Try a Diet: Calm Traffic, Get People

While walking to the store this past spring, my wife and I were almost killed.

On a rare free weekend, we decided to tackle a house project that had been long-delayed: Purchasing mini-blinds for our den. So we set off for the closest hardware/housewares store, which happens to be Menards in Evergreen Park, to do some shopping. Now, the Menards development is hardly what anyone would consider “walkable.” It is in a shopping center with a massive parking lot on a road designed to funnel massive numbers of automobiles. But it’s still just three blocks from our house, and to me, that distance hardly ever justifies staring up the car.

As we approached Western Avenue at 92nd Street, we did everything we were “supposed” to do: We pressed the button for the walk signal (a device derisively called a “beg button”) and waited for the light to change from the orange hand to the white pedestrian. Even after it changed, we didn’t rush into the street. We proceeded with caution, only to be met by a driver making a left turn into the northbound lanes on Western who came within a few feet of striking us before slamming on the brakes. Of course, there were blaring horns; words were shouted. Then, we finished crossing, our legs a little weaker from the scare.

20150725_091138
The scene of the almost-crime. There’s a crosswalk in there somewhere.

This is not an uncommon occurrence on our roads. When I talk about our main thoroughfares creating environments hostile to pedestrians, this is what I mean. Who wants to walk to the store when doing so can feel life-threatening? If we want high-quality development in our ward, if we want the type of foot traffic businesses thrive on, we have to think creatively about calming traffic.

It’s a ‘Stroad’ World, After All

Right now, the primary thoroughfares in Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood are what have come to be called “stroads.” The stroad — a term whose origin is linked to the Strong Towns organization — is the unholy alliance of a street and a road that has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of transportation infrastructure in suburban (and often urban) America. Let’s break it down: A road in and of itself is generally a high-speed connector between two places. It has few access points and little to no development along it. These are the characteristics that make it effective, as it can provide a convenient travel environment for longer distances. They also are the characteristics that make it safe.

Illinois Highway 38 heading west toward DeKalb. A classic road. (Google Streetview)
Illinois Highway 38 heading west toward DeKalb. A classic road.
Illinois Highway 59 between Wauconda and Volo. A road (but definitely taking on highway characteristics). (Google Streetview)
Illinois Highway 59 between Wauconda and Volo. A road (but definitely taking on highway characteristics). (Google Streetview)

A street is a low-speed place for travel that accommodates a variety of types of transportation, including foot, bicycle and car. Development along it is usually traditional in nature — storefronts that open to the sidewalk, residential stoops, large windows. A street has many signs of life along it, and in this sense, it is a sort of platform for sociability and economic exchanges. The street provides the skeleton on which the rest of the city sits. Like the road, it is a safe environment by virtue of the low-speed travel that occurs along it.

Street 1 111h
111th Street in Mount Greenwood. A classic street. (Google Streetview)
Street 2 53rd
53rd Street in Hyde Park. Another classic street. (Google Streetview)

A stroad, on the other hand, is what engineers designed when they tried to combine the high-speed and convenience of the road with a veneer of walkability. Vehicles tend to travel in about 40 mph spurts before stopping at a light a mile or so away. They usually have four lanes or more, even though they frequently don’t need them. They have sidewalks, but they don’t carry many people. New development is designed solely for cars in the form of shopping centers, while any traditional development that pre-dates “stroad-ification” either withers or is uncomfortably incorporated into the new environment with driveways and parking lots. Western Avenue is a stroad. 95th Street is a stroad. 111th Street in Morgan Park is a stroad. They don’t need to be. We can work toward un-stroading them.

Stroad 1 Western Avenue
Western Avenue, a stroad in the hearts of Beverly and Morgan Park. (Google Streetview)
Stroad 2 Pulaski
Pulaski Road, a stroad between Mount Greenwood and Oak Lawn. (Google Streetview)

Slimming Down

Creating a safe pedestrian street these days can entail a road diet, or so-called right-sizing of a roadway. Typically, this means that on overly wide roads, a travel lane in each direction is removed. The remaining lanes are narrowed, while bike lanes are added, sidewalks are widened and other measures are taken to make the area more inviting for non-motorists while car traffic can still move smoothly.

Road Diet 1 Lawrence
Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square was once a four-lane stroad. Now, it has two travel lanes and two bike lanes, plus pedestrian islands and, in some places, a center turn lane. (Google Streetview)

Here is how the discussion about road diets is playing out in Oak Park:

“Trustees voted in April to focus the village’s attention on a stretch of Madison that runs from Oak Park to East avenues. The plan includes a so-called road diet that would reduce that stretch of Madison from five lanes of traffic to three and add a bike lane.

“The road diet will slow down traffic, making it easier for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the street, and reduce automobile collisions.”

A road diet is not streetscaping, although streetscaping can be part of it. For example, 95th Street is undergoing a streetscaping project right now, which is freshening up the medians and adding decorative crosswalks. Although the project includes a nice safety feature — pedestrian islands so people walking across the street can find refuge — it is more of a Band-Aid than a cure for a disease. Pleasant-looking medians and other decorative features alone won’t get me out and walking, but make me feel like I won’t die just strolling over to Top Notch for a Beefburger — well, that’s a different story. Giving pedestrians a sense of safety and comfort can go a long way to turning around a foundering business district.

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Pedestrian islands are nice, but once you get to the middle of the road, you still have to contend with two more lanes of fast-moving traffic.
20150725_083416
Clearly-marked crosswalks are definitely a step in the right direction, but what are the chances all vehicles in these four lanes will actually stop?

In the past, people have suggested to me that 95th Street and other similar neighborhood roadways aren’t known for having many vehicle-pedestrian crashes, but I have to disagree after looking at the numbers. The Chicago Crash Browser is a handy tool for checking out historical crash data across the city (although the most recent information available is for 2012). Using it, we can see that 18 crashes between vehicles and pedestrians and five crashes between motor vehicles and bicycles occurred along 95th Street in Beverly between 2005 and 2012, all of them resulting in injuries. Granted, there has been a steady decline in the number of such crashes, but any number of pedestrians injured by cars is too many, especially because there are roadway designs that can help reduce them.

Residents know the conditions of our thoroughfares, and they know that these are places to avoid on foot. It’s not uncommon for drivers on 95th Street or Western Avenue to zip along at 45 mph or swerve around another driver traveling the speed limit. Think about this: The risk of a pedestrian dying from injuries in an automobile crash rises exponentially when vehicle speeds are greater than 25 mph.

city speed chart
(World Resources Institute)

In addition, a driver’s field of vision  narrows with faster speeds. With that information, and knowing that the speed limit on most of Chicago’s main roadways is 30 mph, ask yourself if you want to be walking around these places in their current condition.

Does It Work?

The only way to make pedestrians feel more comfortable is to make drivers feel less comfortable. That doesn’t mean making driving completely inconvenient — it just means ensuring that drivers can’t make risky maneuvers by designing a more complex environment. In the past, the prevailing notion among traffic engineers was that in order to make pedestrians safer, there had to be a strict separation between them and vehicle traffic. Today, though, the numbers don’t bear this out, as vehicle crashes become a leading cause of death. Planners and engineers are now realizing that if a driver is surrounded by a lot of pedestrian activity, he or she will have no choice but to exercise caution, because danger is perceived. A driver will also move slower if there are more barriers to high speeds, such as narrower travel lanes and adjacent bike lanes.

These are the principles that have made road diets so effective. And lest you think this is just hyperbole, a 2013 study for the Federal Highway Administration found that in rural areas, road diets reduced the total number of crashes by 47 percent, while they reduced crashes by 19 percent in suburban areas. Combined, that’s a 29 percent decrease.

But I know there are two burning questions on many people’s minds. The first is, “How can we afford this? Chicago is broke.” One of the things I love about road diets is that they are relatively inexpensive yet return so much to the city in the form of increased tax revenue, which I will get to later. To put things in perspective, the residents of Jefferson Park recently voted to have bike lanes striped on Milwaukee Avenue. The cost? Just $60,000.

The other question is, “Won’t this cause congestion?” It’s a fair point, although I would argue that it shouldn’t be the main consideration. The 2013 study notes that on roads carrying more than 20,000 cars per day, a road diet could cause congestion. Since I looked at 95th Street for crash data, I’ll go back to it for vehicle counts. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, 95th Street carries 29,800 vehicles per day between Ashland Avenue (in Chicago) and Kedzie Avenue (in Evergreen Park). This made me a little skeptical, as these figures include a very auto-oriented segment of Evergreen Park west of Western Avenue. The Chicago Department of Transportation breaks down the numbers a little more, and we see that around 95th and Damen, that figure drops to around 25,000. If congestion were to ensue, could we live with it if it means a safer environment for pedestrians?

Still, there is no given that our neighborhood would become caught up in a traffic nightmare. After all, one of Chicago’s many beautiful features it its grid network of streets, which is designed to disperse heavy traffic in many directions. Plus, some short trips that are now done by car will likely become trips done on foot or bike if the conditions have improved. It’s also worth looking to other cities to see how their road diets impacted congestion. In Austin, Texas, for instance, 37 streets accounting for more than 26 miles were “right-sized” since 1999. A recent report by that city noted that “motor vehicle travel time is either maintained or in some cases even reduced and motor vehicle volumes remain comparable before and after the project.”

People Will Spend Time and Money in a Safe Place

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: There is no magic bullet to solving the problems that plague parts of our neighborhoods. But making our streets more hospitable to pedestrians would go a long way to helping restore foot traffic on once-thriving streets. Calming traffic must be a key part of our strategy moving forward to revitalize our commercial corridors.

In closing, I’d like to revisit an anecdote I shared in a previous post. The city of Lancaster, California, an exurb of Los Angeles, fell on hard times after the housing bubble burst. Its downtown, divided by a stroad not unlike those you find around here, struggled to attract economic development. Desperate for a change, the municipality drastically rethought what its city center could be and set about turning it into a pedestrian mecca. Part of this plan involved putting its main street on sort of an extreme, heavily streetscaped road diet. The results? Fifty new businesses, a 117 percent increase in revenue, $130 million in private investment, 1,900 jobs and a 9.5 percent increase in property values. Of course, the road diet didn’t do all of this. But click the link above and look at those pictures. Can you imagine everything that happened occurring on a typical suburban stroad? Would you even feel safe there?

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