Decoding Chicago Area Traffic Reports
What’s the point of listening to the traffic report when you don’t know any of the jargon? Or when the traffic reporter speaks too fast for human comprehension? Well, here at domu, we want to help you get to work on time, so we’ve gone and assembled another one of our notoriously informative guides, this time focused on demystifying traffic reports.
The local convention is to report the traffic from the northernmost expressway and then circle counter-clockwise around the city. Typically, the broadcast starts with a report on the Edens Expressway, then moves to the Kennedy, the Eisenhower, the Stevenson, and the Dan Ryan, in that order. From there, the attention shifts to the Bishop Ford Freeway, the four tollways -- the Jane Addams, the Ronald Reagan, the Veterans Memorial, and Interstate 80/94 (the Borman) -- and, finally, Lake Shore Drive.
Though this is probably self-evident, in the interstate highway system, secondary highways that branch off of primary highways (typically to encircle a metropolitan area) are labeled with three digits, while primary highways are labeled with two. The extra digit in a secondary highway is the prefix to the two-digit number of the primary highway. For example, Interstate 94 is a primary highway, leading from Indiana to Illinois to Wisconsin, while Interstate 294 (the Tri-State Tollway) is a secondary highway that branches off Interstate-94 near Indiana, encircles the Chicagoland suburbs, and rejoins Interstate-94 near O’Hare Airport.
In the paragraphs below, we identify all the major highways and all the associated landmarks that we think you need to know in order to make sense of the local traffic reports.
The Circle Interchange (aka, "The Spaghetti Bowl")
Virtually all traffic reports in Chicago mention the circle interchange at least once. This squid-shaped knot of entrance and exit ramps is located a few blocks southwest of the Chicago loop, where the Dan Ryan, the Kennedy, and the Eisenhower Expressways all converge in a circular frenzy of treacherous ramps and nasty congestion. There’s virtually no way to pass through this tangled web of highways without slowing to a snail’s pace. The circle interchange is perennially considered one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country.
The Tri-State Tollway
The Tri-State Tollway (also known as Interstate 294) branches off Interstate-94 just west of Munster and meanders counter-clockwise through such suburbs as Markham, Midlothian, Hickory Hills, Willow Springs, Western Springs, Elmhurst, Schiller Park, Des Plaines, Glenview, and Northbrook before rejoining Interstate-94 between Deerfield and Riverwoods. (After they reunite, Interstate-94 continues as the Tri-State Tollway.) Between Schiller Park and Des Plaines, the Tri-State Tollway runs just east of O’Hare Airport. In its counter-clockwise path around the metropolitan area, the Tri-State Tollway crosses Interstate-57, Interstate-55 (the Stevenson), Interstate-88 (the Reagan), Interstate-290 (the Eisenhower), and Interstate-90 (the Jane Addams), making it a ubiquitous reference point in traffic reports.
The Mile Long Bridge
The Mile Long Bridge carries traffic on the Tri-State Tollway over the Desplaines River, just south of its intersection with Interstate-55, between Willow Springs and Burr Ridge.
The Bensenville Bridge
The Bensenville Bridge carries traffic on the Tri-State Tollway over the sprawling, unsightly Metra rail yard and the adjacent Mannheim Road, due south of O’Hare Airport in Schiller Park.
”163rd Street Toll Plaza to the 83rd Street Toll Plaza”
Reports of traffic on the Tri-State Tollway may reference the travel times between the Toll Plaza at 163rd Street in Hazel Crest to the Toll Plaza at 83rd Street in Hickory Hills, a distance of 13.5 miles. Commuters who take this route will pass by Midlothian, Posen, Robbins, Crestwood, Chicago Ridge, and Palos Hills, among other southwest suburbs.
“The 83rd Street Toll Plaza to the Cermak Road Toll Plaza”
Reports of traffic on the Tri-State Tollway may reference the travel times between the 83rd Street Toll Plaza in Hickory Hills and the Cermak Road Toll Plaza in Oak Brook, a distance of 11.5 miles. Commuters who travel this path will pass through (or along) Burr Ridge, Willowbrook, and Hinsdale.
“The Cermak Toll Plaza to the Irving Park Road Toll Plaza”
Reports of traffic on the Tri-State Tollway may reference the travel times between the Cermak Road Toll Plaza in Oak Brook and the Irving Park Road Toll Plaza just south of O’Hare Airport, a distance of nine miles.
The Stevenson Expressway
The Stevenson Expressway (named for Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson) consists solely of that 18-mile portion of Interstate-55 extending southwest from Lake Shore Drive in Chicago to County Line Road in Burr Ridge, about a mile past its intersection with the Tri-State Tollway. The Stevenson runs adjacent and parallel to the south branch of the Chicago River. Drivers who ride the entire length of Interstate-55 ultimately pass through Springfield, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.
The Eisenhower Expressway (aka, the "Ike")
The Eisenhower Expressway (feel free to call it the "Ike”) splits west off Interstate-90 at the "circle interchange" and traverses nearly 30 miles through the western and northwestern suburbs before reuniting with Interstate-90 in Schaumburg. A secondary roadway, the Ike has a three-digit moniker and is known as “Interstate-290.” Inbound from Schaumburg, the Eisenhower runs southeast through Itasca and Addison, due south adjacent to the Tri-State Tollway, and due east from Hillside to Bellwood to Maywood to Forest Park to Oak Park before reaching Chicago.
The Eisenhower Extension
Traffic reports often reference the “Eisenhower Extension.” This means the stretch of the Eisenhower Expressway extending between its point of contact with the Tri-State Tollway in Elmhurst (at North Avenue) to its point of merger with Interstate-355 near Wood Dale.
The Old Post Office
The Eisenhower Expressway actually begins as Congress Parkway and shoots outbound from underneath the old post office building downtown. For this reason, traffic reports often reference the travel time to the post office, which is shorthand for “downtown Chicago.”
The “Hillside Strangler”
In the old days, seven eastbound lanes from the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway, the Eisenhower Expressway, and the Tri-State Tollway converged into three lanes at Mannheim Road, creating a notorious traffic bottleneck near the Village of Hillside, hence the name “Hillside Strangler.” A highway widening project was completed in the early 2000’s, although the term “Hillside Strangler” remains a part of the traffic lexicon to this day.
Route 53 runs from Lake Cook Road (in Long Grove) to Interstate-355, contiguous (for a only brief stretch) with the Eisenhower Expressway. South of Biesterfield Road, Route 53 runs south of and parallel to the Eisenhower. Nonetheless, traffic reporters often use the phrase “Route 53” to refer to that portion of the Eisenhower Expressway that runs between Interstate-355 and the Jane Addams Tollway.
“Woodfield to the Old Post Office” | “Woodfield to the Circle”
A traffic report on the Eisenhower Expressway may be based on the travel time between Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg and the old post office or the circle interchange, a distance of 29.5 miles.
“Route 53 to the Old Post Office” | “53 to the Circle”
When a traffic report references the time from “Route 53 to the old post office” or “Route 53 to the circle,” it means the point where Route 53 intersects the Eisenhower at Biesterfield Road in Elk Grove Village to the point where the Eisenhower arrives downtown, a distance of 26.2 miles.
“Thorndale Avenue to the Old Post Office” | “Thorndale to the Circle”
A traffic report on the Eisenhower Expressway may be based on the travel time between Thorndale Avenue and the old post office or the circle interchange, a distance of 25.1 miles. Thorndale Avenue intersects the Eisenhower in Itasca.
“I-355 to the Old Post Office” | “355 to the Circle”
Traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway may be measured by the travel time between Interstate-355 (near Addison) and the old post office or the circle interchange, a distance of just over 23 miles.
“Wolf Avenue to the Old Post Office” | “Wolf to the Circle”
A traffic report on the Eisenhower Expressway may be based on the travel time between Wolf Road and the old post office or the circle interchange, a distance of 13.7 miles. Wolf Road intersects the Eisenhower Expressway in Hillside.
“Mannheim Road to the Old Post Office” | “Mannheim to the Circle”
Traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway may be gauged by the travel time between Mannheim Road and the old post office or the circle interchange, a distance of just over 12 miles.
The Kennedy Expressway
The Kennedy Expressway refers to a 17.8 mile stretch of highway from the circle interchange (at the Loop) to O’Hare Airport. The Kennedy Expressway, which runs northeast from the city, begins at a point where Interstate-90 (arriving from Boston) and Interstate-94 (arriving from Detroit) have already merged into a single highway (known as Interstate-90/94). About eight miles northeast of the Loop, the two interstates fork apart. At the split (or the "Junction,” depending on your perspective), drivers heading left continue on the Kennedy Expressway toward O’Hare Airport, while drivers heading north continue on the Edens Expressway and wind around toward the Tri-State Tollway, which leads to Milwaukee. Further outbound, the Kennedy Expressway becomes the Jane Addams Expressway shortly before it crosses the Tri-State Tollway. Meanwhile, passengers traveling to O’Hare Airport remain on the Kennedy Expressway and exit on Interstate-190, which is the short spur that leads directly to the terminals.
“O’Hare to Downtown”
Commuters are sometimes informed of the travel time from “O’Hare to downtown.” This refers to the entire length of the Kennedy Expressway, from O’Hare Airport to the Loop.
“Montrose to Downtown”
The phrase “Montrose to downtown” refers to that stretch of the Kennedy Expressway extending from its junction with the Edens expressway to the circle interchange.
Traffic reports make frequent reference to “Hubbard’s Cave,” which is the quarter-mile underground passage through which the Kennedy Expressway travels between Hubbard and Wayman streets. “Hubbard’s Cave” is just another way of saying “downtown” for drivers heading south on the Kennedy Expressway. (Technically, “Hubbard’s Cave” is not fully enclosed underneath the warehouses, parking lots, and railroad tracks above it.)
Heading away from the city, the Edens Expressway begins when Interstate-90/94 splits in two. Drivers who veer left continue on the Kennedy Expressway (Interstate-90), while drivers who veer right continue on the Edens Expressway (Interstate-94). The Edens winds north until just past Dundee Road (between Glencoe and Northbrook), at which point it swerves west (the so-called Edens spur) to reunite with the Tri-State Tollway. The Edens was the first expressway in Chicago when it opened in December 1951.
“Lake Cook to the Junction” | “Lake Cook to Montrose”
Commuters are often told the travel time from “Lake Cook to the Junction.” “Lake Cook” refers to Lake Cook Road, which runs east-west on the line separating Lake and Cook counties. In traffic parlance, “Lake Cook” means the point intersection of Lake Cook Road and Route 41 (Skokie Highway), just north of the Edens spur. The "Junction” is the junction of the Edens Expressway and the Kennedy Expressway, which is just north of the intersection of Cicero Street and Montrose Avenue in Chicago.
Dan Ryan Expressway
The Dan Ryan Expressway (named for a longtime Cook County commissioner) is the 14-lane behemoth that funnels traffic in and out the circle interchange from the south side of the city. Think of it as the south-side counterpart to the Kennedy Expressway. The initial 7.4 mile outbound stretch of the Dan Ryan (from the Loop to 66th Street) consists of merged Interstate-90/94, and the remaining 4.0 mile stretch consists exclusively of Interstate-94. At 95th Street, Interstate-57 sprouts off Interstate-94 and begins a journey to southern Illinois. After the split, Interstate-94 continues as the Bishop Ford Freeway.
“95th Street to Downtown” | “The Merge”
Traffic reports may use “95th Street” or “The Merge” as shorthand for the point where the Dan Ryan Expressway splits into the Bishop Ford Freeway and Interstate-57 on the far south side of Chicago.
Once the Kennedy Expressway reaches the circle interchange, it becomes the Dan Ryan Expressway. At 66th Street, Interstate-90 splits from Interstate-94 and winds southeast toward Indiana before continuing on to Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston, and many points in between. Between 66th Street and the Indiana state line, Interstate-90 is known as the “Chicago Skyway.” After it crosses the line, it becomes known as the “Indiana East-West Toll Road.”
The High Bridge
The High Bridge is a steel truss bridge that carries traffic on the Chicago Skyway over the Calumet River. It is the highest road in Chicago and should not be confused with the “Steel Bridge.”
Veterans Memorial Tollway | Interstate-355
The Veteran’s Memorial Tollway (also known as Interstate-355 and formerly known as the North-South Tollway) is the north-south highway in the far western suburbs that runs from Interstate-80 in New Lenox to the Eisenhower Extension (Interstate-290) in Itasca. It originally branched north off Interstate-55 (the Stevenson Expressway), which is how it earned its numerals, but was recently extended twelve miles south of the Stevenson Expressway. Veterans Memorial Tollway intersects the Stevenson Expressway between Lemont and Bolingbrook and slithers along and across the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway near Downer’s Grove.
“Boughton Road Toll Plaza to the Army Trail Toll Plaza”
Traffic reports for Veterans Memorial Tollway may reference the travel time between the Boughton Road Toll Plaza and the Army Trail Toll Plaza. The Boughton Road Toll Plaza is in Bolingbrook, about a half-mile north of Boughton Road, and the Army Trail Toll Plaza is in Addison, about a mile south of Army Trail Road. The distance between the two toll plazas is approximately 15.5 miles.
Jane Addams Tollway
The Jane Addams Tollway (formerly known as the “Northwest Tollway”) refers to Interstate-90 from the point that the Kennedy Expressway veers off toward O’Hare Airport until the point that it reaches the Wisconsin state line, near Beloit. The Jane Addams Tollway heads northwest through Schaumburg, Rolling Meadows, Hoffmann Estates, South Barrington, Elgin, and Belvidere before making an abrupt northward turn just outside of Rockford.
“The Elgin Toll Plaza to Route 53”
Traffic reports sometimes reference the travel time between the Elgin Toll Plaza and Route 53. The Elgin Toll Plaza is on the Jane Addams Tollway about a mile northwest of Route 31 and about a mile-and-a-half southeast of Randall Road. Route 53 intersects the Jane Addams Tollway about 14.5 miles inbound from the Elgin Toll Plaza, between Schaumburg and Rolling Meadows, and about nine miles outbound from O’Hare Airport.
“Route 53 to the Kennedy”
Traffic on the Jane Addams Tollway may also be expressed as the travel time from Route 53 to the Kennedy Expressway, which is the nine mile distance between Schaumburg and O’Hare Airport.
Bishop Ford Freeway
Heading outbound from the city, the Dan Ryan splits at 95th Street, near Chicago State University. One road becomes Interstate-57 and heads southwest toward St. Louis, while the other road continues as Interstate-94, but now known as the “Bishop Ford Freeway.” The Bishop Ford (formerly known as the Calumet Expressway) runs southeast for ten miles until it reaches the Tri-State Tollway. Commuters from such suburbs as Dolton, Burnham, South Holland, Lansing, and Munster are likely to drive the Bishop Ford Freeway.
The Steel Bridge
The “Steel Bridge” carries Bishop Ford motorists over the Little Calumet River. It’s located about halfway between the Tri-State Tollway and the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Interstate-57 is one of the few major roadways in the Chicagoland area that has not been named for someone famous. Travelling outbound, Interstate-57 begins as an offshoot of the Dan Ryan Expressway at 95th Street, then continues south. It passes near or through Morgan Park, Calumet Park, and Dixmoor before crossing the Tri-State Tollway. Thereafter, it continues near or through Midlothian and Markham before reaching Interstate-80 near Country Club Hills.
Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway
The Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway (formerly known as the East-West Tollway) begins in the western suburbs by splitting off the Eisenhower Expressway shortly before the Eisenhower reaches the Tri-State Tollway. It continues westward, crossing Interstate-355 between Downer’s Grove and Lisle, and ultimately terminates 140 miles from where it started, just outside the Quad Cities, near the Iowa state line. Commuters on the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway likely live in such suburbs as Batavia, Aurora, and Naperville. Factoid enthusiasts will be thrilled to know that the Reagan Tollway is a completely intrastate, interstate highway. It is fully-contained within the State of Illinois, but was designated an interstate highway in 1987 in order to be exempt from speed limit restrictions. It was named after President Reagan shortly following his death in 2004 because it passes near his birthplace (in Tampico) and his boyhood home (in Dixon).
“The Aurora Toll Plaza to 290”
Traffic reports for the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway may refer to the inbound travel time from the Aurora Toll Plaza to Interstate-290 (the Eisenhower Expressway). This is a 23-mile stretch. The Aurora Toll Plaza is about a half-mile inbound from the bridge over the Fox River.
“The Aurora Toll Plaza to the York Road Toll Plaza”
Traffic reports for the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway may also refer to the inbound travel time from the Aurora Toll Plaza to the York Road Toll Plaza near Oak Brook, just past Kingery Highway (Route 83). This is a 20.5 mile stretch.
Lake Cook Road
Lake Cook Road (also known as County Line Road) marks the border between Cook County and Lake County, then between Cook County and McHenry County, and finally, further westward, between McHenry County and Kane County before it terminates in Algonquin, just west of Barrington. On its eastward journey, Lake Cook Road passes near or through Palatine, Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Riverwoods, Northbrook, Deerfield, Highland Park, and Glencoe.
The Elgin-O’Hare Expressway neither starts in Elgin nor ends at O’Hare. Outbound, it begins as Thorndale Road in Itasca, passes under the Eisenhower Extension, crosses Rohlwing Road (Route 53) and terminates at Lake Street in Hanover Park. The entire expressway extends less than six miles and has traffic lights at both ends, producing notorious rush hour congestion. It runs largely parallel to and south of the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway, and it serves as a route from the Eisenhower Expressway to Lake Street (Route 20).
The Kingery Expressway (also known as 80/94) is the three-mile stretch of highway that extends from the Indiana State Line to the point where it splits into the Tri-State Tollway and the Bishop Ford Freeway. (It should not be confused with Kingery Highway in DuPage County.) Commuters who drive on the Kingery Expressway may live in such places as Lansing, Hammond, Munster, and Gary.