Chicago Pedestrian Plan takes its first steps

By Vanessa Morton

Columbia students have more to fear than homework and increased tuition. Among Chicago’s 77 different communities, the Loop stands out as one of eight areas with the most pedestrian crashes, according to the City of Chicago’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis. However, the city is in the early stages of devising a plan that will try to reduce the number of such accidents between pedestrians and vehicles.

The Chicago Department of Transportation and the Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council have joined together to develop the new Chicago Pedestrian Plan, which is set for completion sometime in 2012.

According to Brian Steele, CDOT’s director of communications, the CPP will serve as a master plan for development, education and enforcement throughout the city. He said the plan would not only include new initiatives but retain old ones that have kept pedestrians safe.

“The pedestrian plan will really be a road map for all of the things in the city related to pedestrian activity,” Steele said. “And a lot of what will be in the plan are things we’ve been doing for some time.”

The development plans include consistent attention to infrastructure issues around the city. Some infrastructure improvements that have been considered range from better pedestrian countdown timers, providing pedestrians a way to know how much time they have left crossing the street; signal timing, which gives pedestrians a head start, befitting the needs of children and seniors; refuge islands in the middle of the street designating room for pedestrians who only make it halfway across; and a traffic calming program, using speed bumps and other measures to make neighborhoods safer by making the streets harder to speed on.

Adolfo Hernandez, director of advocacy and outreach with the Active Transportation Alliance—the largest non-profit, bicycle, transit and pedestrian advocacy group in the region—explained that upkeep on infrastructure around the city is vital when it comes to keeping pedestrians safe; however, enforcement needs to improve as well.

He said there are still unanswered questions about who is and isn’t following the laws because it can become difficult to place blame on just one group of people. Hernandez suggested observing intersections to get a better understanding of what is happening at the cross streets.

“A lot of it is just actually observing the intersection and traffic movement, so an engineer and a planner would go out and look at the intersection,” Hernandez said. “They would see how many cars are actually yielding to pedestrians, whether pedestrians are actually crossing at a crosswalk, whether the timing of the light is long enough for the pedestrians to cross or whether they have to run across the street.”

Steele agreed to make this enforcement issue a priority. He said the sooner pedestrians and motorists work together to follow the law, the sooner both can help change the safety of the city.

“Only when all users of the public way are following the rules and behaving safely will the levels of safety we want to achieve be reached,” Steele said.

Since the CPP is still in the preliminary stages of development, both CDOT and MPAC have held seven public board meetings during the summer to discuss the progress of the new plan. The meetings were also aimed at soliciting public feedback or suggestions on ways the plan could help keep communities safer.

“The public feedback on an issue like this is absolutely critical for us to achieve our goals for improving safety,” Steele said. “We have heard not just opinions on how to make ideas better, but a lot of times it’s simply just a heads up about what they find to be a problem area.”

One roadblock the plan might run into is how to decide which issues might gain priority over others because of the CPP’s funding.

According to Steele, there will have to be certain decisions about what gets done first, because everything depends on what resources will be available at the time.

Kim Grimshaw Bolton, Metropolitan Planning Council’s communications director, said one way to save money would be to maximize the use of existing infrastructure.

“Every government is broke, and there is certainly no money for building new [infrastructure],” Bolton said. “So why not make better use of what we already have?”

Hernandez believes the decision to prioritize funding will be difficult, but also believes it needs to be realistic. He said there should be a system to prioritize intersections, corridors and neighborhoods around the city where the highest crash rates occur and use the resources accordingly.

“It’s sort of a reality [check] of what can be done and how quickly it can be done,” Hernandez said. “We should address the highest crash rates and look to prioritize them first in that regard.”

In terms of keeping the public informed, Steele said there would certainly be updates to keep the plan dynamic in nature.

“The Chicago Pedestrian Plan that we publish next year will be a dynamic document,” he said. “And down the line we’ll definitely put out an updated version to make sure we keep up with how the pedestrian environment has changed.”