A press conference was held last Thursday at the southeast corner of Dearborn Street and Madison Street to announce the city’s first pedestrian plan. Present were commissioners of transportation and public health, Gabe Klein, and Bechara Choucair, respectively, Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey, and various CDOT staff.
After 20 minutes of speeches from Klein, Choucair, Skosey, and Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke, CDOT pedestrian program coordinator Suzanne Carlson and Klein applied a diamond shaped decal to a sidewalk corner across Madison Street. The bright yellow “sticker on the street” says, “Be Alert. Be Safe. We’re all pedestrians.” It’s part of the Pedestrian Safety Campaign launched last year that also included 32 mannequins scattered around Wacker Drive and then to other sites, as well as orange flags at certain crosswalks, and a somewhat grotesque ad campaign on trash bins and buses.
The Pedestrian Plan has its merits and faults. The document is nicely designed, easy to read, informative (it does a great job introducing people to “pedestrian safety tools” that are mentioned later in the plan), but still speaks to the car-centric profession of traffic (transportation) engineering exhibited in Chicago.
There are 16 tools, starting with marked crosswalks, and then moving on to “lagging left turns” (the left-turn phase for cars is at the end of the cycle, instead of the beginning), chicanes, and “skinny streets”. Many of these tools have implications far beyond walking safely. Many can improve the bicycling experience, or give more space to people waiting for a transit bus. Others slow driving, reducing neighborhood noise.
The Pedestrian Plan sets policy that should have always existed, and perhaps it did, but never on a published paper. For example, actuated pedestrian signals, rare in Chicago, “should be installed with an LED indicator light that demonstrates to the pedestrian that the button was pushed”. This type of feedback has been necessary since the device was invented.
One of the faults in the Tools section of the Plan is the lack of information that tells what the effect of that tool is on the goals of the plan. Each of the four goal categories lists at least two goals, the most significant being “eliminate pedestrian fatalities in ten years” (also called Zero in Ten), and “reduce serious pedestrian injuries by 50% every five years”. Each tool, in place of describing its impact on these and other goals, indicates its cost as low, medium, or high. These arbitrary classifications aren’t very meaningful, except to say that one tool costs about the same as another tool. But what of these tools’ impacts on eliminating pedestrian fatalities? Limited impact analysis is given for pedestrian refuge islands, chicanes (like the Albany Avenue home zone), and traffic circles.
The city has been touting the Lawrence Avenue road diet for almost 3 years and spreading the same before and after drawing, including it on page 24, for the road diets tool description. A road diet has been undertaken in several locations since commissioner Gabe Klein was hired. The first happened in June 2011, on Kinzie Street, with the addition of a cycle track there. Or the road diet on page 41, Humboldt Drive. This is heralded as a success, with traffic speeds dropping, and people who were surveyed said they found it easier to cross (during the pilot phase). Nevermind that this road diet has created a pinch point for people cycling: there isn’t enough room for a car and a bike side-by-side past the pedestrian refuge islands. Take the lane and suffer the horn.
Circling back to car-centric rhetoric in the plan, we see it on the road diets tool page (24): “A road diet can be considered on all streets with four or more lanes and less than 23,000 vehicles traveling on it daily” (but in some circumstances it’s possible on streets with up to 30,000 vehicles per day). Why are we limited to those parameters? And on the lagging left turns tool page (23) we read: “An analysis must be conducted to ensure that changing a left-turn phase to lagging [which reduces conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles turning left] will not negatively affect the operations of the intersection.” Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I interpret “negatively affect the operations of the intersection” to mean increased delays for drivers at the expense of pedestrian safety.
But the plan is quite revolutionary for Chicagoans. There’s now a metric against which to chart the change in pedestrian safety. The changes will be good.
The plan rightly includes an objective to improve crash data collection (page 47): “Timely access to pedestrian crash data is essential to improving the pedestrian environment”. I couldn’t agree more. I just received crash data for 2011 from the Illinois Department of Transportation. This objective indicates that a website will be created to host crash data, but doesn’t specify how timely it will be (last year’s versus last month’s?). The previous page has an action item to “collect and analyze data on the presence of bicyclists on sidewalks and crashes between bicyclists and pedestrians”.
There are several action items that will directly affect one’s experience walking on a sidewalk (not crossing the street), and this includes better snow removal, developing new guidelines for sidewalk cafés that take into account pedestrian volume, and requiring newspaper boxes to have identification to make it easier to contact and cite their owners. One of the related action items is to “develop a method to allow people to report issues with sidewalks on their mobiles devices” – this should happen sooner than “long term” because of the City’s adoption of Open 311.
My favorite pages are 69-76, as these objectives will have excellent, long-term impacts on the quality of the pedestrian environment:
- Improve six-way intersections (remove all channelized right-turn lanes by 2015).
- The six-way intersection before and after graphics show a “straightened” intersection with more crossing opportunities, and what would likely be a slower and safer intersection.
- Improve underpasses and create an underpass improvement program by 2018.
- Improve expressway entrances and exits. This objective is focused on the CTA’s Blue and Red Lines, both within expressways and receiving a lot of visitors who arrive by bike, bus, or foot. Again, excellent before and after graphics.
- And for the unexpected kicker: Develop standards for pedestrian facilities within parking lots. A better objective would be to disincentivize the creation of surface parking lots and reduce the surface area of existing parking lots.
N.B. Page 25 mentions speed feedback signs as a tool to reduce vehicle speeds. It cites it as a “medium cost pedestrian safety tool”. It doesn’t mention that there are several installed around the city but disabled. I’ve noticed at least three that have been off for over a year, on Damen Avenue in Wicker Park, King Drive in Bronzeville, and Oakley Avenue in Little Italy.
Recently we’ve talked about marked and unmarked crosswalks. Page 38 discusses establishing a citywide marked crosswalk policy that would determine how and when a marked crosswalk would be installed. The Pedestrian Plan also establishes the ladder crosswalk design as standard for all future crosswalk installations. We thought this to be the case when all of the crosswalks at Milwaukee Avenue and Western Avenue were restriped with two parallel stripes this past August and have asked CDOT to look into why the ladder design wasn’t installed. (The ladder design is also known as the “international”, “zebra”, and now, according the Pedestrian Plan, “continental” style.)
Grid Chicago is a blog about sustainable transportation matters, projects and culture in Chicago and Illinois, by John Greenfield and Steven Vance since June 2011.
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