I know — it’s been awhile. The past year has been a bit of a whirlwind. My wife and I became parents last spring, and you don’t need me to tell you how much that changes your life. What originally began as a few weeks of a blogging break morphed into a full-blown hiatus so subtly that I just realized that I haven’t posted anything since last March. I can’t guarantee that I will be posting as frequently as I was before our little peanut came along, but I hope to get back to somewhat regular postings.
What pulled me back in was an experience I recently had on 111th Street while on a post-work mission to bring home tacos for dinner, and what I thought about for days afterward was how even the best parts of our public realm need to be tweaked over time to keep them inching ever closer to their full potential. These tweaks are low cost, common-sense features that improve safety, property values, and the quality of life in the area.
I was driving west on 111th when I noticed a pedestrian waiting on the north side of the street (my passenger side) to cross at Campbell, at the crosswalk. So, I stopped and waved, giving him the signal that I was letting him cross. Well, the traffic in the eastbound lane wasn’t stopping, and the man clearly saw this, as he stayed put. But after a couple seconds, the eastbound traffic did come to a halt due to a traffic signal ahead. Great! He can cross safely, I thought.
What I didn’t expect was for driver after driver behind me to start steering around my car and passing me on my passenger side, between me and the pedestrian. I was stuck, and so was the man I had stopped for. About 10 cars finally passed before a break in the traffic flow came.
By this point, I knew I needed to just move on. The pedestrian was clearly not ready to step into the crosswalk after what had happened, and the best thing to do was just clear the roadway so he could cross in peace.
But that wasn’t the end of the experience. When I got to my destination, El Gallo restaurant, a block away, I spotted a parking space across the street on the north side, pulled into it, and hopped out of the car. Now, it was my turn to be the pedestrian. I looked around for a crosswalk. Although I was at an intersection — 111th and Maplewood — there was no marked crossing.
I could go back a block to Campbell or up two blocks. Of course, both of those routes would be silly. My destination was across the street. I waited for a lull in traffic and crossed mid-block, scratching my head and wondering why this section of the street, an otherwise pleasant place for walking with businesses on one side and multifamily dwelling units on the other, wouldn’t have marked crosswalks.
As I’ve written before, 111th is one of the most pedestrian-friendly districts in the 19th Ward, whose highly walkable environment is undermined by an archaic master plan that puts an cars and out-of-scale suburban-style development over people. While I was previously focusing on the heart of Mount Greenwood around 111th and Kedzie, similar principles could be applied to the area to the east in Morgan Park where I encountered the aforementioned flaws in pedestrian infrastructure.
In regard to the situation with man in the crosswalk, I am hesitant to express frustration with the drivers who passed me, failing to give the pedestrian his six seconds to cross the street. Many people are quick to express blame close calls and collisions on those who don’t follow the rules of the road, and sometimes, I’m right there with them.
But most drivers are following what I’ll call the “unwritten rules” of the road. These are the visual cues they absorb unconsciously that tell them what type of driving feels safe. These cues come from all the decisions made by engineers and planners that are “baked into” the street design. These include wide lane widths, lack of street markings, extra lanes so drivers can jockey around each other, and corners that permit wide, fast right turns.
Often, these factors work against the “written rules” of the road, which include speed limits, traffic signals, and crosswalks, because they suggest that motorists drive in a manner that is unsuitable for the environment. In other words, all the visual cues suggest that you drive fast and aim high when you really need to slow down and be aware of your surroundings.
What happened at 111th and Campbell was an example of drivers following the visual cues and maneuvering as they felt comfortable. There was an obstruction in the roadway — me, stopped for a pedestrian — and there was a lane’s worth of space between the obstruction and the curb for other drivers to swerve and continue on unimpeded. They probably didn’t even see the man waiting to cross.
Now, what if there wasn’t a lane’s worth of space? What if there were, say, curb extensions at the corner that gave the pedestrian a little more visibility and forced drivers to think twice before taking a shortcut, lest they jump the curb? Well, that would simply change how we think about traveling along 111th — as pedestrians and drivers.
Curb extensions — often known by other terms, such as “bulb-outs” — are pretty much exactly what they sound like: A little extra concrete that extends the sidewalk into the roadway. They have been implemented successfully across communities in Chicago and beyond in an effort to enhance pedestrian safety and make a place more comfortable for walking. The desired effect is that they help define the roadway for all users. Pedestrians get a little more visibility, parking motorists can visualize their on-street spaces, and drivers get the signal to “hey, stay in the lane.”
Studies that look at traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures, which include curb extensions, show that, on the whole, they tend to work. This report, by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, explains how such measures have reduced collisions when implemented in U.S. and European cities, both between multiple vehicles, as well as vehicles and pedestrians.
Looking at curb extensions exclusively, researchers in Oregon concluded that after installing them, fewer drivers would pass a pedestrian waiting to cross the roadway than before the extensions were installed, due to enhanced visibility of the pedestrian. They also concluded that more drivers tended to yield for pedestrians, although when examining driver behavior on roadways with more than two travel lanes, the researchers found that drivers in the lane closest to the curb were more likely to yield than the drivers in the lane farther from the curb. (To me, this is an expected result. We see this frequently on 95th street, where a driver in the right lane might stop, but others swerve around into the left lane. This suggests that curb extensions alone can’t solve safety issues on wider streets. But they should help on two-lane 111th.)
For many, myself included, simply improving safety would be reason enough to start installing these immediately across the 19th Ward. After all, who wants to walk around the neighborhood when they feel they could be struck crossing the street? And I wouldn’t just stick to four-way intersections. Curb extensions are needed at the three-way ones, too, including 111th and Campbell, where I would have had to take a roundabout pat to get to my destination. (It goes without saying, but I will, anyway: Please paint a crosswalk here, as well.)
But others probably need more evidence that curb extensions aren’t just frivolities that make things look “nicer” but just inconvenience drivers and have little economic impact. Well, I’m here to tell you that even aside from the safety improvements, they are worth the investment.
The ITE report notes that comprehensive studies on the effects of traffic calming on property values are difficult to come by — and the ones cited don’t specifically deal with curb extensions. (They look at traffic diverters and speed humps, which I believe people overall are less receptive to. Such measures are seen more as “punishment” to drivers, where subtle design changes like curb extensions seem less punitive. They are a visible sign that we care about the pedestrian experience.) However, the anecdotal evidence about traffic calming measures impacting property values is powerful.
In West Palm Beach, Florida, the same report notes, traffic calming changes on one main street had a significant impact on the rise in property values and commercial activity in just a few years. Retail space occupancy rose from 30 percent to 80 percent, and the price of commercial space rose from $6 per square foot to $30 per square foot. Home sale prices also rose from an average of $65,000 to $106,000.
The ITE report also notes a similar positive impact on traffic calming measures in a Grand Rapids, Michigan, neighborhood, which were implemented after a fatal crash. To be fair, it also notes that traffic calming measures had little impact when implemented in one Georgia county. But as I mentioned before, these measures included components I believe people react negatively to, such as speed humps. Plus, judging by the photos, they appear to have been focused primarily on residential neighborhoods with auto-centric design rather than mixed-use and commercial districts where pedestrian activity is high. Plus, even if there is zero impact on property values, we should consider the safety improvements to be reason enough to implement traffic calming measures, including curb extensions.
Change, little by little
Finally, what about the cost? Good news once again: We don’t have to spend a fortune. The first thing we do is “install” curb extensions on a trial basis to see if they have the desired safety impacts. Our neighborhood is full of people who are incredibly passionate about the place they live, and this could even begin as a community-based effort (with city approval, of course). Start on a weekend. Residents could place traffic cones and use temporary street markings to indicate where the curb extensions would be. Then, spend a couple days observing to see if the project has the desired effect.
The next step is to make it slightly more permanent. Get the city to install plastic bollards (the types of posts you see around some protected bike lanes) and paint the extension area around them.
A similar project, known as the Lincoln Hub, was recently done in the Lakeview neighborhood at the six-corner intersection of Lincoln, Wellington, and Southport. During this stage, planners and engineers can see how the project is taking shape and what tweaks need to be made before making it permanent.
When the time comes, the concrete curbs extensions can be poured and graded. Traffic signs noting their presence of a crossing could even be installed.
We have the opportunity here to take on a truly incremental project that has a small scope but a potentially major impact on how the neighborhood functions and is valued —from an economic perspective, sure, but also from social and safety perspectives. And what starts with one intersection can be replicated in similar places throughout the neighborhood. Our shared public space becomes a point of pride when we all have a hand in improving it.