Is anybody actually using Chicago’s new pedestrian safety flags?

[flickr]photo:6591111363[/flickr]

Flags at Francisco and Devon – all photos courtesy of CDOT, taken the day the flags were installed

[This piece also runs in Time Out Chicago magazine.]

This fall the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) used a shock-and-awe strategy to raise awareness of pedestrian safety issues. As part of its $495,000 “It’s Up To You” safety campaign, funded by a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, CDOT placed scary ads on trash receptacles and buses, illustrating the devastating effects of reckless driving. The department also installed 32 dead-white mannequins along Wacker Drive representing Chicagoans killed by cars last year.

CDOT’s latest ped safety initiative is also in-your-face, but in a kinder, gentler way. On December 8 the department zip-tied canisters of blaze-orange safety flags to poles at ten uncontrolled (no stoplight or stop sign) intersections near senior centers, schools and hospitals all over town. Since state law requires cars to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, you’re supposed to grab a flag, wave it to signal drivers to stop, cross the street and leave the pennant in the container on the other side.

On the Monday three days after the flags were installed, I visited locations around the city to find out whether people were actually using the flags, or just stealing them.

At Brunson Elementary, 932 N. Central in Austin, the canisters were in place, labeled with directions for use, including the caveat, “Use at your own risk!” but all the flags were gone. “They were here last week,” said school engineer Joseph Pondelicek. “Somebody probably snagged them over the weekend.”

[flickr]photo:6591233795[/flickr]

A close up view of one of the label on the holding canister says how to use the flags, the slogans of the campaign, but also “use at your own risk”. 

In West Englewood at 64th and Western, near Claremont Academy, all six flags were still present. As neighborhood resident Deirdre Hatten was about to cross Western, I asked if she wanted to try using a flag. “I don’t think it’s going to work,” she said. “Drivers ain’t going to stop because they’re ignorant.” But motorists did slow down as she waved the pennant and sashayed across the street in knee-high boots, a Betty Boop jacket and a Santa cap.

Nearby at Churchview Manor senior apartments, 63rd Street and Talman, a concrete pedestrian refuge island in the middle of 63rd had chunks missing from where speeding cars had crashed into it. Four flags remained, and as resident Odelia Gardner prepared to cross I encouraged her to try using one. “The flags are a good idea but people are gonna take them just for the hell of it,” she said. After she waved a banner and stepped into the street I got nervous as cars sped towards her, but they eventually stopped. She looked delighted as she marched across and greeted crossing guard Gail Williams, arriving for work. “I got to do your job today!” Gardner crowed.

Over at Tarkington Elementary, 71st and Spaulding, all six flags were present, but at 79th and Loomis in Ashburn, near St. Sabina Elders Village, only two remained. “They’re already taking them,” said a female crossing guard at the intersection. “But you shouldn’t have to use those flags because the law says cars are supposed to stop.”

Up north in Rogers Park at the Croatian Cultural Center, Francisco and Devon, across from fragrant Anmol BBQ Pakistani restaurant, all the pennants were missing. Three remained at the six-way intersection of Elston, Grace and Bernard, across from the Abbey Pub, near Murphy Elementary. I asked Elvia Diaz, crossing with her little daughters Katy and Wendy, if she knew what the flags were for, and Wendy answered, “They’re for you to grab and wave at cars so they stop and you can cross the street.”

[flickr]photo:6591112571[/flickr]

Elston/Grace/Bernard

At Belmont Place senior apartments, Belmont and Kilpatrick in Kelvyn Park, manager Esmeralda Campos told me she brings the flags in at night so they don’t get stolen. Resident John Santiago said the pennants are a big success. “Everybody’s using them because people around here drive like they don’t give a damn.”

[flickr]photo:6591113689[/flickr]

Belmont/Kirkpatrick

The next day I returned to Belmont Place, waved a flag and succeeded in getting a pick-up truck to stop. I asked the driver what he thought the flag meant. “Probably some kind of construction project,” he replied. Back at the Abbey Pub, I saw that the last three banners had been stolen. “It’s too bad,” said crossing guard Ana Aviles. “The kids got a kick out of using them.”

When I called CDOT Pedestrian Coordinator Kiersten Grove and told her all the flags had vanished from three of the eight locations I visited, she said CDOT will occasionally restock the pennants, but she was unfazed that they disappeared so quickly. “This was meant to be a temporary campaign,” she said. “The idea was to raise awareness of pedestrian safety and spark conversations and we’ve definitely done that.”

Published by

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.

14 thoughts on “Is anybody actually using Chicago’s new pedestrian safety flags?”

  1. I’ve seen these all over Washington State, and even used them myself in Port Angeles.  People out there are used to them, and don’t think they’re strange.  It will take a while for Chicago to get used to them, and then either use them or ignore them.

  2. John, do you know if CDOT had specific goals for this part of their pedestrian safety campaign? Is it just an experiment, or are they expecting certain impacts to be made, like, an increase in driver compliance of the state law, or a reduction in injuries at those intersections, or an increase in “pedestrian satisfaction” (whatever that might mean)?

    I feel that this part of the pedestrian safety campaign, and the two parts before it (PSA-style ads on the trash bins mostly visible to people walking [apparently their safety is “up to them” and not the people driving the machines that cause the most damage], or the mannequins) are addressing the symptoms and not the causes.

    If we wanted to address the cause, we should be focusing on infrastructure design, as well as increasing enforcement of existing laws, harsher prosecution of drivers who break those laws, and better education (like mobility education).

    1. The long-term goal is to reduce annual pedestrian fatalities from 32 last year to zero.

      The campaign is directed both at motorists and pedestrians, with the idea being that whether you’re in a car or on foot, “it’s up to you” to prevent crashes. See http://chicagopedsafety.org for details.

      CDOT is working on improving ped infrastructure as well. Gabe Klein has promised “over 100 new leading pedestrian interval signals, $1.4 million for pedestrian countdown signals and $1.4 million for re-striping crosswalks and introducing high-visibility, zebra-striped “international” crosswalks.” You’ve probably noticed a lot more international crosswalks being striped around town recently.

      I would gladly swap enforcement of jaywalking laws for enforcement of laws requiring drivers to stop for peds in crosswalks. This is the case in West Coast towns from Seattle to LA: nobody crosses the street against the light and drivers always stop for peds in the (always well-marked) crosswalks.

      1. Is there any enforcement of jaywalking?

        So far I haven’t seen how the campaign is directed at people who are driving cars. They cannot see the ads on the trash bins, and as you’ve helped point out, the purpose and use of the flags are not well known. A driver may think that the flag is carried around by that person at all times, for fun. Nor is the meaning of the mannequins. 

        Gabe Klein said in an interview (and possibly other places) with the Chicago Sun-Times that he’s interested in reducing the number of places where drivers can turn right on red. 

        Drivers respond to traffic designs and enforcement. I hope CDOT will announce its strategies on that soon. 

      1. I’ve seen these signs scattered around Chicago. They are usually in the middle of the road, but then people hit them – after that, you’ll see them sitting on the sidewalk, I guess waiting for someone to put it back in the middle of the road. 

        They are used at Harrison/Peoria, where hundreds of UIC students/staff cross Harrison to go between the UIC/Halsted Blue Line station and the campus. Drivers do a pretty good job respecting the law at this crossing, even stopping for people on bikes who want to cross (while biking). (I don’t have a photo of this.)

        There are many of these signs scattered around the state that still say YIELD – they need that message to change to STOP, as the law changed in 2010. 

      2. Check out this intersection treatment in Chicago: http://www.stevencanplan.com/3d-experimentation/

        No word yet on the research to see if it was effective at meeting its goals. 

    1. Did you read the article? Have you talked to people who’ve used them? It seems that most of those interviewed, including crossing guards, children, and seniors, think that “this was a good idea.”

  3. Thanks for visiting the South Side. I agree about enforcing the law better, although I’m not sure how enforcing jaywalking laws (if they exist) in Chicago would help. 

  4. I attended a Chicago Pedestrian Plan meeting this past fall at Truman College and there were some good ideas presented and discussed. I learned a lot about sidewalk accessibility and shoveling in the winter.

    http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/cdot/supp_info/sidewalk_snow_removal.html

    That said, I’d like some more reasonable goals and concrete targets from CDOT and Gabe Klein. Zero pedestrian fatalities is perfection and we live in an imperfect world. How about reducing the amount of pedestrian fatalities per vehicle mile traveled, per pedestrian mile traveled, and trying to lead US urban areas in quantifiable safety measures? If you can’t concretely point to things that give you a 10% reduction in pedestrian fatalities (and I don’t mean a 10% decrease in population either) then you are just spinning people about safety.

    The flag idea strikes me as horrible. It shifts the burden from a legal
    behavior (walking in a crosswalk) from an illegal behavior (failing to yield to a
    pedestrian legally crossing the street). It’s akin to trying to reduce
    sexual assault by telling pedestrians to dress less sexy. It’s just wrong. And do drivers have to drive orange cars? I saw the flag idea in the news so maybe CDOT considers it a success. You have to be careful with cheap messaging ideas like this. Like abstinence programs that increase pregnancy and STD rates, sometimes they have the opposite effect of what is intended. People who use the program end up being ill-informed which makes things worse. Pedestrians have the right of way in a cross walk, full stop. I don’t need somebody thinking it’s OK to run me over in a crosswalk because I didn’t waive an orange flag, like I forgot to say Simon in a game of Simon Sez.

  5. I attended a Chicago Pedestrian Plan meeting this past fall at Truman College and there were some good ideas presented and discussed. I learned a lot about sidewalk accessibility and shoveling in the winter.

    http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/cdot/supp_info/sidewalk_snow_removal.html

    That said, I’d like some more reasonable goals and concrete targets from CDOT and Gabe Klein. Zero pedestrian fatalities is perfection and we live in an imperfect world. How about reducing the amount of pedestrian fatalities per vehicle mile traveled, per pedestrian mile traveled, and trying to lead US urban areas in quantifiable safety measures? If you can’t concretely point to things that give you a 10% reduction in pedestrian fatalities (and I don’t mean a 10% decrease in population either) then you are just spinning people about safety.

    The flag idea strikes me as horrible. It shifts the burden from a legal
    behavior (walking in a crosswalk) from an illegal behavior (failing to yield to a
    pedestrian legally crossing the street). It’s akin to trying to reduce
    sexual assault by telling pedestrians to dress less sexy. It’s just wrong. And do drivers have to drive orange cars? I saw the flag idea in the news so maybe CDOT considers it a success. You have to be careful with cheap messaging ideas like this. Like abstinence programs that increase pregnancy and STD rates, sometimes they have the opposite effect of what is intended. People who use the program end up being ill-informed which makes things worse. Pedestrians have the right of way in a cross walk, full stop. I don’t need somebody thinking it’s OK to run me over in a crosswalk because I didn’t waive an orange flag, like I forgot to say Simon in a game of Simon Sez.

Leave a Reply to Joemama Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.