Unbuilt Highways

Chicago: The Crosstown Expressway
How we get from here to there.
Dec. 23 2010 2:58 PM

Unbuilt Highways

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The Crosstown Expressway—akaI-494—was to have run west on 75th Street, then northward along Cicero Avenue to the Kennedy Expressway. With 30,000 housing units slated for demolition, the Crosstown was the first highway to be successfully resisted in Chicago. As the Encyclopedia of Chicago notes, "community protests over the loss of housing and businesses, which a decade earlier might have been ignored, now coincided with growing environmental concerns, national doubts about urban expressways, and a changing political landscape in Illinois."

By the late 1960s, the road's backers were clearly aware of the political sensitivity of the project—for Chicago highways like the Dan Ryan often had thinly veiled agendas of spatial politics (i.e., using highways to promote social jerrymandering by race or class)— and worked to position the Crosstown as part of a "new approach to highway planning," one that made the "freeway a positive factor in all aspects of community development." As the city's commissioner of public works, Milton Pikarsky wrote, in a paper optimistically titled "Chicago's Crosstown Expressway: Mod-Highway for Urban America": "Can we make the expressway a neighborhood asset, a linear community center that provides community facilities, stimulates community improvement, increases property values?"

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Proposal for Crosstown Expressway
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There was something of a paradox in the planners' arguments. While Pikarsky promised the Crosstown would reduce peak-hour jams downtown by "some 50 percent," he also argued that not building it would mean more misery for Cicero Avenue and other "streets that would otherwise continue to show increases in traffic load every year." So while the planners were confident in their ability to manage traffic downtown, they declared themselves helpless to do anything about Cicero Avenue. This recalls the classic "predict and provide" feedback loop of traffic engineering: Highways must be built to accommodate the "natural" rises in traffic volumes, engineers argue, neglecting the idea that the highways themselves are not neutral in helping to foster that demand.

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.