Three ways Chicago could have avoided the perfect storm on Lake Shore Drive
As we dig out from one of the three worst blizzards ever recorded in Chicago, recriminations are swirling about last night's debacle on Lake Shore Drive that left hundreds stranded. It's time to start clearing the air on the incident so that we might avoid a repeat, starting with the inescapable fact that there's plenty of culpability to go around.
When I drove into the Loop from the North Side via Lake Shore Drive yesterday morning, I wondered how bad the evening commute might get as an idiot in an SUV swerved across three lanes to cut in front of me and make it to an exit two seconds faster. That night, it got really, really bad, probably worse than anyone this side of Roland Emmerich imagined it would.
But most of the drama and the trauma could have been avoided. Here's how, in three clean steps:
1. Drivers could have taken more personal responsibility. Media reports repeatedly warned against hitting Lake Shore Drive after the blizzard began. You'd have to work under a rock not to have heard those warnings. It was water cooler chat in offices across the Loop, judging by my Twitter feed. That's why, when I left my downtown office after 5pm, I left my car behind and took the Brown Line. If I'd decided to drive home, I'd have taken alternate streets. Because I know what all regular Lake Shore Drive commuters know: The road gets hit especially hard during winter storms because of big wave action and lake effect snow. It's a dumping ground for Mother Nature. I also knew that the special qualities that make LSD a favorite fast route home to the North Side also make it an extra-dangerous route during winter storms. By that, I mean the limited-access nature of the road and the fact that a large barrier wall divides the north and south lanes. Those two features mean that commuters, unable to get off the road or turn around, are trapped like cattle in a pen when bad-weather accidents close multiple lanes. The warnings on this storm were dire. Anyone who thought about it for a minute should have known Lake Shore Drive should be avoided at all costs. I did so well before accidents shut it down, so this is not 20-20 hindsight. One commenter on the Tribune website was angry at not being able to traverse the Drive upon entering it from Irving Park Road at 7pm. I don't understand how someone could be so utterly clueless and still know how to pilot an automobile. I have more sympathy for folks who got trapped after entering the Drive before 5pm, but again, everyone should have stayed off of it after the blizzard warning took effect.
2. The city could have shut the Drive down in late afternoon. The city is in heavy-duty CYA mode right now, putting out statements like this: "While Lake Shore Drive traffic was moving effectively with motorists going home from work, as the weather conditions started to rapidly deteriorate, a number of multiple-car accidents occurred on the northbound drive, some of them in close succession." So, it was fine until it wasn't fine. The reason such statements are disingenuous is simple: weather-related accidents on Lake Shore Drive were easily foreseeable yesterday, and even as early as Monday. Forecasters from the National Weather Service on down gave all of us plenty of warning that this was an extraordinarily powerful storm. Such storms call for extraordinary measures. It would have been smart for the city to announce even as early as Tuesday morning that Lake Shore Drive would be shut down as a precaution when the blizzard warning kicked in at 3pm. That way, drivers who failed to use common sense would have been saved from their own poor decision making.
3. The CTA could have rerouted buses off the Drive starting at 3pm. Again, we all had plenty of warning, so why didn't public transit officials take this step to keep buses off of a road subject to hours-long delays during severe winter weather thanks to the limited number of exits and turnaround opportunities and its position alongside the lake where the snow and wind were howling? The most blameless victims of this ordeal were bus commuters trapped for many hours simply because they trusted CTA to get them home safely.
That should be the model for the future: If you get several days' notice a huge storm will be dumping snow on the lakefront, plan to stay off of LSD. If you're a government official with the same advance warning, step up and make the smart call on rerouting public transit and closing roads as a precaution. Imagine if that had been done in this case. People would look at the photos of snow drifts on the Drive and hail those city officials as heroes, and rightly so. At least the city's gesture today of not charging drivers whose cars were towed off the Drive shows they are moving in the right direction.
All that said, it is sickening to see some commenters on the Trib site and elsewhere demonize and mock the drivers who were stranded last night. Should they have known better? Yes. But are we all human beings who make, and hopefully learn from, mistakes, and who deserve some basic compassion? Indeed, yes.
But what would be truly sad is if drivers took no responsibility for their bad choice to battle Lake Shore Drive yesterday, and if city officials didn't come up with a new game plan for closing the Drive and rerouting traffic next time. Because if it goes down like this again, sympathy's going to be much harder to find.