Greg Baugues

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. The river on the other hand… The river snakes its way through some of the most expensive real estate in the country, refusing to run in any single direction.

Wacker Drive is the downtown road that runs along the river. Because it contours 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 the start of its confusion.

Wacker Drive is a double decker street, sometimes triple decker. There is an Upper Wacker, a Lower Wacker and, for a small stretch, a Lower Lower Wacker (which is where the city keeps the impound lot in which you’ll find your car should you be towed from downtown).

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 the police entering Lower Wacker Drive:

And here’s the police exiting Lower Wacker Drive:

You know what… those pictures don’t do that scene justice. Let’s just watch it.

Some folks on Reddit kindly pointed out that if I was going to include the Dark Knight chase scene in this post, I needed to include the Blues Brothers chase scene. Absolutely correct. My sincere apologies for the oversight. Here it is:

As you can see, you have to take a ramp to get onto Lower Wacker. There’s only about half-a-dozen of these ramps and they’re not particularly well marked.

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.

Being able to confidently traverse Lower Wacker is what separates the cab drivers from the UberX drivers. Actually, that’s not true. Driving four blocks north and four blocks east without using a GPS is what separates the cab drivers from the UberX drivers.

Lower Wacker is the best Chicago navigation hack there is. 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 90% of folks driving in the city don’t know how to get on it and, once you get there, it’s kinda scary.

If you spend any time driving around downtown, head down to the Loop at 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.

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