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What's up with the crazy left-hand merges on the Kennedy downtown?
May 7, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Have you ever done a column on the death-defying left-hand merges into the fast lane on the expressways downtown? I've been wondering about the logistics and safety of them since I moved here. 

— Stefanie, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

This shows you the sad fate of the highway planner, whose efforts nobody appreciates. Remember, the Chicago expressway system was designed more than 50 years ago, during an era of great technological and sociopolitical progress. The U.S. had emerged from World War II affluent and secure, setting aside the chance of global nuclear war. Antibiotics had conquered disease. Wholesome foods such as Velveeta and Spam were enabling people to live longer than ever before. And for what? So we could end our tedious, risk-free existences shriveled up like raisins on some veranda in Boca Raton. How fulfilling is that? So Chicago highway planners came up with a bold alternative: left-hand merges on the Kennedy, which offered the prospect of a short, exciting life.

Boy, did it work. In 2007 (the latest year reported), 433 crashes with 48 injuries occurred in the roughly one mile stretch from the Circle interchange to Hubbard's Cave.  I hesitate to say this makes it more perilous than, say, the Oak Street S-curve on Lake Shore Drive, another triumph of the highway designer's art. However, an average of better than an accident a day suggests a lively driving experience. Add to that the fact that the Circle interchange routinely shows up on lists of the top ten worst traffic bottlenecks in the U.S. (think about it: 433 accidents a year when the average speed is 11 miles per hour). Sure, that one-lane mountain road in Bolivia with no guardrails and a 2,000-foot drop is scarier, but you'll go down there maybe once. The Kennedy you can do every day.

Connoisseurs may disagree, but in my opinion for maximum entertainment value you can't beat the North Bypass, as I call it, the object of which is to get from the West Loop to Michigan Avenue alive. Departing our base camp at Adams and Desplaines, where we have prayed at Old St. Patrick's Church for a safe journey or, failing that, a quick and merciful death, we head west on Adams, then turn right on the northbound on-ramp to enter the JFK. The descent begins uneventfully. This is deceptive. At the bottom we abruptly realize that (a) we must now merge into the fast lane; (b) we have no acceleration lane in which to do this; and (c) because we're still on the ramp, we can't see what's coming worth squat. Furthermore, we face the possibility that (d) the mope in front of us, having arrived at the same realization, has come to a complete stop, meaning we must slam on the brakes, then accelerate from zero to 50 in front of hurtling vehicles that, due to the aforementioned ramp and lack of an acceleration lane, can't see us.

That's just the beginning. In order to exit at Ohio Street, a mere three-quarters of a mile distant, we must shift four lanes right, cutting in front of numerous weaving semis, delivery trucks, and other traffic, partly while on a narrow, noisy curve going through a long, dimly-lit tunnel. Is it any wonder we arrive at our destination with white knuckles, pounding pulse, and a renewed sense of the preciousness of existence? Do we not think with 100 percent sincerity, It's great to be alive? Whereas the pampered inhabitants of other parts of the universe are probably worried they don't have enough quarters to feed the meter. OK, we have that problem too. Just saying it makes you appreciate is all.

How exactly did the designers of the Kennedy arrive at the present unique configuration? The original engineers are long gone, but based on inquiries the reasoning appears to have been as follows:

  • If every downtown cross street has its own ramp(s), we will thereby engender more efficient traffic flow, since getting to and from the expressway from anywhere in the Loop will be pretty much a straight shot.

  • If we have all the on- and off-ramps on the right side, this will produce a degree of craziness that even thrill-starved Chicagoans won't be able to tolerate.

  • Therefore, we'll put exits on the right and entries on the left. We might, of course, have put exits on the left and entries on the right, which would have had the advantage of merging highway-bound traffic into the slow lane rather than the fast one, but what's the fun in that?

Enjoy it while you can. The nanny-state attitude that has infected so much of our society has now reached the Illinois Department of Transportation. According to IDOT planner Ken Eng, construction on the following alleged improvements is set to start this summer:

  • The "ramp stubs" (they look like little ski jumps) left over from previously removed entrances will be demolished, and the space used to provide acceleration lanes for the northbound entrances at Adams and  Madison and the southbound entrances at Madison and Randolph.

  • The southbound exits at Adams and Jackson will be combined — the ramp will split once you're out of the main flow of traffic. This is supposed to reduce the weaving that's as close to Indy car driving as most of us will get.

  • The northbound exit at Monroe will be eliminated (more weaving reduction).

  • The southbound fast lane, which now terminates inexplicably south of Jackson, will be reconfigured so that it's continuous, with the slow lane terminating instead.

How dull. Soon our only source of transportation adventure will be the Blue Line, and even that's not the caravan of terror it used to be. But look at the big picture. The most riveting moment in the typical Chicagoan's life is still opening the property tax bill — and you know they're not going to do anything about that. 

— Cecil Adams

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