Street Smart Chicago

A Pedestrian Idea: Why it’s time for the city to value walkers as much as drivers

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By Ella Christoph

Taxis honk and confused minivans hover midintersection. Bikes slide through the streets dodging doors and inflexible drivers. The crowd at the corner builds as commuters come to a halt—“Don’t Walk”—purses and briefcases still swinging. They are sprinters, waiting for the race to start up yet again, and their toes grip the edge of the curb. Tourists slowly line up behind the professionals, soaking up the pause in momentum by craning their necks so their eyes can finally reach past the skyscrapers and remind them the sky is the same as the one back home. Reverse vertigo. Suddenly it feels like forward movement. The jostlers push from behind, commuters who missed the start, arm-linked teens who keep hips close and one elbow out, a weapon against accidental intruders. Sensory overload, too much touching, harsh car metal and harsh car smell way too close. A throng of trajectories head in different directions and at different velocities, but they brush each other, and for a few feet, we all head in the same direction. Speed travelers and slowpokes alike get a rush, taking pleasure in this offering up by the city, imperfect but commanding.

As Mayor Daley heads out of office, much of the positive press surrounding his long tenure points to his efforts to revitalize the city center—from Millennium Park to the South Loop, it’s hard to deny downtown Chicago’s improvement, much of it initiated by him. Chicago risked becoming a large-scale case study for the downfall of the American city center, and it’s not out of place to attribute its recent success as a tourist destination to the mayor who brought The Bean and Museum Campus. But the street-scape of Chicago has a long way to go before becoming a model for the American city. Even the lakefront and Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s crown jewels, are far from the level of accessibility that makes pedestrians—tourists and residents alike—feel at home. Fifty years after Jane Jacobs wrote her groundbreaking analysis of city planning, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” we now know a lot of answers to the previously unasked questions of how to make a city work. And one of those answers is that cars are not the answer. It goes beyond greening the city: in a high-functioning city of any size, fearless and timid explorers alike take pleasure in walks, bikes and public transit rides through their city—not slogging through traffic alone in their cars.

While walking in downtown Chicago is now comparatively pleasant, a crop of challenges still confront the pedestrian: even the most savvy resident of Chicago knows the shortest path to the water is a long one, leaving tourists feeling like they’re missing out on the Chicago secret to crossing Lake Shore Drive. Try checking out the Bean, crossing over Renzo Piano’s Nichols Bridgeway toward the Art Institute, and then attempting to hang out on the lakefront. It’s like getting hold of the king’s crown and realizing the biggest jewel is missing. The city recognizes the problem: the Grant Park Conservancy has a plan in the works to reconnect Queen’s Landing to the lake, but it needs funding. Another obvious downtown blight, the mess of Wacker Drive, is in the midst of reconstruction, and while it will add three acres of green space to the city, the reconstruction focuses on reducing congestion and improving efficiency, not accessibility for pedestrians.

Some of the challenges of downtown Chicago are more, ahem, pedestrian. Six of the fifty most dangerous intersections in Chicago were within a couple of blocks of the Loop, including three of the ten most dangerous intersections. But that doesn’t even get into the other seven most dangerous intersections, with 79th and King Drive and 79th and Ashland topping the list. The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) does try to preemptively spot these dangerous intersections. CDOT spokesperson Brian Steele says they do pedestrian crash analyses “all the time,” and that while they always send out a team after a fatal accident, they’re also looking at other intersections regularly.

A piece of legislation passed in July, House Bill 43, is designed to make it easier for police to come down on cars who don’t stop for pedestrians. The law previously required that drivers must “yield and stop when necessary” for pedestrians in crosswalks, leaving a large gray area that made the law hard to enforce. Now drivers “must stop for pedestrians,” making Illinois the thirteenth state to institute such legislation. Active Transportation Alliance (ATA) spokesperson Margo O’Hara says the bill was surprisingly contentious and was opposed by legislators from the suburbs who feared “this would cause a lot of crashes and traffic jams [and] there would be rear-end crashes.” But, she says, “You should be able to stop pretty easily” going at thirty miles per hour, the speed limit in most of Chicago.

But like any piece of legislation, it’s unlikely drivers will follow it unless it’s enforced. The new law went virtually unnoticed by the media and was not publicized by the city or state. “Yield” signs have yet to be replaced by signs requiring drivers to fully stop for pedestrians. According to CDOT’s Steele, fines can range from $50 to $500, and CDOT and the Police Department have continued with the Crosswalk Enforcement Initiatives that began before the law change. The police ticket vehicles that don’t yield to undercover, off-duty police officers who pose as pedestrians crossing at a crosswalk. (They also ticket speeding cars.) The hope is that the change in wording to HB 43 will make it easier to issue citations. Last year, more than a thousand citations were given to drivers; this August, the city issued 127 citations. The fifty-percent increase in citations is a move in the right direction, but probably not quite a “ticketing blitz,” as the Tribune described it last week.

Another recent effort to improve street safety, the red-light camera program, has come under close scrutiny. Steele says a study coming out soon will document the success of the cameras, which were placed in intersections with high numbers of vehicles running red lights. “We have seen a decrease in angle accidents at intersections that have red-light cameras,” says Steele, referring to accidents where one car hits another at a right angle, indicating a driver ran a red light. However, other studies, including one Chicago-specific study by the University of Chicago, indicate they increase accidents; some argue they’re simply used by the city as a cash cow.

One intersection, at 18th Street and Halsted, has in many respects benefited from increased pedestrian traffic. UIC students wander a few blocks past Maxwell Street after studying at a coffeeshop or getting their nails done. Residents of Pilsen do errands, and ambitious art lovers eventually hit 18th as they travel the gallery strip on Halsted. At the intersection, Andrew Kudelka, who grew up in Pilsen but recently moved to the West Side, grabs his son’s hand. Holding it tightly as the light changes, he looks both ways and crosses the street. Oblivious to his father’s anxious peering at the cars around them, four-year-old Sam (not his real name) skips across the street, impatiently pulling his father along. Kudelka’s mother-in-law and a handful of friends from high school walk alongside.

Everyone’s chatting—Kudelka’s mother-in-law speaks in Spanish with Antonia Lopez, and Kudelka admonishes Sam in Polish. They reach the other side of the street. Kudelka warily lets go of Sam’s hand but watches him closely as they stand in front of a shrine to Kudelka’s wife and Sam’s mother, Martha Gonzalez, who was killed in a hit-and-run right here, at 18th Street and Halsted, on October 13, 2009. Kudelka pulls out a laminated photo of Gonzalez, who is beaming in the image, wearing red lipstick and a grey tank top. There’s an explosion of flowers beneath her photo, prayer candles, a pair of sneakers transformed into planters. Kudelka and his friends discuss the skateboard deck that lies next to the shrine. None of them know where it came from, but they decide it must be from someone who knew Gonzalez. They still frequent the intersection, happy it’s become a central hangout spot for the community, but they do so hesitantly.

It’s been almost a year since Gonzalez’ death, and much has changed about the intersection, which is somewhat unusual because of its T-shape. 18th Street, eastbound, starts up again after Halsted a block south instead of continuing straight through the intersection, so cars driving on 18th must turn left or right. There are only two crosswalks at the four corners, so pedestrians who would like to cross on the south side of the street either jaywalk or go through two crosswalks to get to the other side. The crosswalks are repainted, new “Yield to Pedestrian” signs are in place and there are new traffic lights on one corner that have left-turn lights. One of the easiest but perhaps most significant changes is a three-second time delay that allows pedestrians to cross before vehicles can take a left turn. Before, pedestrians like Gonzalez got a green light at the same time as cars, misleading in its assurance that it would be safe—for both cars and pedestrians—to head into the intersection.

The Martha Gonzalez Memorial Committee (MGMC), founded by Kudelka in the wake of his wife’s death, demanded improvements like these, but they’re looking for more changes. They want to find the hit-and-run driver, and have raised $10,000 as a reward for anyone who provides information that leads to a conviction. Hit-and-runs are dismally frequent—in Chicago last year, more than forty-five percent of accidents involving pedestrians were hit-and-runs. Kudelka believes there are witnesses unwilling to come forward, so he’s set up an anonymous hotline (312-203-4986). It’s an ambitious goal, as hit-and-run drivers are difficult to track down—at the end of July, only three of last year’s fourteen hit-and-run cases had been closed with an arrest. There’s a police camera at the intersection, but it was rotating on autopilot, and missed the crash.

Despite efforts to make walking more pleasant and dangerous intersections less so, we can all think of that intersection in our neighborhood that seems like a ticking time bomb for accidents. Perhaps, so far, nothing has happened there yet, but every time we cross that street, we think to ourselves, “It’s only a matter of time…” The intersection at 18th Street and Halsted was like that for residents of Pilsen. According to MGMC, residents had complained to the alderman and even gotten CDOT to come out to the intersection. They pointed out an increase in traffic and a nearby truck-driving school. They saw the time bomb and contacted the city. “Pedestrian and turning vehicles have simultaneous light,” they wrote in a memo. One of their eleven suggested improvements was an independent left-turn arrow.

If you want improvements, it’s a good idea to ask. But asking wasn’t enough. MGMC says the CDOT representative disagreed—he thought the intersection looked just fine. Locals didn’t understand how he could think that—according to Vince Sanchez, from Alderman Danny Solís’ office of the 25th ward, locals had “seen people get hit, nicked, knocked off their bikes… But when we pulled the history of accidents, not one person made a police report,” he says. “If twenty people get hit but not one makes a report, it’s like nobody got hit.” So the police statistics backed CDOT up. Regardless of how many accidents happen at an intersection, they don’t count in official statistics unless a police report is filed. If someone gets bumped off their bike or nicked by a car, there’s a good chance they’re not going to go to the effort of filing a police report, and the city won’t know it’s a dangerous spot. But the time bomb keeps ticking.

After Gonzalez’ death, MGMC went to alderman Solís and worked with Sanchez to improve the intersection. After CDOT made initial changes to the intersection following their investigation after the accident, the alderman wrote a letter to CDOT with eleven recommendations for additional improvements. Only one of them could be carried out, CDOT replied—two speed bumps could be installed. The specific rules dictating what signs can go where are more complicated than anything you had to learn for your driver’s-permit test—for example, yellow pedestrian-crossing signs that use a visual symbol can only be used “where the crossing activity is unexpected.” Since crossing at the crosswalk at 18th and Halsted is “apparent and expected,” according to CDOT, the signs must be white “Turning Traffic Must Yield to Pedestrians” signs, which MGMC argues are less likely to be understood by the predominantly Spanish-speaking residents in Pilsen. (It’s possible the new must-stop legislation will lead to future changes concerning this specific item.) As MGMC found out, what may look to a pedestrian like an easy change to improve an intersection can lead you into “a lot of back and forth” and “a lot of red tape,” says Kudelka.

Frustrated they couldn’t get a greater response from the city, MGMC decided to gather community members together to complete a “Neighborhood Walkability Assessment” designed by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children (CLOCC). The Chicago-specific assessment instructs neighborhood groups to go out and watch the intersection they want to see improved. Assessors then identify problems from a list of thirty-eight potential obstacles to a pedestrian-friendly zone, ranging from poorly timed signals to speeding cars to a lack of places people want to walk to, like parks and stores. MGMC identified problems like speeding cars, buses and trucks driving on the sidewalk as they turned, and cars making rolling stops instead of complete stops. They hoped tangible data would encourage CDOT to institute greater changes.

There are plenty of studies determining what makes an area walkable, says CLOCC executive director Adam Becker, but “they’re not very user-friendly.” CLOCC wanted to increase the number of children walking to school, so they decided to transform more academic studies into an assessment community groups could use. The group had noticed “significant environmental barriers to walking and biking,” he says, and CLOCC realized “If people had a systematic way of assessing those problems… It [could] be an organizing tool [and] help communities feel empowered.” While Becker says MGMC is the first broader advocacy group that has used it, he says other block clubs in Chicago have gotten potholes filled and streetlights replaced through using the study, and that CDOT wants to reference the assessment in its guide for communities on how to ask the city for improvements.

Kudelka says they’ve had better luck communicating with CDOT by coming to them with problems rather than suggestions for how to improve the intersection, which can be easy to reject because of the complicated rules dictating signage and street construction. “We have to be the ones who bring it to the table and prove that there’s a problem here,” he says. “There are all these rules and regulations, but they’re very different than what the community wants.” After MGMC completed two walkability assessment sessions with total turnout of about seventy people, CDOT responded with a conceptual design and cost estimate for widening the sidewalk so cars and buses wouldn’t cut corners. The proposal was estimated to cost $400,000, but there isn’t any funding available. Kudelka says he appreciates CDOT’s efforts to look for a long-term solution, but he isn’t convinced widening the sidewalks is ideal or cost-effective. He says he wants to work with the city to find a solution—“I don’t want them to spend money unwisely either,” he says.

Kudelka’s efforts to improve just one intersection make the project of negotiating whole neighborhoods all the more daunting. If entire communities can only make the tiniest of changes even with the most dedicated efforts, it’s less of a surprise that even relatively new developments aren’t friendly to pedestrians. Walking from a lakefront condo in the South Loop to Whole Foods, three-quarters of a mile away, has the potential to be a delightful stroll for health-conscious residents of all ages but, with narrow sidewalks—in some areas not even wide enough for a couple walking to pass a pedestrian going the other way—zero greenery and speeding cars rushing by, it feels more like a surreal post-apocalyptic-post-industrial video game, where the goal is to not get run over. In his 1988 treatise on street-scapes, “City: Rediscovering the Center,” William H. Whyte wrote, “In principle, transportation departments plan for pedestrians as well as vehicles. But look at how they operate: federal, state, local—they are almost wholly concerned with maximizing vehicular traffic. The pedestrian is considered, to be sure, but as a problem, and not so much to be planned for as to be planned against.” It’s definitely a sentiment MGMC expresses, but it’s one that we all feel. As a pedestrian, it’s easy to feel like just another one of the cities’ problems, actively being planned against.

Downtown's most dangerous intersection for pedestrians, Michigan and Monroe

CDOT Pedestrian Program Coordinator Kirsten Grove says she’s actively planning for you, however. A comprehensive study by the city on pedestrian issues in 2007 means a number of initiatives are combating the woes of the pedestrian. While New York City’s comprehensive study on pedestrian safety came out recently and received plenty of press (especially for its finding that more pedestrians are hit by male drivers than female), Grove says Chicago is actually ahead of the game—the city did a similar study in 2007. Grove says a number of initiatives were enacted after the study. Realizing a disproportionate number of children and seniors were involved in pedestrian accidents, CDOT began doing outreach toward those groups.

They also began enforcing more at night, when accidents are more likely to occur, thanks to lower visibility and an increase in drinking among both drivers and pedestrians. (In 2008, forty percent of pedestrians and forty-four percent of drivers killed in cars accidents in Illinois had blood alcohol levels above zero.) They added countdown timers, far before many other cities made them routine additions to intersections. In 2008, Chicago had a pedestrian fatality rate of 5.89 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people, apparently making it more dangerous than cities like New York City (3.49), Boston (4.24), and Washington, D.C. (5.74). It’s tricky data to untangle, though—in more pedestrian-friendly cities, more people are likely to walk, and opportunities for pedestrian-related accidents go up.

According to Pete Strazzabosco, spokesperson for the Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning (DZP), changes to the zoning code in 2004 have also improved the city’s walkability. The code designated certain areas, many of them downtown, as shopping districts zoned with a focus on pedestrian needs. However, only streets that already have relatively heavy pedestrian traffic flow were designated, leaving plenty of streets that residents and commuters frequent just as unfriendly as they were before. Strazzabosco says his department is in “constant communication with the Department of Transportation… ensuring that all the different uses are going to function together in a safe and efficient manner.” Still, it’s a confusing breakdown, with CDOT, DZP and the Chicago Park District all responsible for specific elements of the street-scape.

CDOT’s Grove says the city is just beginning work on a pedestrian plan that will look at the big picture. The Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, which meets quarterly, includes several city departments as well as various advocacy groups, like the ATA and Access Living, which provides support for people with disabilities. “They’ll really be guiding the development of the plan. It certainly will not happen in a bubble in CDOT,” she says. The committee will create a plan that gives suggestions for land use and how to engineer the city to make it more accessible, and safe, for pedestrians, bikes, public transportation and people with disabilities. While the council won’t be able to establish new laws or requirements, Grove says the plan will help make Chicago a more pleasant place to walk. Some projects have already begun: the project to rebuild Wacker Drive is designed to increase green space, reduce congestion and improve safety, and a portion of Humboldt Drive has been reduced from four to three lanes with the addition of a left-turn lane and an aptly named “pedestrian refuge area.” The test will examine whether the change slows cars and improves pedestrian safety.

Changing signage and redesigning intersections is complicated, expensive business, but it’s not the big-picture solution the ATA believes would really improve walkability. More than any physical changes, says O’Hara, we need to change our way of thinking. “Illinois has a long way to go as far as the culture around driving and pedestrians,” she says. “People don’t actually see people walking because they’re not looking for people walking… They can’t be bothered to stop.” In order to get cars to stop, first you need to get them to slow down, she says. “What’s interesting is that the small amount of speed increase has a huge effect” on the chances of a pedestrian living. According to O’Hara, pedestrians hit by a car travelling at thirty miles per hour have an eighty-percent chance of living. Bump that up only to forty miles per hour, and rates of survival plummet to just twenty percent.

As I started researching pedestrian issues, I couldn’t ignore my own frustrations as a pedestrian, although I usually tried to avoid thinking about them—it reminded me of my own mortality. Ticketing a fraction of a percentage point of drivers who don’t yield at crosswalks clearly wasn’t enough to get cars to even consider stopping for me at the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and Kimbark, even though a crosswalk initiative happened at that very corner on the morning of June 26. As I stepped off the #2 Bus Hyde Park Express on my way home from a day of reading up on House Bill 43 into the crosswalked intersection, I indignantly looked into the eyes of the speeding drivers heading my way, put my hand up to indicate they needed to stop (It was the law! It was no longer up for dispute!), and watched them speed by, honking at me for my insolence. Even before the law had been clarified, the legal expectation still would have been that those cars yield to me. Either way, it made little difference to them. I felt more like I was running across a highway than crossing at a marked intersection.

My research also made me think more of the times I didn’t follow the rules of the road as a pedestrian—when I jaywalked, when I crossed on a red light because I didn’t see any cars nearby, when I started crossing the street even though the signal had been flashing red for many seconds. Cars can kill pedestrians, but pedestrians rarely kill drivers. On the other hand, establishing a culture of respect on the roads should work both ways; anyways, many of us have been on either side of the wheel, equally frustrated with the scofflaw dangerously close to us. I realized I needed to follow the rules if I wanted others to obey as well. It was harder than I expected—it’s one thing to wait for a light to change by yourself, but try asking a horde of friends anxious to get to dinner to wait for the light to change while the street remains decidedly absent of any cars. Without a child in tow or a recent accident of their own to remind them what could happen, it’s unlikely you’ll get a very sympathetic response.

Sanchez, from Alderman Solís’ office, says there needs to be effort on the pedestrian’s part as well to improve traffic safety. “Although you have the right-of-way, don’t take it for granted,” he says. “Don’t text while crossing the street. Don’t talk on the phone while crossing the street.” It’s a vicious cycle: pedestrians, frustrated that cars seem to ignore them regardless of whether or not they cross at the intersection or jaywalk, wait for the walk sign or dash across while they don’t see any approaching cars, ignore the rules of the road. Likewise, cars assume they can go when they want and leave pedestrians to fend for themselves. “In Chicago, it’s a common thing to jaywalk,” says Sanchez, who says during a visit to family in California, he got warnings from police in two different cities reminding him not to jaywalk. He says he was surprised. “I didn’t want to make it a third time that they stopped me,” says Sanchez, who has since stopped jaywalking.

But Sanchez doubts he would get a warning in Chicago. He’d like to see the police consistently enforcing traffic laws, for both pedestrians and cars, and has reached out to the Police Department to request an increase in enforcement. “As far as pedestrians crossing streets, I’d like to have the California approach,” he says. “If the police department would enforce that, the speeders and the people who don’t observe the rules of the road, the stop signs, the lights, no-turn-on-red, I think that would lower the risk or the potential of accident,” he says. Sanchez says he’s seen more aggressive driving in the past fifteen to twenty years. “Although they have the right-of-way, I would not put my life at their risk,” he says. “One day, just sit out at a corner where there’s a stop sign and cars, and people-watch, and think about what I was saying.”

Then, call up your alderman or CDOT and let them know what needs to be fixed. Maybe, if the statistics back you up, you’ll help to deactivate just one ticking time bomb in a city of thousands.

One Response to “A Pedestrian Idea: Why it’s time for the city to value walkers as much as drivers”

  1. PhantomMouse Says:

    In my neighborhood, pedestrians have to contend with more than just impatient drivers. I regularly have to dodge adult men riding their bicycles on the sidewalk, along Milwaukee Ave. I also agree with you Ella, cars rarely stop for me while I am crossing the street. It doesn’t matter if there’s a traffic light or a stop sign. Hell, I had someone turning left towards me as I was crossing a street this morning. I think he felt he was being polite by ensuring he was far ahead of me (in the crosswalk) by aiming for the wrong side of the street, since there weren’t any cars waiting at the stop sign.

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