands of drivers every day.

“If I were mayor of Chicago, it’s one of the things I would destroy immediately,” Wood said of his budding political platform.

This single stoplight has inspired a number of questions from Curious City fans who, like Wood, were presumably trapped in traffic thanks to this light. Those questions included: Does the light at LSD and Chicago Ave. cause or prevent more traffic? Others, like Wood, wanted to know why the stoplight operates during the evening rush hour and not during the morning rush hour.

From 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. the Chicago Avenue and Lake Shore Drive intersection is blocked off with traffic cones, and the stoplight is programmed to stay green and keep traffic flowing on outer Lake Shore Drive. (Paula Friedrich/WBEZ)

Funny enough, city officials have asked their own questions about the stoplight. They’ve come up with proposed changes, but you might be waiting in traffic for a while.

A closer look at North Lake Shore Drive’s single stoplight

The light allows northbound vehicles to exit North Lake Shore Drive at Chicago Avenue. It also allows vehicles to enter North Lake Shore Drive from Chicago Avenue. The stoplight switches from green to yellow to red all day except from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., when it stays green for vehicles on North Lake Shore Drive and the Chicago Avenue exit is blocked off with traffic cones.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intersection at Lake Shore Drive and Chicago Avenue snagged an “F” grade for the “level of service” it provides during the evening rush hour, according to a 2014 report by state and city officials.

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City officials say that while the stoplight causes headaches for evening commuters on North Lake Shore Drive, it helps people drive to and from nearby universities and hospitals, which you can see in the map below. City officials say access for ambulances is not a factor in keeping the exit open, but these organizations face traffic problems when the stoplight remains green throughout the morning rush, the 2014 report found.

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The stoplight also helps people who work in the Streeterville area get home, says Jeffrey Sriver, who heads planning and programming for the Chicago Department of Transportation.

But if the city can essentially close the intersection in the morning and keep traffic flowing on North Lake Shore Drive, why not do the same during the evening rush hour?

Nearly 900 vehicles use the Chicago Avenue intersection on weekdays between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., so shutting it down means nearby entrances and exits at Grand and Michigan avenues would see more traffic, Sriver says.

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City transportation officials have proposed eliminating the stoplight by creating a flyover and ramps at Chicago Avenue, the kind of ramps seen at most exits and entrances off of Lake Shore Drive. The proposal, called Redefine the Drive, would require an expansion of the area with landfill to make room for the ramps and a park.

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But completing this project will take some time. The planning process is expected to finish in 2020, and the actual construction might not wrap up until 2040, Sriver says.


When we brought these answers to Erik Wood, he seemed less than thrilled.

“Oh great, so by the time we have flying cars and teleportation, the city will have fixed the Chicago Avenue problem on Lake Shore Drive, which we won’t have to use anymore,” he said.  

Wood said the city’s rationale for the stoplight — that it helps universities, hospitals, and people who work and live downtown — doesn’t make a lot of sense in a broader context.

“The city is sacrificing people who live and work in neighborhoods, from Old Town to Evanston, for a very small population that lives and works in Streeterville,” he said.

About the question asker:

Courtesy of Erik Wood

Erik Wood, who is an auditor for a public accounting firm, grew up in west suburban Villa Park, which he likes to remind people is “home of the Ovaltine factory and Portillo's.”

When he lived in Chicago, he frequently traveled on Lake Shore Drive for work. He now lives in Des Moines, Iowa, where he says “the traffic is much better.”

Monica Eng is a reporter at WBEZ. Write to her at meng@wbez.org or follow her on Twitter @monicaeng.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said southbound vehicles could exit North Lake Shore Drive at Chicago Avenue. Only northbound traffic on North Lake Shore Drive can exit at the Chicago Avenue intersection. This article has been updated. 

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