Ride into the safety zone: new traffic calming and ped safety treatments


Englewood resident Denise King tries out the new refuge island at 63rd and Claremont.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

Running late as usual, I hop on my bicycle and sprint south from Logan Square, fortunately with a sweet tailwind at my back. I’m heading to the ribbon cutting for new Children’s Safety Zone traffic-calming and pedestrian-safety treatments at Claremont Academy Elementary School, 2300 West 64th Street in West Englewood.

The city has 1,500 of these safety zones, designated areas within one-eighth mile of schools and parks. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) is planning to install additional infrastructure at dangerous intersections within these sectors to discourage speeding and make crossing easier. Currently there are about 3,000 pedestrian crashes a year in the city, with about 800 involving kids (full data below). And in this era of rising obesity rates, the goal is also to encourage more children to walk to school and to play at their local park.

I zip down Kedzie Avenue through Humboldt Park, and Garfield Park, where I get a glimpse of Ruby’s, 3175 West Madison Street, a soul food restaurant where Martin Luther King Jr. often ate during his campaign for fair housing here. I zoom through Lawndale then shortcut across the lush Douglas Park green space to California Avenue, then continue south past the bodegas and taquerias of Brighton Park.

Turning east on 63rd Street, I make it to the school just in time for the press conference at 63rd and Claremont, the northwest corner of the schoolyard. Here the east-west street is a busy four-lane with 18,000 cars passing by the intersection every day, according to CDOT. Between 2008 and 2010 there were thirty-two crashes involving children within the school’s safety zone, half of them involving cyclists or walkers. One of these sixteen kids was seriously injured.


Toni Foulkes and Gabe Klein with representatives of the school and the Chicago Park District.

In response, the agency has installed a new pedestrian refuge island, high-visibility, zebra-stripe crosswalks, “Stop for Pedestrians Within Crosswalk” signs and a decal on a corner that reminds people on foot, “Be Alert. Be Safe.” They’ve also stenciled the words “Safety Zone” on the asphalt approaching the intersection and installed a speed feedback sign that tells drivers how fast they’re going. The total cost for these treatments was about $90,000.

CDOT’s Commissioner Gabe Klein steps up to the microphone to talk about the city’s ped-safety strategy. “We’re focused on education, engineering and enforcement,” Klein says. “We’re redesigning [intersections] with the ‘eight-to-eighty’ goal in mind. We’re looking out for eight-year-olds who are by themselves on the street, as well as eighty-year-olds that are on the street. And if we design for those folks then everybody else will be just fine.”

He goes on to discuss the new Chicago Pedestrian Plan, released last month and viewable at ChicagoPedestrianPlan.org, with 250 recommendations for making walking safer, more convenient and more enjoyable. “In this plan we state our goal of reducing serious pedestrian injuries by fifty percent over the next five years and eliminating pedestrian fatalities and, in fact, all traffic fatalities within ten years,” Klein says. This goal, called “Zero in Ten,” may seem like pie in the sky but, Klein argues, “With programs like the mayor’s safety zone initiative we can actually make that goal a reality.”


Photo of Gabe Klein and Alderman Foulkes standing in front of a speed indicator sign courtesy of CDOT.

Of course the most controversial aspect of the city’s new safety initiatives is the upcoming installation of automated speed cameras, approved by City Council earlier this year. In 2003, Chicago implemented an automated red-light camera program, which has probably prevented many crashes but has also raised millions of dollars for the city via tickets. Many have criticized the speed cameras as a money grab by Rahm Emanuel to help patch the budget gap, but if we can save lives and reduce the deficit by forcing motorists to obey traffic laws, that strikes me as a win-win.

Klein says next year the city will begin installing the cameras in school safety zones, in a maximum of twenty percent of the zones. The program will start with at least twenty-five cameras but could expand to 360 locations. Drivers will get a warning for their first violation, followed by tickets of up to $100 for subsequent offenses.

Next, 15th Ward Alderman Toni Foulkes takes the mic to share a story of a near-miss caused by a speeder. “I was over here on a Sunday afternoon and it was raining,” she says. “I was standing on the sidewalk and my car was parked right in front of me with blinkers on. A gentleman made a left-hand turn onto 63rd but he went a little bit too far and lost control and ran into my car. If the car hadn’t been there I know he would have jumped the curb and I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. So I personally know the importance of controlling traffic and speed.”


CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein crosses the street. 

Afterward I ask the commissioner to demonstrate the new crosswalk. As he strides back and forth across the intersection in his gray suit and yellow power tie with pictures of automobiles on it, motorists obey the “Stop for Pedestrians” signs without being prompted. But when longtime Englewood resident Denise King, a retired hospital worker, approaches the intersection, she tells Klein she doesn’t trust drivers to stop for her.

I ask her what conditions were like before they put in the new safety facilities. “You had to wait until the traffic lightened up before you could get across,” she says. “But now that this is up they still aren’t going to stop. So it’s best you wait until the light [a block west at Western Avenue] turns red.” Is it any help that the new refuge island allows you to walk halfway across, wait for traffic to pass, and then cross the rest of the way? “Yes,” she replies. “I have a back injury, both of my ankles have been [operated on] and I had knee surgery, so running is not my best thing.”

Pedestrian crash data

Year Crashes People People 18, younger Share of people 18, younger
2005 3472 3585 1034 28.84%
2006 3864 3964 1115 28.13%
2007 3778 3868 1064 27.51%
2008 3559 3666 865 23.60%
2009 3193 3278 770 23.49%
2010 3028 3143 734 23.35%
2011 2926 3031 698 23.03%

Data comes from the Illinois Department of Transportation. “Crashes” columns represents the number of crashes that year that involved at least one pedestrian. You would read the first row like this: 3585 pedestrians were involved in 3472 crashes (as several crashes involved more than one pedestrian).

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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.

9 thoughts on “Ride into the safety zone: new traffic calming and ped safety treatments”

  1. I am glad to see more of these pedestrian safety treatments going in. It’s one thing to write up a plan, but it’s another thing entirely to actually implement it. Operators of motor vehicles in Chicago are driving way too fast and aggressively. We have to remember that cities are made for people, not cars. More walkable neighborhoods tend to be the most desirable to live in. Not everyone drives a car in the city, and not everyone cycles either. But everyone is a pedestrian, so making cities safer for walking is making them safer for all.

  2. There is a street in my neighborhood that really needs this. There are crosswalks leading to the post office — a place everyone has to go, including seniors — and it’s extremely dangerous for pedestrians, because it’s a fast road where nobody stops unless you’re right in front of them in the crosswalk. And even then, they might swerve to get around you. I feel pretty safe on most crosswalks in the city, but this road really needs something like the neon signs at least. Does anyone know how to ask for something like this? Is the alderman’s office the best way to go?

      1. Thanks — it looks like it’s just at the end of a safety zone street, so I don’t know if it would qualify. But I don’t think we need a speed camera — I just want one of those neon signs that says State Law, Stop for Pedestrians so that people would be more likely to stop. I will start with the alderman and see what he says.

        1. I’m misspoke. Only 300 of the 1,500 safety zones can receive speed cameras. All of them will be prioritized for upgrades like the ones mentioned in John’s article.
          Even if the place in question is not in a safety zone, it can still get enhancements, but it may be prioritized lower.

  3. I would like to see an interactive map which shows the “safety zones” and allows for reader comment and for readers to add spots on the map that they consider problem areas. I’ve recently noticed pavement painting that says “Safety Zone” (not to say the painting is recent but I’ve recently noticed it) in some places in Washington Park, in particular along the Boulevard heading between Garfield Blvd and Midway Plaisance. There is no safe way to cross the Blvd in the park, and that is a major problem because it is a very large park and is about half on each side of the Blvd. We sorely need some wide, marked crosswalks there. I think they should also install some of those refuge Islands in areas like that as well as putting bollards with the message “Stop for Pedestrians in Crosswalk. State Law” in the middle of the street. They recently (in the last few weeks) installed two of them in front of the Hyde Park Academy High School on Stony Island, That was a very good idea. People drive way too fast on Stony. And they should put up more of those speed indicator signs. There is on on Stony Island for NB traffic between 57th and 56th street. It used to function but no longer does. It’s silent and blank. Why?

    1. 1. There is a map but it doesn’t allow user input, just identifies the areas. What would be the purpose of letting people add problem spots? Who would look at it or do something about those spots? http://geocommons.com/maps/138943
      2. I noticed the “safety zone” pavement markings in Washington Park. It is a “safety zone” as is every street within 1/8 mile of Washington Park. I don’t understand the intent of the pavement markings as they do not instruct road users to do anything about it. In the near future it may mean that you could be monitored by automated speed enforcement cameras, although that system will have its own sign notification system.
      3. Washington Park is a crap place to walk or bike as the streets are extremely wide and NONE of them have stop controls (just yields). The bike lane design here is quite stupid (on Morgan and Rainey Drives). There is not a safe way for bicyclists to change two lanes: http://goo.gl/maps/yYEG6 (satellite view)
      4. On the same drive around Hyde Park I went on where I saw Item 3, I also saw the non-functioning speed indicator sign. All of the ones I’ve noted their locations are non-functioning. I’ll ask. My list has 4 so far (including the one on Stony Island).

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