Driving in Chicago can be daunting, particularly for out-of-towners. Even Windy City locals daily bemoan multi-mile pile-ups during Chicago rush hour, which stretches for hours each morning and evening.
Some of the tightest tie-ups occur on the Kennedy Expressway. In fact, two of the nation’s biggest bottlenecks (and three of the top ten traffic jams) are linked to the Kennedy Expressway, according to a 2009 Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) study.
What is Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway?
The John F. Kennedy Expressway (tagged I-90/I-94) is a major highway connecting downtown Chicago to O’Hare International Airport (northwest of the city).
Along the way, the Kennedy Expressway connects with several interstate highways, including the Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway (I-290), the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90), the Adlai E. Stevenson Expressway (I-55), and the Interstate Tollway (I-294). Each interchange can produce a bottleneck, especially during Chicago rush hour, accidents or construction periods.
The Kennedy Expressway has been called one of the most congested highways in the entire United States.
How can motorists avoid the worst Windy City’s traffic jams, particularly on Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway? Here are five insider tips I employ to save time and frustration behind the wheel.
Call ahead for traffic conditions on Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway.
Many motorists tune their car radios to local news stations for highway traffic reports. However, the most up-to-date traffic conditions on many thoroughfares (such as the Kennedy Expressway) may be obtained from the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority (ISTHA) online or by phone (630-241-6800).
Plan trips according to express lane openings.
The express lanes on Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway are known as reversible lanes. Gates open and close to allow north- and south-bound drivers to use these extra highway lanes during peak traffic times daily.
Usually, the express lanes are open for inbound (towards Chicago) vehicles from midnight (between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m.) to noon (between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.) on Mondays through Fridays.
The Kennedy Expressway express lanes are open for outbound (from Chicago) vehicles from approximately noon (between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.) to midnight (between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m.) on weekdays.
On weekends and holidays, or during roadway accidents or construction times, express lane schedules may shift.
After decades of frequent Kennedy Expressway driving, I can attest to the advantage of traveling while the express lanes are open in my intended direction of travel.
Try to avoid peak traffic times on the Kennedy Expressway.
Chicago’s rush hour occurs twice daily, with the morning crunch (6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.) and the evening tie-up (3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.). The longer rush hours in Chicago are largely attributed to the diversity of businesses, with factory shifts (often 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), financial markets (mostly 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.) and general offices (usually 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.) contributing to commuter load on the highways.
By traveling during off-hours, when possible, I have often breezed down the Kennedy Expressway on cruise control, rather than hitting the brake lights every few feet.
Simply staying in the city for an early supper may allow traffic to clear considerably on the Kennedy Expressway. Many times, I have arrived home at nearly the same time (after dining in the city) as I might have done, had I slugged it out in daily traffic.
Try an alternate route, if the Kennedy Expressway is backed up.
Often, I simply opt to avoid the Kennedy Expressway altogether.
Downtown, Lake Shore Drive runs along the shore of Lake Michigan, hooking up with Stony Island Drive to the south and Sheridan Road to the north. This route is both scenic and less congested than the Kennedy Expressway, especially during peak traffic times.
Take Chicago public transportation instead.
Chicago offers many public transportation options, which make commuting simple. Trains, elevated commuter rail (the El) and buses are available from all points outside the city. In fact, the train and El lines run along the Kennedy Expressway for a stretch.
Many drivers look longingly at the speeding trains, wishing they had chosen to pick up a newspaper – and the pace. Often, I park in the suburbs and hop on public transportation to attend meetings, sporting events and other activities.
The Kennedy Expressway can be a direct and convenient route to and from the city of Chicago, or it can be a motorist’s nemesis. It’s all in the timing and the travel.