February 3, 2015

Lower Wacker Drive

Lower Wacker Drive is my favorite street in Chicago. It’s also the most confusing street in Chicago.

Chicago is well known for its easy to navigate street grid – a grid best appreciated when flying into O’Hare at night.

(I didn’t take this picture. Couldn’t find who did.)

One of the features that made the grid possible is that Chicago is incredibly flat. Unlike cities outside the Midwest, Chicago only has two terrain features to build around: Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.

The lake is easy. We didn’t need to build around the lake so much as we just built up to the edge of it (and then lay down some landfill and expand into it!) The river, on the other hand, snakes its way through some of the most expensive real estate in the country, refusing to run in any single direction.

Wacker Drive runs along that river. Because it conforms to the river and not to some man made grid, it’s one of the few streets in Chicago that doesn’t run in a straight line.

And that’s just where the confusion starts.

Wacker Drive is a double decker street, except for the stretch where it's a tripple decker where the city keeps one of its impound lots. These three roadways are named: Upper Wacker, Lower Wacker and, Lower Lower Wacker.

Here are the three layers of Wacker:

(Thanks to Karen Lee for that pic. She also pointed me towards this map of three leveled streets in downtown Chicago.)

You may recognize Lower Wacker from the chase sequence in the Dark Knight. Here’s where the police enter Lower Wacker Drive:

And here’s the police exiting Lower Wacker Drive:

As you can see, you have to take a ramp to get onto Lower Wacker. In that way, it's sort of like an expressway that runs through downtown. Entry and exit can be confusing, and the ramps are often hiding around bends.

Additionally, because Wacker curves and because it’s so close to the grid’s origin at State and Madison, Wacker has the most confusing set of addresses of any street in the city. If you drew Chicago’s grid on one of those graphs from high school geometry, Wacker would run through three of the four quadrants.

That means that within one square mile, we have a:

  • Lower Lower East Wacker
  • Lower East Wacker
  • Upper East Wacker
  • Lower West Wacker
  • Upper West Wacker
  • Lower North Wacker
  • Upper North Wacker
  • Lower South Wacker
  • Upper South Wacker

Now add all that confusion to the fact that its tight walls and ominous pillars make driving Lower Wacker feel a bit like making a run on the Death Star exhaust port.

Lower Wacker is the best navigation hack in the City of Chicago. It’s an expressway running under the Loop. In the middle of rush hour you can get from LSD to Ogilvie or 290 in less than 7 minutes. Yet, Wacker remains under-trafficked and is seemingly immune to gridlock because most folks driving in the city either don't know how to get on it, or are scared to.

If you live in this great city, head down to the Loop some night when the traffic’s died down and spend an hour familiarizing yourself with Lower Wacker. You’ll recover your investment in no time and add another feather into your cap of Chicago elitism.