The Ghost Highways of Chicago: The Crosstown Expressway & The Lake Shore Expressway

Like all major cities in the United States, expressways cross the City of Chicago on all sides. One trick that traffic reporters use to remember what each road is called is to stick your right hand out, extend your fingers and turn it so that your pinky is on top. From this vantage point the fingers on your hand represent the following named roads;

Pinky - Edens Expy (I-94)
Ring - Kennedy Expy (I-90/94; I-190)
Middle - Eisenhower Expy (I-290)
Index - Stevenson Expy (I-55)
Thumb - Bishop Ford Fwy (I-94)

But even this doesn't tell the whole story, as it leaves out the nameless I-57, which usually is discussed once the expressways on the hand have been mentioned, and the Chicago Skyway, which is almost never mentioned on traffic reports other than when there's an incident on the road.

Still, two other highways were proposed to be integral parts of the City's road infrastructure, and these roads are the subject of today's blog.

Crosstown Expressway:

Quite possibly the most famous unbuilt expressway in Chicago, The Crosstown has been planned as various facilities since Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan of Chicago.

“Model for Chicago... Where the Crosstown Expressway Would Be Built. View of Midway Airport in Corner.” Chicago History Museum. HB-31407-G. Image:

The proposal that came closest to reality would have had the expressway run from the current Junction (where the Edens and Kennedy split for you non-Chicagoans) on the north side, along a railroad right-of-way, in fact the same one I proposed a bike path in last week, down to Midway Airport, then veering left at the Belt Railway of Chicago's yard in Bedford Park, heading east around the 75th St area before meeting up again with I-94, now as the Bishop Ford, which is the route I have mapped below.

While it was proposed to become I-494, there's no reason it couldn't have split up the I-90/I-94 combo for the Kennedy and a good portion of the Dan Ryan, but in any case, renumbering roads is an entirely different discussion.

This proposal for The Crosstown was proposed in the 1960's, and this coincided with a growing skepticism regarding urban freeways. Even the best proposals for the road would have required thousands of housing units be demolished to make way for it.

Image: "Chicago Plan Commission Proposed First Stage Expressway Development Plan (1943)" via Eric Fischer

Whether or not the road would be built was a pivotal issue in the 1972 Illinois Gubernatorial Election, in which anti-Crosstown Democrat Dan Walker narrowly beat incumbent Republican Richard Ogilvie.

So what would the Crosstown, if it was built, look like? It would likely have had fewer interchanges than the Kennedy, and allow for traffic to bypass downtown. I could guess interchanges coming from the north would be at North Ave, I-290, Ogden Ave, I-55, somewhere near Midway, 67th St, Western Ave and Halsted St, before ending at the Dan Ryan.

Would the Crosstown even have had a positive impact on traffic flow? While I'm not an engineer, I think if you look at other urban expressway proposals that have been built, and their impact on traffic, it's safe to say that it would have a very positive effect on downtown traffic, especially on the Kennedy.

But that's pretty much where the positives end. The Crosstown would likely have moved the congestion backups from the center of Downtown Chicago to the Junction, where three interstates would condense to two, where traffic is already horrendous. Additionally, both I-55 and I-290 would have choke points at their interchanges as well.

I should note that The Crosstown is not completely a dead project. In fact, proposals using similar rights-of-way to the project such as the Mid-City Transitway, and a Toll Highway have been proposed as late as 2007. But I would not hold my breath that any freeway project will be built in the area anytime soon, as any proposals are sure to face local opposition, funding concerns, and environmental impacts.

Stony Island Expressway/Lake Shore Expy:

While local opposition was the ultimate killer of the Crosstown, there existed yet another expressway proposal within Chicago's city limits. This one is much older, and unlike The Crosstown, not only were small parts of it built, they exist to this day.

Before the freeway network was built in Chicago, the arterial roads were the only way to get around. And unlike today, many arterial roads in Chicago carried numerical designations. In the case of Stony Island Ave, it along with the Calumet Expy (today's Bishop Ford Freeway) was designated as ALT-US-30. 

Source: USGS 1953 Calumet Lake Topographical Map

All traffic on the Calumet was routed onto Stony Island Ave, as the Bishop Ford hadn't been built yet. A proposal in the 1950's had Stony Island Ave become an expressway, and thus the Stony Island Feeder Ramp was built.

No longer numbered, Stony Island Ave is nonetheless still a large arterial road on the South Side of Chicago.
Built as ALT-US-30 to move traffic from the Calumet Expy onto the Stony Island Expy, it would have replaced Stony Island Ave as an arterial road up to about 57th St, and turned east to connect to Lake Shore Dr, which itself was proposed to become a full expressway as part of this proposal. This freeway was proposed to become I-494, but when that number was moved over to The Crosstown, this was proposed to become I-694. [6/16/20 Note: I can't validate this was ever an IDOT proposal, but that didn't stop Mr. Neil Gale from using this information on his blog.]

Another ghost of this expressway exists as well. The Chicago Skyway's interchange with Stony Island has two large flyover ramps, which seems odd for an arterial roadway, and that's because they were originally designed to connect to Stony Island as an expressway.

Image: Google Street View at 79th St & Stony Island Ave
Much like The Crosstown, The Stony Island Expressway would have had problems of its own with land acquisition. Although Stony Island Ave is wide and could support an expressway (without getting into how that would affect the local neighborhood), the project would have had trouble connecting to Lake Shore Dr, as it would run right through Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance, and the Museum of Science and Industry. It was thus canceled in 1959, and traffic was routed onto the Bishop Ford Fwy instead.

Yet another ghost, if built entirely, would have connected the Kennedy Expy with the Lake Shore Expy, creating an inner belt of traffic around The Loop; The Ohio Street Feeder, which is currently built as 3 lanes in each direction from the Kennedy to just past the Chicago River, about 1 mile in each direction.

Image: Nathan Holth

The center of this project, Lake Shore Dr as a full freeway has been a non-starter every time that it has been proposed to be upgraded. But it is nonetheless still being proposed to be reconstructed, but part of this newest plan would involve adding more beach are to the Lakefront, as well as smoothing out the Oak Street curve, which currently reduces traffic to 25 mph.

It's almost certainly for the best that neither The Crosstown nor the Stony Island/Lake Shore expressways were built, for the fact that urban freeways displace communities, are inherently more expensive than freeways in less dense areas, don't really improve travel times (if at all), and have environmental impacts as well.

As this blog was on simply the proposals of the roads themselves, I specifically chose not to delve into these topics, but that doesn't mean these issues don't exist; much has been written on the negative impacts of urban freeways, as well as the history of the roads that have been built in Chicago, and how they were built along racial lines, and accelerated white flight outside cities.


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