We haven’t had much snow this winter, but what has fallen on our neighborhood has spoken volumes about the way we transport ourselves from one place to another.
I snapped the photo above in January, but the story of what you see dates back months prior. Last fall, People’s Gas performed extensive infrastructure work in my neighborhood (and elsewhere in the area), and this required that portions of our sidewalks, parkways, and lawns be torn apart. After the work was complete, crews replaced the sections of missing sidewalk and sodded over the missing patches of grass. For the most part, everything went back to looking as it had before — except for the corner of 92nd and Leavitt streets.
Long before People’s Gas came to the neighborhood, the sidewalks along of 92nd extended all the way to the curb, where the street dead-ended at Leavitt. The crossing was never completely “official” — the curbs were not graded to be wheelchair accessible and on the west side of Leavitt, driveways served as unofficial crossing points. Still, given that these two streets border Kellogg School and serve as heavily trafficked routes to Christ the King and the 91st Street Metra station, the crossing points have always seen a good amount of pedestrian activity.
To complete their work, People’s Gas crews removed the sidewalk portions that extended to Leavitt. But when it came time to replace them, the neighborhood got patches of sod instead, effectively removing any semblance of a crossing for walkers.
In the weeks and months after, though, something interesting happened: No one changed their behavior. People still crossed where the sidewalk used to be, as it likely felt safer than walking in the street and around the corner to get to the next accessible section. This became even more evident after snow fell around the holidays, as the slushy, muddy footprints left by pedestrians clearly marked where their familiar sidewalk was. In the photo above, you can see the tracks left in the snow and the damage to the freshly laid sod after the snow melted.
This got me thinking about how people actually navigate the public realm versus how engineers, planners and the like expect people to navigate it. I cannot say for certain what happened on the corner in question — maybe it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to force pedestrians to change their behavior, but it could be a case of cutting corners, no pun intended. But what is clear is that pedestrians aren’t stupid. They know the best way to get from point A to point B, and it isn’t always the path that engineers and planners want them to take. As a society, we need to make better observations about how people walk around their own neighborhoods and design our infrastructure accordingly to make sure the walk is safe and pleasant.
Last spring, a short story appeared on the site of the organization Strong Towns (which I know I refer to a lot on this blog, but it’s only because they are one of the only organizations I’ve come across that truly knows how communities function) that relates a story about Walt Disney. The tale goes that one day, Disney noticed some workers erecting a fence at Disneyland. When he asked why, the workers told him it was because people were taking a shortcut and trampling the grass. Disney’s reply: If that’s where people are walking, they need a path, not a barricade. The workers removed the fence and rerouted the path.
Now, the 19th Ward isn’t completely dominated by “barricades,” but it is overwhelmed by partial “paths,” or places that appear on the surface like they are accommodating of pedestrians but fail miserably when actually put into practice. Crossing five-lane Western Avenue, for instance, is a harrowing experience, even if you’re using a crosswalk. White stripes on the pavement don’t protect you from 45 mph traffic that won’t stop or slow for pedestrians. We’ve told people “walk here” but scared them away from ever wanting to actually do so. (Let’s be thankful we don’t have to deal with many situations like our suburban neighbors Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn, where 95th Street becomes seven lanes at some points, dividing neighborhoods with crosswalks striped only every third-mile or so.)
When our planners and engineers don’t design for pedestrian safety, the consequences can be fatal. Just the other day, for example, a pedestrian was killed in Lakeview, one of Chicago’s most walkable neighborhoods, while crossing at an unstriped corner that nevertheless is a common spot for pedestrians to get to their shopping destinations on the other side of the street.
In a tragic incident in suburban Atlanta several years ago, a child was struck and killed by a driver after exiting a bus with his mother and siblings and walking across the street to his apartment building. The mother was convicted of vehicular homicide, despite being on foot, and at one point faced jail time. At the intersection where the crash occurred, there is no crosswalk — or any type of safety control — despite the presence of a bus stop and residences. The nearest crosswalk is three blocks away.
Now, take a look at how a frequently congested part of The Loop was handled. This scene is on the west side of City Hall, obviously a major destination. Workers come and go throughout the day. Citizens stop by to pay their water bills. I’m sure that in the past, pedestrians would take any route possible to get there, even if it meant avoiding controlled intersections. The city could have put an end to this by putting a median down the entirety of LaSalle Street, forcing pedestrians in other directions. Instead, the city obviously encouraged mid-block crossing by striping a crosswalk. Now, even when traffic is at its worst, people can cross safely by City Hall.
This post isn’t a call to have the sidewalk in my neighborhood replaced (although that would be nice), and it isn’t a call to further segregate walkers from drivers. It’s a call for all of us to be more cognizant of how people actually use the streets in our neighborhood and what purpose those streets serve. Yes, there will continue to be a need to circulate vehicular traffic — but we can’t do that at the expense of our pedestrians’ safety. People on foot say a lot with each step they take. It’s time we paid attention.