On a recent evening, I had to travel to Bridgeport, and as I left Beverly, Thing 1 and Thing 2 served as two of my primary routes there and back. Of course, the Things in question here are roads, but I want to discuss them as more than roads. I want to talk about them as places, because we have a lot we can learn about what Thing 1 does poorly and what Thing 2 does well.
Thing 1: Ashland Avenue
I drove Ashland Avenue north to Bridgeport, since it is one of the more direct routes to the neighborhood. Ashland serves as a main commercial artery for a few neighborhoods along the way, including Auburn Gresham, Englewood and West Englewood, meaning that it contains a mix of uses, from retail space to apartments. In recent decades, many buildings along this route have fallen to the wrecking ball, leaving countless vacant lots along the way. The development that is occurring is typically of an auto-oriented nature. In other words, lots of single-use buildings with massive off-street parking lots, which leave many of the on-street parking spaces empty.
Of course, many of the off-street spaces are empty, too. There’s just way too much parking to serve the needs of this area. Car ownership in these neighborhoods is below the city average, as is household income. These are places where running errands on foot or by taking public transportation is common, and given the number of people I saw walking the sidewalks, it was clear the needs of the pedestrian are definitely not being met along Ashland. As I passed lot after lot of empty off-street parking spaces and block after block of empty on-street parking spaces, I saw a sign advertising a vacant lot for sale — that is zoned for 22 parking spaces. Because who doesn’t need more parking, right?
Oh, and Ashland is pretty much designed like a highway. Two northbound travel lanes. Two southbound travel lanes. A center turn lane no stop signs — only precision-timed traffic signals to ensure there is no lag in travel times. Streetlights look like they belong on a high-speed road, not one with a speed limit of 35 mph. Not that anyone actually travels 35. Everything about this road says “drive 55,” and if you’re adhering to the speed limit, most other drivers will maneuver around you. Large electronic signs suspended over the street remind motorists to buckle up and drive the speed limit, a sure signal that this is a poorly designed roadway.
It was this design that almost caused a terrible situation on my drive. A woman was crossing Ashland at a marked crosswalk somewhere between signaled intersections (near 69th Street, if my memory serves me).
She had made it to the center lane and needed to cross the other half of the road. Since it’s the law to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, and because I don’t want to cause great bodily harm, I stopped and waived her across. As I did this, the woman pointed to the other side of the street. I thought, Yes, I know you need to cross — please do so! But then I realized she wasn’t pointing to her destination. She was pointing to the other travel lane. The driver behind me had no patience for a person in the crosswalk and zoomed around me. Had the woman continued to cross, as she was legally protected to do, she could have been killed.
Thing 2: Pershing Road
Like Ashland Avenue, Pershing Road is a major thoroughfare for drivers traveling across the city, which is why when leaving Bridgeport, I decided to take it to Western Avenue. It cuts through a variety of areas, from industrial sectors to commercial districts to residential neighborhoods. From Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue, it’s pretty much your standard highway-like city road: Fast moving and likely dangerous to anyone not encased in steel. But west of Ashland, something interesting happens. Pershing goes on a road diet.
A road diet occurs when a thoroughfare is restriped in order to reduce the number of travel lanes, usually from five to three (one lane in each direction, plus a center turn lane). It also often involves restoring on-street parking, which acts as a buffer between vehicle traffic and pedestrians on the sidewalk, and, in the case of Pershing, adding bike lanes. Federal government studies have found that these conversions reduce the number of traffic fatalities and slow speeds, yet often don’t have a significant impact of travel times. Basically, they correct the design of streets that had been over-engineered and enabled reckless driving.
What’s most fascinating about Pershing is that unlike Ashland, it is not the commercial heart of the neighborhood, at least between Ashland and Western. Along this stretch, it passes warehouses and homes, and it also serves as the southern border of McKinley Park (the green space, but the neighborhood, as well).
Yet, it seems as if the road diet has made people more comfortable with being pedestrians in an area of the city that you wouldn’t typically think of as a hotbed of pedestrian activity. I’ve traveled this same rout several times, and I have seen a healthy mix of people on foot, on bike and in cars — all interacting in a way that is significantly safer than what I see on Ashland. When I stop for a person in the crosswalk on Pershing, I have assurance that the drivers behind me will stop, too.
Back home in the Beverly area, we have a lot of “Ashlands” and too few “Pershings.” On every roadway, our priority should be to think about how to make conditions safer for pedestrians. We should do this before we approve one more on-street parking lot, discuss removing on-street parking or consider road widenings. Accommodating more vehicles should be the last thing on our minds, as that is a job that is never finished. Instead, road diets should always be on the table. We should always think about what it would be like as a pedestrian or a bicyclist on our streets, because not only does each of those people remove one automobile from the roadway, each of those people is also the most vulnerable type of commuter.
I’d like to close with another brief anecdote. I road my bike the other day to Horse Thief Hollow to meet up with a couple folks after work. My primary route was Leavitt Street, because it seemed like one of the safest options. But I overshot my final turn. 104th Street would have probably been the cross street to take, but I went to 105th. So, I approached the stop sign at Western Avenue and waited for an opening to turn. Cars were moving pretty fast, but I felt comfortable backtracking only a block. Plus, I was visible. I was wearing a bright yellow helmet and utilizing a headlight and a blinking red taillight.
I got my opening and made the turn. Soon enough, though, cars were barreling down on me. I was as far right as I could be without scraping against the couple cars parked on the street. Then, one driver decided that instead of slowing down to at least the speed limit and passing me, he or she would rather blast the horn and speed by. The driver even attempted to swerve a bit, nearly crossing the dotted line and sideswiping another northbound vehicle. I was shaken, so I pulled off the road and walked my bike on the sidewalk.
I was using the street legally like so many other bicyclists and pedestrians, yet I was made to feel like I didn’t belong. I was on Western to patronize a business in my own neighborhood. I was preventing one more car from being on the street. I was reminded of why I don’t bike on Western Avenue, and that’s a shame because when bicyclists use residential streets, they are less apt to be aware of the businesses and amenities on our main thoroughfares, just as pedestrians aren’t going to spontaneously stop into a shop if they don’t feel safe walking on those streets.
We are doing ourselves a disservice if we adhere to the Ashland Avenue model. Instead, we should try to emulate Pershing Road, because once we do, many people will feel empowered to walk through their own community. And that’s a beautiful thing.