Former Chicago Transportation Chief John LaPlante, 80, Dies, Had COVID-19

John LaPlante
Former Chicago transportation chief John LaPlante, above, championed safe biking and safe streets locally and around the world. Courtesy of Leslie LaPlante
John LaPlante
Former Chicago transportation chief John LaPlante, above, championed safe biking and safe streets locally and around the world. Courtesy of Leslie LaPlante

Former Chicago Transportation Chief John LaPlante, 80, Dies, Had COVID-19

Longtime transportation leader and bicycle advocate John LaPlante, 80, died Saturday. He had tested positive for COVID-19 less than two weeks earlier, according to his family and church.

LaPlante’s daughter said he had returned from a trip to Egypt and Jordan with his wife, Linda (who has subsequently tested negative), in late February and fell ill shortly afterward.

“He bicycled and traveled the world and was one of those 80-year-olds where people said, ‘You’re really 80?’” said his daughter, Leslie LaPlante. “But it came fast and hard. And it was a big shock.”

On Sunday, LaPlante was remembered by family and friends as a loving dad, husband and member of the Unitarian Church of Evanston.

“He was one of the most beloved members of our congregation and community,” said UCE Acting Senior Minister Eileen Wiviott. ”He had the biggest, most generous heart.”

In other circles, the former acting commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation was known as a mentor, visionary and advocate for city streets that could accommodate more than just cars.

“He’s a great example of a traffic engineer who really got it when it came to sustainable transportation,” said John Greenfield, a transportation columnist and the editor of Streetsblog Chicago. “He wasn’t worried about cramming as many cars onto the road as possible, but rather in having aesthetically pleasing cities and [accommodating] all road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists.”

In fact, LaPlante wrote what are considered the bibles on these subjects, the AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) Green Book and Bicycle Guide and the AASHTO Pedestrian Guide.

Still, to others, LaPlante is known as the man who took the fall for the great tunnel flood of 1992. The transportation engineer had worked for the city for more than 30 years — including on the team that straightened out the dangerous Lake Shore Drive “S” curve. In 1991, Richard M. Daley named him acting commissioner of the newly formed Chicago Department of Transportation. City officials had been warned of a breach in a tunnel near the Kinzie Street Bridge, but LaPlante said he received mixed advice. The leak ended up flooding basements in much of the Loop.

He was fired for the city’s response. At the time, the Chicago Tribune quoted his resignation letter: “I realize that the Kinzie St. tunnel collapse is a massive disaster for the city of Chicago…However, tunnel technology is not within my area of expertise and I received conflicting and poor advice on how bad the situation actually was and how best to correct the problem.”

The Tribune also noted: “LaPlante’s forced resignation stunned former coworkers and professional peers, who described him as competent, honest and professional.”

LaPlante left his city position in April 1992 but started in private practice that same year at T.Y. Lin International, an engineering firm where he became director of traffic engineering. He would spend the next three decades working on transportation issues and as an advocate for the concept of “Complete Streets,” described as streets “designed and operated to enable safe access for all users … of all ages and abilities,” according to the National Complete Streets Coalition.

After retirement, the avid bicyclist continued to advocate for sustainable transportation and helped other cities design bike lanes. His daughter, Leslie LaPlante, said he was planning to attend the Institute on Transportation Engineers conference in New Orleans this summer.

Sunday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued the following statement:

“John LaPlante’s passing reminds us all of a turning point in the transportation life of our city. He was a passionate public servant who helped bring CDOT to life nearly three decades ago. In the next phase of his career, he worked to extend Chicago’s transportation legacy into the 21st century. While John may be gone, his impact in moving Chicago forward can be seen in the streets, sidewalks, alleys, and bike paths that line every corner of our city.”

LaPlante’s daughter said her father was born in 1939 in Roseland and attended Fenger High School. He went to college at Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University, and started work with the city shortly after returning from the Air Force.

His pastor Eileen Wiviott said she will remember LaPlante as a generous man who biked to church well into his 70s, and often led the congregation in song.

“He loved folk music Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Ric Masten — and playing it for us on his guitar,” she said. “I remember going caroling with him and other members of the church. … He had this way of singing and telling stories and being vulnerable and open, and just … connecting with people.”

John LaPlante is survived by Linda, his wife of 58 years; daughter, Leslie LaPlante; her husband, Tim Decker; and grandchildren Elias and Sara.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Write to her at meng@wbez.org.

Correction: John Greenfield is the editor of Streetsblog Chicago, not Streetsblog.com.