clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The most transformative ideas for Chicago transportation

Make no little plans

Davis Brody Bond LLP

While Chicago residents often deal with congestion and crowding, the city boasts one of the most robust public transit systems in the country. Reliable public transit is vital to maintaining the city’s economic growth and serves as a catalyst for new development and investment.

In recent years, the city completed a number of notable projects like the Navy Pier Flyover, 606 Trail, Chicago Riverwalk, Loop Link express bus lanes, and the separation of cyclists and pedestrians on the Chicago Lakefront Trail. But what about some ideas that would truly transform the way Chicagoans live, work, play, and get around?

Here’s a look at some of the boldest ideas pitched by transit organizations, developers, and the city. Have a suggestion for proposals to add to this list? Send us a message.

“The Skyline” gondola network

Davis Brody Bond LLP

Could a series of cable-strung gondolas someday dangle above downtown Chicago’s busy streets? If local businessmen Laurence Geller and Lou Raizin have their way, a $250 million network of aerial trams would shuttle tourists to Navy Pier, Millennium Park, and Wolf Point.

Dubbed “The Skyline,” the network would snake along the south bank of the Chicago River’s main branch while another arm would extend south along the lakeshore, connecting Navy Pier to Millennium Park. The Skyline could accommodate as many as 3,000 passengers per hour, according to its backers.

First pitched in 2016, the plan may seem like pie in the sky but Geller and Raizin claim to have already spent millions collaborating with planners, architects, and designers on the idea. In 2018, the duo said they were still working to make the transportation system a reality.

Elon Musk’s O’Hare Express

The Boring Company

Some planners say a dedicated O’Hare express tunnel from billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s The Boring Company is a terrible idea. However, it was a top priority for Mayor Rahm Emanuel made it a top priority of his second term in 2016.

The subterranean system would connect O’Hare International Airport to the Loop’s unused Block 37 superstation at speeds of up to 125 mph. Instead of utilizing standard-sized trains, the system would use smaller passenger pods that would ride on high-tech electromagnetic “sleds.”

Even with Musk’s claims that the tunnel will cost a mere $1 billion and will be completed with no taxpayer money, many remain skeptical of the plan—including incoming Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

O’Hare Global Terminal

Studio ORD

While Elon Musk’s tunnel seems less likely with each passing day, plans for a massive new terminal at O’Hare appear to be on track. Known as the Global Terminal, the 2.2-million-square-foot structure will offer twice the space of the old Terminal 2 building it replaces.

Designed by a team led by hometown starchitect Jeanne Gang, the project calls for spacious sky-lit arrival hall leading to new gates, concessions, public lounges, and improved security checkpoints. Construction is expected to begin in 2023 and wrap-up in 2028.

The terminal is the centerpiece of a larger $8.5 billion expansion and overhaul of the airport. Future improvements include a pair of satellite concourses, new on-site hotels, modernizing the Airport Transit System (ATS), and a game-changing western access point.

The Wild Mile

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

This mile-long eco-park looks to transform the polluted North Branch Canal just east of Goose Island into a place for the city’s pedestrians, cyclists, kayakers, and wildlife to exist in harmony. The Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed plan calls for a waterfront pathway between Weed Street and Eastman Street. A restoration of the river’s edge will create a habitat for native fish, birds, frogs, and even otters.

Since the man-made canal falls under federal jurisdiction, some red tape needs to be cleared up before permanent improvements like islands, aeration waterfalls, and public art fixtures can be installed. The first modular improvements including a floating pathway and tree planters are on track to arrive as early as summer 2019.

606 extension

Sterling Bay

Approved by the Chicago City Council in early 2019, developers Sterling Bay’s massive Lincoln Yards proposal was one of the most controversial projects to pass through City Hall in recent years, few can take exception to a popular element of the plan: an extension the 606 Trail beyond Bucktown and Lincoln Park.

The proposed extension will pass under the Kennedy Expressway (where Sterling Bay envisions a new skate park), past a new Clybourn Metra station, and finally across the North Branch of the Chicago River into Lincoln Yards proper. The project will not only be a major recreational amenity for residents but also help the developer attract corporate tenants to the 55-acre, former industrial site.

Work on Lincoln Yards is expected to start later this year, starting with new riverfront sports fields. It’s still unclear when the 606 extension will make its debut.

City of Chicago

Lake Shore Drive realignment

In the planning phase since 2013, an ongoing Department of Transportation plan to reimagine Lake Shore Drive would straighten out—and potentially bury—the road’s tight and dangerous Oak Street S-curve and provide better pedestrian access to revamped lakefront parkland, beaches, and trails.

With a price tag reaching as high as $500 million, the plan is hugely expensive and would require the cooperation of multiple local, state, and federal entities. Provided the massive undertaking is approved and funding secured, it will likely take many years to complete.

Right now, its organizers continue to collect feedback and evaluate options. According to a spring 2019 update, planners hope to settle on a final design and win approval by 2021.

The Paseo trail


Building off the success of the elevated 606 Trail, the city began planning a new recreational path for the abandoned BNSF railroad route between the city’s Pilsen and Little Village 2016. Dubbed the "Paseo," the biking and walking path will ultimately extend four miles across the lower west side.

The project will start construction at Sangamon between 16th and 21st Streets, and future improvements will extend southwest to 32nd Street and Central Park Avenue. While some residents welcome the new neighborhood amenities—and the development that will likely follow—others have expressed concerns about affordability and gentrification.

312 RiverRun

Epstein Global

This serpentine elevated pedestrian trail will extend the North Branch riverwalk from Richard Clark Park in the south up to California Park at its northern point. The plan, which has been in the works for years, was previously known as the North Branch Trail Addison Underbridge Connector. The new two-mile section of trail has been under construction since late 2017. It is on track to open in the summer of 2020.

One Central’s “Chi-Line” transitway

Landmark Development

One Central, an ambitious proposal to build over the train tracks west of Soldier Field, calls for a new transit hub between existing Metra, CTA, and Amtrak rail services. Also, the $20 billion project wants to utilize the sunken McCormick Place busway to create a new “Chi-Line” transitway connecting the development to the Museum Campus and Navy Pier.

The project’s Wisconsin-based developer is seeking a deal with Springfield in which the State of Illinois would buy the transit hub using the new tax revenue generated by the project. Landmark wants to start infrastructure work as early as 2020 and anticipates a three-year construction timeline for the transit center. The full One Central development could take more than a decade to complete.

Expanded water taxi service

Sterling Bay

Although some office workers already take advantage of Chicago’s water taxi fleet to commute around downtown, the service is poised for a major expansion along the Chicago River’s North and South branches in coming decades ahead.

New water taxi stops are included in several massive, multiphase megaprojects such as Lincoln Yards, The 78, the River District, and Riverline. The expanded network of bright yellow boats could redefine how Chicagoans move north and south in the future.

“Chicago Connector” transitway

Chicago Central Area Committee

In 2016, the Chicago Central Area Committee unveiled its ambitious Chicago Connector proposal: a 14-mile rail line connecting Navy Pier, Union Station, Ogilvie, the Old Post Office, Museum Campus, McCormick Place, and both the North and South branches of the Chicago River.

Although its backers failed to win a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the plan made a lot of sense from an urban planning perspective and its use of several existing right-of-ways.

One key component of the Chicago Connector still might become a reality. In 2018, the city moved to acquire a stretch of abandoned railroad tracks on Goose for use as a future transitway connecting downtown’s commuter rail hubs and upcoming North Branch development sites.

This post was originally published in September 2017 and has been updated to reflect the most recent information.