The five scariest things I learned from Chicago’s pedestrian plan

September 28, 2012

Rose Harris was struck by a car and killed Thursday night, near the intersection of 79th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue. According to the Tribune, the 59-year-old West Side resident stepped out into the street between two cars; the driver who hit her did not have time to react. 

The stretch of 79th Street where Harris was killed is one of the most deadly in the city – at least for pedestrians. Chicago has labeled it a "high crash corridor," respsonsible for a significant portion of the pedestrian deaths we see here every year.   

It’s safer to be a pedestrian in Chicago than to be one in New York, Los Angeles or Dallas. Blame L.A. traffic, maybe, or those Texas super highways if you’d like; according to an analysis done by the city, between 2005 and 2009 we averaged fewer crashes between cars and pedestrians than did our large urban peers.

But as the death of Rose Harris illustrates, that doesn't mean Chicago is safe for people on foot.

Thirty-four Chicagoans died in 2009 after being hit by cars. The victims that year included 36-year-old Martha Gonzalez, a mother of two who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street at 18th and Halsted. Gonzalez and the others who died that year came from a total of 3,130 total collisions in which, according to the eerily technical language used in Chicago’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis “the pedestrian was the first point of contact for the vehicle.” Turns out 2009 wasn’t such a bad year, either: Nearly twice as many pedestrians were killed by cars here in 2005.

These numbers may seem small compared to say, the number of people who die in car crashes on Illinois highways: When I drove home via I-90/94 Wednesday night, the count from the digital sign read “721 traffic deaths this year.” By the next morning the count had ticked up to 724.

But Gabe Klein, Commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation, believes that even one pedestrian death here is too many. “These are preventable,” he told me earlier this week. “They are not accidents.”

Klein is spearheading Chicago’s ambitious “Vision Zero” goal, a ten-year plan to eliminate all traffic fatalities in the city. To this end, earlier this month CDOT released the city’s first-ever pedestrian plan, a set of proposals aimed at making Chicago streets safer for walking.

Some of the interventions outlined in the plan are already being put into place: Signs popped up at intersections around this city this summer, reminding drivers that it’s state law to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. (Sadly, the plan does not call for mimes.) Other ideas in CDOT’s plan are more expensive and will take longer to implement: “road diets,” like the one given to Humboldt Boulevard through Humboldt Park, that shrink wider roads to slow down traffic and often make room for bike lanes. A few ideas suggested in the pedestrian plan – like straight up banning left- and right-hand turns at all of Chicago’s iconic six-corner intersections – will strike many as audacious and unnecessary. 

While proposals like the one above are certainly eye-catching – pedestrian scramble, anyone? – what really caught my eye was some of the stats that piece apart just what the city is up against here.

Crashes in the crosswalk

Let’s start with this one:

  •  “78% of all [pedestrian] crashes. . . occurred within 125 feet of the midpoint of an intersection.”

According to the city, the most common place for a pedestrian to be when a crash occurs is walking in the crosswalk with the signal. So as a pedestrian, you can be doing everything right and still be killed. Frankly I find this disturbing, and apparently I’m not alone. “It is disturbing,” Gabe Klein told me. “We think most pedestrians are obeying the law. We think people in cars are not taking seriously their responsibility as drivers of a 3,000 lb. piece of equipment.” Klein cited by way of example a woman “taken out by a cab” while crossing in the crosswalk on Sheridan: “He ran over her like she wasn’t there.”

Speaking of cabs. . .

Watch out for taxis 

  • “28% of pedestrian crashes in the central business district involved taxis.”

Beyond the obvious – there are more cabs in this part of town as well as a higher concentration of pedestrians – Klein puts blame squarely on the cabbies themselves. “My feeling is that there are some really bad actors on the taxi side that are driving really badly,” he said. Klein said he takes cabs often and that he’s “seen them break the law when I’m in the back of the car and had to call it into 311.”

Ahead of the curve. . . in hit-and-runs

  • “40% of fatal pedestrian crashes in Chicago were hit and run. By comparison 20% of fatal pedestrian crashes nation-wide were hit and run.”

I found this stat especially disturbing. I myself was the victim of a hit-and-run crash in 2008 (although I was riding my bike, not walking, at the time) so I know first hand that there are unscrupulous jerks driving around Chicago. But twice as many unscrupulous jerks?

“We meet with the police every two weeks and we talk about this,” Klein said. A lot happens after dark. I think often we have people drinking and driving – I think they hit someone and they get scared and they flee.”

Klein also mentioned here how fast people in Chicago drive. Did you know that the speed limit in Chicago is 30 mph unless otherwise stated? You wouldn’t know it from, say, driving down Western Avenue. . .

Wide roads are the deadliest roads 

  • “Although arterial streets account for only 10% of Chicago’s street miles, 50% of fatal/serious crashes occurred on them.”

Because of Chicago’s grid, these wider, faster streets – Western, Fullerton, Cermak etc. – are unavoidable and apparently deadly. (See: Rose Harris) According to the pedestrian plan, they’ll also take the longest and will be the most expensive to fix. 

At least the city knows where to start?

Your mom tells you to look both ways for a reason

Finally, there’s this:

  • “15 to 18 year old pedestrians had the highest crash rate.”
  • “Older pedestrians were more likely to be struck in a cross walk than other age groups…”

Because younger people drive less – as Klein pointed out, “Millennials are not buying cars anywhere near the rate” of people of his generation – and older people walk more slowly, Chicago's most vulnerable citizens are getting hit and killed the most. Kids are mostly likely to be hit during the after-school hours of 3 to 6 p.m. Maybe Rahm’s plea for speed camera legislation wasn’t just a cynical revenue-generating ploy after all?

The city has a lot riding on getting this right, beyond even the lives at stake: Urban planners often point to a city’s walkability as a key factor in its overall livability. And I for one hope the city does get it right – for the likes of Rose Harris and Martha Gonzalez, and for those of us already glad we don’t live in L.A.