Update September 7, 2012: From the Wicker Park-Bucktown SSA, we get news that this project has been pushed back to spring 2013. It seems IDOT is responsible for this delay.
The skewed intersection of Milwaukee Avenue, Wood Street, and Wolcott Avenue in Wicker Park will be redesigned and reconstructed this year as part of a project to upgrade the signals. The original project only called for upgrading the traffic signals, which are decades old and very hard to see. Their timing is also awkward, providing no “all red” phase between the red phase of one direction and the following green phase of the cross direction. Construction should begin in September, according to the 1st Ward office.
Confusion is compounded with the addition of a rare slip lane on Wood Street at Milwaukee Avenue, which is created by a small island of concrete that only holds a light signal pole for southbound traffic. More often, islands are used to help protect pedestrians from traffic.
View the intersection in a larger map on Bing Maps.
On Friday, February 17, 2012, I was cycling to a friend’s house on Friday and while stopped at the Milwaukee-Wood-Wolcott intersection, I spotted a friend, Code for America fellow Ben Sheldon, and his partner. Since I was on a bicycle, I stepped onto the sidewalk to have a quick chat. Somehow we started talking about the intersection. Unsolicited, Ben and Angelina told me about their observations of the intersection. They were spot on:
While walking down Milwaukee Avenue, the intersection and fast-moving cross-traffic we half-stepped out into were unexpected. There was also a parked car that caused us not to see incoming cross-traffic. There is very little to indicate that it’s a signaled intersection instead of what I expected it to be – a two-way stop – when I stepped into the road. There aren’t walk signals and the traffic lights themselves, not hanging over the intersection, are easy to miss from the curbs.
A major aspect of safe road design is homogeneity and using standards. But standards change, as do our expectations. Many intersections, like this one, are “left behind” and fail to be updated. Perhaps showing the difficult in seeing the traffic signals as they are now, I captured two drivers running a red light on Milwaukee Avenue a few seconds before it turned green.
This image shows the Chicago Department of Transportation’s plans for the intersection.
In addition to upgrading the light signals here to modern standards (with walk signals to boot), the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area (see note 1) and 1st Ward Alderman Moreno’s office are splitting the cost of engineering and construction to build a curb extension that aligns Wolcott Avenue with Wood Street. Without the investments from these organizations, the soft radius at the east corner of Wood Street and Milwaukee Avenue would have remained. Included in this curb extension will be an area to create a bioswale. There will be small curb cuts in the gutter to allow storm water to flow into the bioswale and be filtered naturally by landscaped vegetation there.
The curb ramps from the street to the sidewalk will also be reconstructed to meet Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is paying for this along with the signal upgrades. Crosswalks will be restriped in the international style (also known as zebra or ladder), and a new marked crosswalk will be installed on the south side of the intersection. There already exists an unmarked crosswalk here. From the Bing Maps “bird’s eye view” image above, you’ll see a marked crosswalk, but in the view below, it’s missing. The street was repaved in 2005 and it appears that it wasn’t reinstalled.
No crosswalk on the south side of the intersection across Milwaukee, but there was one prior to resurfacing in 2005.
Image shows potential additions, but not coming in the 2012 intersection reconstruction. View this ideal plan drawing large.
Local architect Brent Norsman, an SSA commissioner and transportation committee member, imagines more changes down the road. He created this drawing shown an ideal intersection, with curb extensions at all corners (to shorten the walk distance), bike boxes on Milwaukee Avenue, more landscaping, a new bus shelter near Walgreens, bike racks designed by a local artist, and information kiosks. I called Norsman to get a better understanding of how and why he created this design.
We entered a competition to make Red Hook, Brooklyn, the most bike friendly neighborhood in the world. What would that look like? We did a lot of research on the latest ideas from planners around the world.
But why a competition about bicycling?
I have always hired people who bike and the office has always been on Milwaukee Avenue and I’ve become attached to the street. I’ve watched ridership go up.
The view from the Norsman Architects office.
How did your entry in the competition lead to proposing a new intersection design for Milwaukee, Wood, and Wolcott?
Fresh off the competition we wanted to imagine better a better Milwaukee Avenue, so we hyper-analyzed the corner closest to our office [Milwaukee, Wood, Wolcott]. We presented the drawings [third image] to then-Alderman Manny Flores. He advised that we talk to the SSA. Once part of the SSA, we learned of plans to upgrade the intersection’s light signals only. I pulled out the drawings and showed them to Janet Attarian at CDOT; she has a good sense of realism on what they can accomplish. She was also aware of the kinds of progressive ideas in my drawings. She brought the bioswale idea to us.
Cost of the ideas in Norsman’s drawings were a main barrier, thus leading to contributions of $25,000 each from the 1st ward office and the SSA.
A bioswale in Portland, Oregon. Notice the little slits in the curb – this allows storm water runoff to enter the landscaped area where a careful selection of plants and the right base quickly absorbs water, faster than a grass lawn.
Crash stats for this location
When cleaned crash data (see note 2) for 2012 comes around in August 2013, we’ll be able to evaluate this intersection again to see if the infrastructure investments made an impact on the crash rate. Contrary to what I predicted, there were actually 10 bicycle-automobile crashes and 1 pedestrian-automobile crash between 2005-2010, injuring 11 people, none of them occupants of automobiles. I thought the pedestrian crash figure would be higher.
In addition to the 11 crashes between automobile drivers and those walking and cycling, there were 73 crashes between automobiles in the same period (and within 200 feet). The majority of these were “property damage” only, meaning there was no evidence of injury at the time. 200 people were involved in these crashes; 20 people were injured.
The intersection’s layout hasn’t been changed since at least 1959. In this photo you can see the signal pole in the tiny island along with the soft radius at the east side of Wood Street and Milwaukee Avenue. Photo by masMiguel.
1. Disclaimer: I am a member of the transportation committee of the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area, SSA 33.
2. The data I receive comes from the Illinois Department of Transportation which cleans up the Chicago Police Department’s sloppy inputs. Jon Hilkevitch at the Chicago Tribune reported yesterday about how the police’s crash reports have many errors and that the Chicago Department of Transportation receives these “as they happen” (instead of waiting until August of the following year like myself).
View all my photos of this intersection.