From safety to where? Discussing the future of safe streets at a CNU talk

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Rob Bielaski, Steven, Mark de la Vergne, Eric Dumbaugh.

By coincidence both Steven and I recently appeared on two different panels about sustainable transportation within a few days of each other. Last Thursday I was part of the talk “Chicago Cycling: What’s Next?” at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in conjunction with their “Bikes! The Green Revolution” exhibit. Monday Steven participated in the discussion “Safe Streets,” hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) at the Jefferson Tap, 325 N. Jefferson in the West Loop. The panelists talked about what makes streets safe, and discussed new developments in Chicago street design.

Based in Chicago and headed my former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, CNU is a nonprofit that promotes walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly, mixed-use development. Joining Steven on the panel, which doubled as CNU’s monthly happy hour, were Eric Dumbaugh, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University who has authored more than forty books about transportation and urban planning, and Mark de la Vergne, a project manager at Sam Schwartz Engineering who has worked on Chicago’s pedestrian plan, the Streets for Cycling 2020 plan, and will be involved with siting and outreach for the city’s upcoming bike sharing program.

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New urbanists.

Dumbaugh kicked off the talk by discussing his own unorthodox route into the urban planning field. “I’m not a normal engineer,” he said. “I was an English major. I got into engineering by walking around and seeing that most of our streets are designed stupidly.” He asserted that the streets that are the safest for pedestrians and cyclists are also the safest for motorists because of low speeds. “So why is it that we’re mobilizing all of society’s resources towards the elimination of traffic congestion? That’s what makes it so difficult to reclaim the streets for pedestrians.”

De la Vergne said that under the new administration at City Hall this is an exciting time to be working on sustainable transportation projects. “[Reopening the crosswalk at] Queen’s Landing was a huge statement that said, ‘This is where we’re going,’” he argued. Mayor Emanuel views better walking, biking and transit facilities as essential for improving Chicago’s economy, De la Vergne added. “He thinks the reason that Google is moving into the Merchandise Mart is because we’re building protected bike lanes.”

However, he noted that Chicago is behind other cities like New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia in creating innovative public spaces like “parklets” – parking spaces converted into green space – and pedestrian plazas, so he looks forward to seeing Chicago build these types of spaces in the future as part of the Make Way for People initiative. The city’s first parklet is slated to be built in a parking stall in front of Heritage Bicycles, 2959 N. Lincoln, hopefully later this summer.

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Times Square pedestrian plaza in NYC. Photo by Gary Burke.

Steven, who has a keen interest in crash statistics, began by discussing the Illinois Department of Transportation’s stats for Chicago pedestrian crashes from 2005-2010. He noted that while pedestrian fatalities dropped during this period, possibly, fatalities for people nineteen and younger are up. “The really, really good news is that there have only been seven fatal pedestrian crashes in Chicago [based on published news reports] this year compared to 32 in 2010,” he said. He attributed the nationwide trend towards less pedestrian deaths to lower driving rates due to high gas prices, as well as increased transit and bicycle use.

He added that he’s glad the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) recently came out with the Chicago Forward action agenda with the goal of eliminating all traffic deaths, although he acknowledged this target may be a bit unrealistic. De la Vergne responded, “If you’re setting a goal for fatalities, then zero needs to be the number,” eliciting chuckles from the audience. Steven noted that recently the city has been repainting marked crosswalks with high visibility zebra stripes and adding leading pedestrian interval traffic signals, which give walkers a head start over turning cars. “Those need to keep happening, at a faster rate.”

Moderator Rob Bielaski, an engineer at SPACECO, Inc., asked the panelists whether they thought “complete streets,” ones that accommodate all travel modes, are inherently dangerous. Dumbaugh said no, citing the example of the Dutch woonerf, a type of bike- and pedestrian-prioritized street where cars are permitted but must travel at slow speeds. But De la Vergne argued that Canal Street in the West Loop is an example of a street where too many different uses compete for space, including foot traffic, bikes, taxis, CTA buses and inter-city buses. “It’s a mess,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a bike lane on Canal. Clinton and Jefferson work much better for biking.”

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A Dutch woonerf. Photo by La Citta Vita.

Steven responded, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a complete street in Illinois.” He talked about Fletcher, the street where he lives, a narrow roadway with parking on both sides so that people have no choice but to drive slowly. “But there’s no ‘daylighting’ at the intersections – the parking goes all the way to the corner – so drivers can’t see pedestrians wanting to cross the street.” Dumbaugh argued that the term “complete street” may be inherently flawed because streets are never really completed. “Cities are not static. A street that’s complete now may not be in ten years.”

An audience member asked the panelists consider North Michigan Avenue to be a complete street. “No,” said Steven. “The sidewalks are too narrow.” He noted that pedestrians in a hurry sometimes walk in the street instead of the crowded sidewalks. De la Vergne argued that Michigan is a relatively successful street because of the high pedestrian, bus and cab volume but noted that transit “sucks” there because of congestion caused by private autos. “People shouldn’t be driving on Michigan.”

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Michigan Avenue. Photo by Chadedward.

The conversation turned to ideas for improving State Street in the Loop. “You could see State Street becoming the Times Square of Chicago,” an attendee said, referring to the bustling New York City thoroughfare that was recently converted into a pedestrian plaza. De la Vergne responded that proposals to change the street design on State tend to meet resistance because of the failed pedestrian and bus mall that existed there in the Eighties and early Nineties. “State is kind of the third rail because the pedestrian mall didn’t work there.”

He contrasted Broadway and Clark in Edgewater and Andersonville as an example of the power that street design has over commerce. Since there are several Red Line stations adjacent to Broadway, it seems logical that there would be lots of foot traffic on that street. “But Broadway is a fast street with five lanes and nobody wants to walk on it,” he noted. As a result, there’s relatively little foot traffic on Broadway much of the street is dominated by auto-centric business, while two-lane Clark Street, a much more pleasant street to stroll on, has the thriving Andersonville pedestrian shopping district. “Everyone gets off the train and walks six blocks west to Clark,” he said.

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Clark Street in Andersonville – photo by Irving Welski

All three panelists agreed on the importance of introducing “mobility education” that would teach students how to get around safely on foot and by bike, not just by driving, so that if they do drive they’ll know to operate responsibly around vulnerable road users. “In the Netherlands they take seven-year-olds to the ‘traffic garden’ where they use pedal cars and then they use bikes to get around a miniature city,” said Dumbaugh. Steven argued that tests for getting a drivers license are too easy and fail to weed out dangerous drivers. “After all, driving is what’s killing people, not walking or biking.”

De la Vergne said that when he does find himself behind the wheel he takes the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists very seriously. “My wife hates how I drive,” he said. “She’ll say, ‘Why are you driving so slow? There’s no one around!’ I just don’t want to kill anyone.”

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John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

35 thoughts on “From safety to where? Discussing the future of safe streets at a CNU talk”

    1. I’m all for banning private car traffic on certain downtown streets like Michigan and State. One of the problems with the State Street Mall was that they banned bikes as well, which was really annoying when I was a messenger back in the early Nineties.

          1. I also disagree with Adam. After using the CTA to get to a nighttime destination, I like treating myself to a quick ride home via cab. And keep in mind that lots of people depend on cabs for more pressing needs, like taking a sick kid to the doctor, and many cabdrivers support families on their earnings. Chicago’s cab industry needs to be reformed, not abolished, and their are some signs of change, like the new “Call 311” bumper stickers, and Steven’s recent successful complaint against a dangerous
            cabbie.

          2. I was being sarcastic. 🙂

            Despite them being the bane of my existence when on a bike, I am not opposed to the idea of cabs in general. However, I don’t take them because they are too expensive, and most of the people who drive them drive like maniacs. I think we need better education for cab drivers and harsher penalties for traffic violations. Cab drivers need to be held to a higher standard than the average motorist. A single violation should result in a suspension of their chauffer’s license at a minimum, with the length of the suspension depending on the severity of the infraction.

          3. I disagree. After using the CTA to get to a nighttime destination, I like treating myself to a quick ride home via cab. And keep in mind that lots of people depend on cabs for more pressing needs, like taking a sick kid to the doctor, and many cabdrivers support families on their earnings. Chicago’s cab industry needs to be reformed, not abolished, and their are some signs of change, like the new “Call 311” bumper stickers, and Steven’s recent successful complaint against a dangerous cabbie.

          4. I’ve always considered taxis a form of public transportation, albeit the most expensive one. Recently it occurred to me that a taxi system is the original “car share” system, except that you “join” on the spot, and the car comes with a driver.

      1. Agreed. The sidewalks on Michigan are far too narrow for the amount of pedestrian traffic there. It also baffles me why people drive through Michigan when Lake Shore Drive is just to the east. Buses constantly are getting stuck in the traffic as well. Despite Michigan being six lanes for most of the stretch north of the river, it’s constantly full of bumper-to-bumper traffic, and a nightmare for cyclists. These improvements could discourage auto traffic, making it safer for everyone.

    2. Michigan Ave’s width has irked me for a long time, but the newest insanity I’ve noticed is that cross streets like Ohio start as five wide lanes all the way from 90/94 the entire way through River North, across Michigan Ave, through Streeterville, until it hits inner LSD. The last 15-20 years has seen an explosive growth of hotels, restaurants, retail and even groceries on Ohio and Ontario, on top of the booming Michigan Ave retail scene, and the expanding Northwestern Memorial campus, and yet the thousands of people walking daily to and from those destinations are given effectively 5 feet of sidewalk space (scrawny trees block much of the width), while motorized traffic is given 60 feet. Those streets are exhibit A of the opposite of a complete street.

      1. Eric Dumbaugh, in response to the complete streets question, said that he prefers “living streets”, as complete implies you’re done. But the needs of a street aren’t the same 10 years ago.
        I stressed in my “opening statement” at the beginning of the event that Chicago needed to change street designs constantly and experiment more.

  1. I think a Michigan Ave. BRT would be very well-received. Slow down traffic and greatly improve transit access to Streeterville and the Loop.

  2. I think the parklet at Heritage Bikes is up and running. What I saw last night (Tuesday) was a few bike racks and tables with umbrellas. But it’s across the alley next to the laundromat – not exactly in front of Heritage Bicycles. I wondered what that was. Do you have any further details?

    1. I believe you’re talking about the seating area that’s been there for a month or two. I think that is located on a privately owned parking area, whereas the parklet will take the place of the metered parking space right in front of the store. Although it may be an unmetered space or loading zone, since removing a metered space would require negotiations with LAZ Parking.

  3. Astute observation from the participant about Clark and Broadway. One of the great things about Clark is that on summer nights there is often so much foot traffic, that it spills into the streets. That makes for slow and safer automobile traffic.

    Unfortunately the 48th Ward Transportation Committee seems to have it’s mind set on diverting traffic from Sheridan onto Broadway, basically doubling the amount of
    traffic onto Broadway. This would require a large redesign of Broadway. That is a expensive way to ensure that Broadway remains the eyesore it is right now.

    On the other hand, the alderman is working on improving crossing Broadway. A traffic light is scheduled to be installed at Broadway and Balmoral. That should be a good improvement. Currently there is no safe and legal way of crossing Broadway Eastbound between Bryn Mawr and Foster and I usually end up salmoning half a block on Catalpa.

      1. You are correct. There is a legal crossing. But there is no “safe and legal” crossing there. I refuse to take my life into my own hands while crossing Broadway. I prefer to cross Broadway at a traffic light.
        And I was referring to crossing Broadway by bike, There is a stopsign on Balmoral eastbound so cars don’t have to stop for me.

          1. Yes, but Berwyn is one way eastbound west of Broadway, requiring a bicyclist to salmon against traffic.
            I maintain that there is no “safe and legal” crossing on Broadway between Bryn Mawr and Foster.

  4. I can see some friendly Battle Of The Parklets in the near future. Which one will be installed first? Brian, the program manager at eco-Andersonville said they planned to have the parklet at Clark and Farragut installed within 14 days after the ordinance passed, and were aiming for Andersonville Green week which starts on July 9th.

  5. Hey guys, have you ever noticed that your photos usually just have white guys in them? Not to be sanctimonious, but, heller, it seems like you’re trying to brand transportation.

    1. We do try to make sure our articles and photos reflect the full geography and demographics of the city. I think we’ve done a pretty good job in the past but thanks for the reminder.

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