Do Chicago’s Reversible Lanes Actually Work?

Chicago Reversible Lanes

Alvin Brickman for Metrosetter Wire

If you’re a Chicago resident or commute to the city for work, you’ve probably wondered on more than one occasion if those reversible lanes actually work. Find out after the jump.

Before reading about Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway, I had never heard of the concept of “reversible lanes,” but the idea seems pretty sound (and interesting), and apparently I’m not the only one who is intrigued. Last year, a Japanese television crew spent several days in Chicago filming the reversible express lanes, working on a story called “Amazing Infrastructure From Around The World!’; the idea was as exotic to them as it is to me!

Well, if you were emphatically thinking that the lanes didn’t work, according to, it is understandable that you would think that, but in fact, this abstruse piece of infrastructure is better than nothing.

The lanes were first installed in the 1960s to be flipped manually, and were later redesigned to flip automatically in the 1990s, which brought the reversal process down to 20 minutes.

Sarah Jindra, WBEZ’s former traffic reporter, says that today, the lanes continue to alleviate the traffic during morning and evening commutes. “When you’re driving, you may not think they’re very effective because you’re sitting there and you’re seeing: ‘Oh, those cars next to me aren’t moving. I’m in the express I’m supposed to be going faster. What’s going on?’ And you may not think they’re very effective. But, as soon as you see when they close them and flip them the other direction —  how it impacts traffic — it is so effective to have them.”

Andy Plummer–transportation historian and deputy executive director of the Chicago Area Transportation Study–agrees, but notes that the lanes were not designed for today’s traffic conditions. For instance, when the Kennedy broke down in the ’60s, “it used to break down for 30 minutes, 45 minutes,” he says. “Now, you know, if it’s breaking down it’s broken down for hours because of just the sheer amount of people that are trying to use the same space.”

Even though a solution for the problem hasn’t been found yet, if you’re really sick of those stop-and-go traffic conditions, you might want to consider Pace’s BRT, which actually has been making some substantial progress in making commutes more efficient. And if public transportation is out of the question, maybe knowing that it could certainly be worse will make the commute a little more tolerable. According to an infographic published by Jobplotter, Chicago is only number 10 in the “Top 10 Cities in the US with the worst traffic.”

It will be interesting to see if reversible lanes become more common in urban areas.  Some cities seem to be in favor of adopting the system, while others have opted to get rid of already-established reversible-lane systems. I suppose it’s just the price one pays for working in the city! have produced a video illustrating how the reversible lanes work, which you can watch below.


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