Making strides: can the Chicago Pedestrian Plan create safer streets?

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[This piece also appears in Newcity.]

This June evening is too pretty for the subway, so I bicycle south to the Pink Line’s California station to meet up with the Active Transportation Alliance’s Tony Giron (in the photo above, far right). He’s leading a march across the largely Mexican-American neighborhood of Little Village to Farragut High School for the first of seven public input meetings on the Chicago Pedestrian Plan.

Similar to the Bike 2015 Plan, this Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) document will be a roadmap for making the city a safer and easier place to walk. The goal is to reduce pedestrian injuries by half and fatalities by one hundred percent. “Chicago is a great city for walking,” says Giron. “But along with park paths and tree-lined streets, we still have roads that are difficult to cross, dangerous intersections and places that are inaccessible to people walking.”

Joined by a handful of young Active Trans interns and volunteers, we walk our bicycles west down leafy 23rd Street, past families hanging out on stoops and vendors selling paletas and elotes as Norteño accordion music plays on stereos. When we arrive at Farragut a man on an adult three-wheeler with a hubcap-covered sound system on the back is pedaling around the schoolyard, trailed by kids on BMX bikes and tricycles.

Inside, various city agencies and nonprofits have set up info tables. CDOT’s display features a “pedestrian toolbox” of strategies to make foot travel safer: countdown walk signals; pedestrian refuge islands; bump-out curb extensions to shorten crossing distances; “road diets” which slim streets from four to three lanes and more.

Soon new CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein addresses the audience of forty attendees. Although he’s only been on the job for a few weeks, Klein is already a darling of local walking, biking and transit fans because of the aggressive, possibly unrealistic, green transportation agenda he and Mayor Emanuel are pushing. They’ve pledged to create bus “rapid transit” lanes, extend the Red Line, build 100 miles of car-separated bike lanes, create a robust public bike-sharing system and build the Bloomingdale Trail elevated greenway in only a few years.

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Gabe Klein

They’re also promising to level the playing field for walkers with fewer right-on-red intersections, plus traffic signals that give pedestrians a three-to-five-second head start before cars get the green. In addition the city plans to create pedestrian scramble intersections where motorized traffic stops completely for 14 seconds, allowing walkers to cross in all directions, including diagonally, at the same time.

“Everybody’s a pedestrian sometimes,” says Klein. He argues it’s critical for Chicago to protect vulnerable road users, like the eight-year-old girl who was killed by a hit-and-run SUV driver last week as she rode her bike in front of her Southwest Side home. “We want to put [the pedestrian plan] together expeditiously so we can have an impact as soon as possible,” he says. CDOT will draft recommendations and an action plan by the end of the year.

Next, John MacManus, a planning consultant who is coordinating community input for the plan, addresses the audience in an Irish lilt. “This is a very lively neighborhood,” he says, “Especially when Mexico beats Costa Rica in football, as happened last week.” He displays a graph showing that pedestrian fatalities have declined in Chicago over the last decade but he says they’re still too high. “Everyone single one of these is someone that someone loves, not just a statistic.”

Afterwards MacManus asks community members where pedestrian problem spots exist in the neighborhood and plots them on a map. Marcia Trawinski from the senior advocacy group the Older Women’s League says she’s pleased with what she heard at the meeting. “We want a Chicago where the priority is for pedestrians to be able to walk to get around or just for the joy of it,” she says. “Not just to move cars through the city as quickly as possible.”

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John MacManus

The next public input meeting for the Chicago Pedestrian Plan takes place on Wednesday, July 13, 6-8 pm at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake Street. View the full public meeting calendar.

What do you think – will this plan actually have an impact on improving conditions for walking in our city? What needs to change in order to make Chicago safer for pedestrians?

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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.

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