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Laurino walks home from the opening of the Sauganash Trail in 2008. Image courtesy of 39th Ward.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John's weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

As “mini mayors,” Chicago aldermen have a huge influence on the kinds of projects that are built in their districts. For example, a handful of aldermen have opted to use “menu money” discretionary funds to stripe additional bicycle lanes in their wards or bankroll innovative transportation projects, like the Albany Home Zone traffic-calmed block in Logan Square. On the other hand, they can stand in the way of progress, as when former 50th Ward Alderman Berny Stone put the kibosh on a bike bridge over the North Shore Channel in West Rogers Park.

39th Ward Alderman Margaret Laurino’s Far Northwest Side district includes parts of the Albany Park, North Park, Sauganash, Mayfair, Independence Park and Old Irving Park neighborhoods. The chairman of the City Council’s Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee, she’s probably best known to cyclists as the sponsor of a new ordinance that bans texting and talking on cell phones while cycling. But she’s actually one of City Hall’s outspoken advocates for sustainable transportation.

As part of our ongoing project to interview all fifty of Chicago’s aldermen about sustainable transportation issues in their districts, I recently caught up with Laurino at her ward service office, 4404 West Lawrence, to get her views on walking, biking and transit issues in her ward and citywide.

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Tell me about your commuting habits. Do you ever get around the neighborhood on foot, on transit or by bicycle, or use those modes to get around other parts of town?

Communicating with residents and businesses within our neighborhood is always a challenge. One of the ways that I find most interesting is to get out there and walk down the street and talk to some of the businesses to see how things are coming along. I also have occasion to ride my bike, and I plan on taking the CTA Brown Line downtown later today.

Do you have any long-term goals for the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committee?

There are a number of things I think we can do committee-wise to improve safety. We need to push the envelope on a number of issues, like better street markings and crosswalks. How simple is that? We’re also going to be having some hearings soon on how these “Stop for Pedestrians” signs are working.

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A CDOT crew member installs a “Stop for Pedestrians” sign.

Do you have some of those in your ward?

I have them at three locations right now and I consider them pilot projects because truthfully we want to see how they actually are working before we install more. For example I’ve had requests for them to be on Peterson where there are two lanes of traffic. I think that would be a safety nightmare. Say one driver stops but the other motorist doesn’t know why the person in front of him is stopping and tries to go around him. How do you think the signs are working?

You’re the first person I’ve heard bring up the idea that they might be causing safety problems.

Well I wouldn’t say that, I’m just saying, think before you put them at a location. I suspect and I hope that our department of transportation has some criteria about where they would be safe and where they wouldn’t.

So some of the other things in the committee… We did the bike-share-program ordinance in the committee. And we did the speed-camera ordinance in the committee.

Where in your ward would you like to see speed cameras installed?

One location might be Foster Avenue from Pulaski to Cicero, in front of Gompers Park. I mean it’s oftentimes an area where cars really speed because for whatever reason, where there are no homes and it’s just wide-open parkland, people just seem to hit the accelerator. We’re also looking at doing a road diet, where we would make the street narrower through paint striping.

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Foster Avenue by the Gompers Park fieldhouse.

So you were the mastermind of the ordinance against using cell phones while biking. How did you get the idea for that?

It was during a committee meeting. When the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, [Enrique Peñalosa, a leader in the car-free streets movement] came to my committee last year we were talking about the kind of things that they do in his town to promote pedestrian friendliness and their bike lanes. And some of my colleagues at that time said, “Oh that’s great, but what about bicyclists that aren’t obeying the rules as it is, and why don’t we license bikes?” And they were coming up with some rather extreme methods.

These are other aldermen on the committee? You probably don’t want to name names.

No, I’m not going to name names! [Laughs.] However, it did give me the idea that there might be some things that we could look at and truthfully I have seen people, right on LaSalle Street, texting and biking. I mean, I’m talkin’ with both hands, all right? I’m not sure how they do that. Maybe these guys perform in the circus when they’re not doing that. So anyway, it’s common sense. Do we really need to pass laws for this? But apparently you do because people weren’t using common sense.

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Photo by Thomas Moisuk.

Since there was already a no-cell-phone-use-while-driving law you used the term “leveling the playing field for bicyclists and motorists.” So how has the bike ordinance been working out? Do you think it’s mostly served to raise awareness that it’s a bad idea to talk on a cell phone while biking?

Absolutely. It’s an education issue. Because truly if you go back and look at the police department, are they really pulling over everybody that’s texting in a car or talking on the phones? No, but they’ll get somebody here and there, just as an example. And I think that that’s legitimate. We need to send out the message that safety comes first.

You know one thing I’ll say about the bicycle ordinance is it has certainly put the issue more in my mind. Because when I’m riding my bike if my phone rings it’s tempting to keep pedaling and talk on the phone. It’s easy for me to do that. But nowadays I think twice about it and tend to pull over.

Good. You’re one of my success stories.

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  • Ryan Wallace

    Great insights. How about interviewing 44th Ward Alderman Tunney next? I am not sure if he is also on the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Committeem, but he can often be seen riding his bike around the ward to hunt out infrastructure issues.

    • Adam Herstein

      He is also looking into Neighborhood Greenways for Roscoe and School/Aldine.

  • Carl J

    Does the city report the number of tickets given for using a cell phone while biking? I see people sexting just about every day.

    • BlueFairlane

      I would ask how you know they’re “sexting,” but I’m not sure I want to know.

  • Bicycle Bob

    Come out in October and take a bike ride with Ald. Laurino to explore the history of the ‘hood. The ride up up along, and through, the Sauganash Trail, known locally as “Marge’s Mile”

  • madopal

    I’d love it if they actually connected the Sauganash trail with something. I take it coming from the north, and let me tell you, crossing Devon to actually GET to that trail is no party. And if you’re coming up it from the south, there’s a real “where do I go now?” sense at the end.

    Also, I can’t say that it’s strictly the signs, but I see the behavior on a 4 lane she describes all the time. I constantly stop for pedestrians on Peterson and on Ashland, and pretty much every time, someone will pass me in the other lane and blow through the crosswalk. It can actually make it more dangerous for someone crossing, as the stopped car can block the view of traffic in the other lane. I’m not sure what the solution is on wide roads like that. Maybe we just need more ticketing/education? Are they even teaching the bike/crosswalk laws in driver’s ed?

    • Alzo

      Yeah, it would be great if Sauganash trail went north of Devon, but that’s Lincolnwood. Speaking of which, that town has a nice kind of ‘push button for crossing light’ at McCormick and Pratt- that might be a better solution for wide streets like Peterson.

      • madopal

        Well, not even so much trail (and yeah, the space is there, but I understand that getting villages to play nicely isn’t the easiest), but I mean…a sign? A way to ride somewhere? I remember the first time I took it from Bryn Mawr, when I got to the end, I thought, “What? They just dump me here on a curb in mid block of a divided street?” It seemed kinda odd. Maybe some signage to recommended bike streets? As it is now, you have to go a block on sidewalks west to even get to a stoplight. I take a back road over from Pratt, and I have to cross between medians coming off of someone’s driveway to get over to a sidewalk to get on the trail. It’s definitely a nice trail that does little use for anyone other than the walkers who can come up from their backyards.

        Once you do get to it, it’s a great way to cross Peterson, though.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y7JP7PWUNEJQQ4I7G6XWBQJPK4 Alzo

          It would be up to Lincolnwood to build the trail (assuming the old railroad right-of-way is in play). Then, they’d have to deal with crossings at Pratt (no problem) and Touhy (yikes). After that, you cross Lincoln (uh, oh) and you’re in Skokie. If this potential route were in Chicago’s city limits it would be very possible. CDOT had the means to build new bridges at Peterson and Rogers (where the embankments are above grade), but it’s a stretch to think a small town like Lincolnwood would spring for anything on that order; it would have to be petitioned for by residents and (sorry) not by those of us just passing through.

          • Adam Herstein

            What about a south extension, or would the right of way be in an active rail line?

  • dariaclone

    I have also been concerned about the two lane road situation for awhile. With or without the signs, as a driver, I am still legally required to stop for a pedestrian on Ashland and Western. But the other lane usually also keeps flying by and in my lane, traffic isn’t expecting me to stop somewhere that I can’t turn an could easily rear end me. Maybe the signs would help, but I would think that other alternatives might be safer on those roads–short pedestrian lights or improved medians, etc. There are long stretches on Western, Ashland and Peterson without any lights so something to help pedestrians is definitely needed, but just the law without physical reminders or barriers isn’t creating a safe situation.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Button-activated ped signals might be a better solution on four-lane roads.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-J-Robertson/1372483492 Matthew J. Robertson

    The stretch of Foster Avenue from Pulaski to Cicero is the ideal application of the speed camera technology. People can gripe all they want about Rahm’s money grabbing or the slippery slope of diminishing civil liberties, but this is a unique situation where a major thoroughfare cuts a large, busy park in half, leaving little leaguers and day campers to contend with jackass speeders racing through the neighborhood enroute to the expressway every time they need to use the bathroom at Gompers Park Fieldhouse. In recent years a car has crashed into the living room of a bungalow and a motorcyclist was decapitated in a collision with a pick-up truck, in plain view of the families enjoying an evening of little league baseball. In addition to the speed cameras, a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over Foster Avenue, connecting “Big Gomps” with “Little Gomps” would serve to link the bicycle trailhead in La Baugh Woods Forest Preserve with trails in Eugene Field, River Park and beyond, further enhancing safe cycling throughout the 39th Ward. All it takes is a little common sense to understand the current peril, and a little imagination to see the future possibilities.

    • http://gridchicago.com John Greenfield

      Thanks Matthew, great to get a local’s perspective.

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