Recall my question from earlier: “Does the infrastructure force drivers to slow down?” There is nothing about this crosswalk that leverages risk homeostasis to make drivers slow down. The only features here that even indicate the presence of a crosswalk – a sign and some paint – have no teeth. Safety at crosswalks like these depend entirely on driver compliance to yield, which, when you’re crossing five lanes of traffic, means introducing five new variables into the safety equation. The same can be said of most bike infrastructure in our city. Painted bike lanes do not pose any risk to a driver or their car, which is why they are simply ignored, while concrete-protected bike lanes give drivers real consequences for getting too close. To be effective, infrastructure has to make doing something that endangers pedestrians or cyclists also feel risky to drivers.
Clearly some improved infrastructure is in order, but it has to be infrastructure that makes drivers sweat a little when they’re going too fast. Fortunately, there are many, many traffic calming features which provide physical cues that force drivers to slow down, and these can be implemented in ongoing cyclical maintenance. However, the problem has never been located in a lack of technology or know-how. All too often, our city employs relatively ineffective safety tactics like speed feedback signs or painted bike lanes because they are politically safe, since they do not inconvenience drivers.
Aside from political cowardice, a lack of coordination and will among elected officials to act in ways that prioritize the safety of pedestrians and cyclists is also part of the issue. Currently, in Ald. Tom Tunney’s ward, CDOT has plans to resurface a stretch of Belmont Avenue without installing robust protected bike lanes that connect with the Lakefront Trail, even though drivers have struck 59 people walking or biking on that segment since 2017. Wrongheadedness among officials can also be an issue, and unfortunately there are too many examples to enumerate here.
Recently 27th ward alder Walter Burnett ordered the removal of a concrete median on Madison Street in the West Loop to make driving more convenient. If that infrastructure had been left in, it likely would have prevented an intoxicated driver from veering into oncoming traffic and killing bike rider Paresh Chhatrala, 42, on April 16 of this year.
And let’s not forget the 18 alders who voted this summer for an ordinance that would have allowed motorists to speed by up to 9 mph near schools and parks. Alders have an outsized influence on infrastructure in their ward, and can use this power to make walking and cycling safer or more deadly, and thus must be held accountable.
Another crucial but less obvious sticking point for safer infrastructure is the intransigence of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), which often opposes measures that would enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety in the name of vehicular throughput. David Powe, Director of Planning and Technical Assistance at Active Transportation Alliance, argues that, “IDOT’s roadway design standards are one of the biggest hurdles to building safe streets. Right now, cities must design their roadways, intersections, and bike lanes to accommodate semis and delivery vans. Safe, human-centered roadway design will require statewide leadership to change the standards IDOT mandates for building transportation infrastructure across the state.” When politicians don’t want to take any risks and departments of transportation don’t want to sacrifice the needs of vehicles, people are sacrificed instead.
While in an ideal world, infrastructure improvements will reach the whole city, there are particularly problematic areas that should be prioritized. The following charts show the 15 most dangerous wards for pedestrians and the 15 most dangerous for cyclists. These are the wards with the most total injuries for vulnerable road users since 2015. While a particular alderperson may or may not have been in office since that time, their constituents have been feeling the effects of living in traffic violence hotspots the entire time.
It is time for City Council, state legislators, and CDOT/IDOT to act on a radical redesign of our streets. We need infrastructure that has safety, not danger, built into it. Yes, it will take leadership. Yes, it will “inconvenience” drivers. Yes, it will save lives.