Eyes on the Street: Icy, Potholed Downtown Alleys Need Raised Crosswalks

Alley crossing
Outside the Bank of America Theater Wednesday, people walk across an alley that's flooded. ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/8432455069/in/photostream##It was full of ice this morning##. Photo: Anne Alt

Reader Anne Alt sends in these photos showing the dismal walking conditions at alley crossings and street intersections in the Loop. She reports that the alley crossings in her photos have turned into ice ponds:

One of the biggest problems with our Loop alley crossings is the volume of traffic and the fact that pedestrians are often forced to walk in wet or icy areas to get around cars or trucks waiting to exit the alley.

Last year, Department of Transportation crews repaired many curb ramps and alley crossings to bring them into compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act, but the curbs and sidewalks where people walk the most have yet to receive repairs. New curb ramps were installed in neighborhoods like Avondale, where I live, which were fine to begin with and see relatively light foot traffic, when there were hundreds of curb ramps and sidewalks in the Loop marred by holes and ponds, where hundreds of thousands of people walk each day. According to CDOT, walkways in the Loop will get more attention later this year as part of the State Street Corridor Priority Area ADA Curb Ramp project.

Alley crossing
People walking downtown must squeeze between cars - atop iced and potholed pavement - turning from alleys onto the roadway. Photo: Anne Alt

One idea to fix some of the alley crossings in the Loop would be to install raised crosswalks. This would solve two issues:

  1. Pedestrian rights-of-way would no longer flood. However, any flooding that occurs because of our backed up sewer and stormwater system or poor road drainage would affect the street’s other users, motorists and people riding bikes.
  2. It would serve as a traffic calming device and tell drivers to yield to pedestrians, the most vulnerable people out there.
Raised crosswalks, Newcomb Ave.
Raised crosswalk at a driveway intersection in ##http://sf.streetsblog.org/2011/12/21/newcomb-ave-sustainable-streetscape-project-completed-in-bayview/##Bayview, San Francisco##. Photo by Friends of the Urban Forest.
  • Raised crosswalks could be a great solution at many of our downtown intersections and alleys. Even where flooding and ice aren’t currently issues, uneven pavement makes life unnecessarily difficult for people with walking disabilities or impaired vision.

  • Ryan Wallace

    Your photo shows a raised crosswalk at an intersection with a residential street. Raised crosswalks (where the sidewalk elevation is consistent and roadway element changes vertically to match) is the standard for entrances and alleys. The forthcoming CDOT Safe Streets design manual actually indicates that any project that deviates from this standard will require approval from a special committee.

    However, as is brutally obvious, most entrances and alleys were built before this became the standard, so the question becomes how to resolve this. The number one concern is always drainage. The majority of alleys slope towards the roadway, so if you raise the sidewalk, you will be trapping water on the alley side of the sidewalk. There are numerous ways to remove the water (various inlet structures such as a slot drain like you see for many garages that are below grade); however these becomes very costly to construct the necessary pipes to convey that water from the inlet to city sewers.

    In the rare case that the alley or entrance already drains away from the road and there is existing drainage structures to covey the water, then there really is no excuse not to raise the sidewalk.

  • Special committee, eh?

    The same kind of special committee that does whatever an alderman wants, including removing a Pedestrian Street designation? I can see the same thing happening. “Hey, standard says you must retrofit this curb cut with a sidewalk that has consistent elevation”. Developer: “That costs extra, I don’t wanna”. Alderman: “Have it your way, stamp”.

  • There were several alleys in Logan Square (like on Sacramento Avenue) that were repaired in 2012 (all the way up to Christmas). I’ll go get some photos.

    But why alleys that see very little walking traffic and not alleys that collectively see hundreds of thousands of pedestrians each day?

  • Ryan Wallace

    I agree. There is a lot in the new CDOT Safe Streets that discusses the “modal hierarchy” of a roadway, and the default is pedestrian > transit > bicycle > auto. This is even more emphasized on special use segments such as “mobility priority streets” such as those that connect the commuter rail stations to the loop. These segments are the ones that the alley issue should be addressed first.

    It is possible that they were using the neighborhood construction projects as a “test” of sorts to make sure the design came out as they had intended

  • Ryan Wallace

    The “compliance committee”, as it was explained, is comprised of engineering, a deputy commissioner, project development, complete streets manager, and housing/econ development. So it appears that the alderman doesn’t really get a say, but we all know that he/she will find a way….

  • I’m glad to read from Ryan’s comments that the new standard for crosswalks across entrances and alleys will that they’re raised to meet the level of the sidewalk. This will have the huge benefit of sending the visual message to drivers emerging from the alley/entrance that they are crossing over a pedestrian realm and must stop. It’s not the responsibility of the person walking to stop, but that’s what drivers are led to believe visually when they see the alley asphalt meeting the street asphalt seamlessly. As reflected in Anne’s pictures, we currently don’t even have a couple of stripes of white paint connecting the sidewalk edges to each other, to help it look like a continuous walkway. This is in the Loop, on streets like Madison and Washington, which serve tens of thousands of pedestrians a day.

  • As Michelle points out, the current Loop alley configurations treat pedestrian crossings as an afterthought, although ped traffic volume is hundreds of times the volume of vehicle traffic at those crossings. It sends a visual signal to drivers that they have priority, even though they are supposed to yield.

  • Most of the corner curb cuts at Wabash and Adams are sporting a glazing of ice at their low points. Wouldn’t it make sense for an intersection right below an El station, with a huge volume of ped traffic, to at least get some ice melter scattered on those spots to relieve the slickness?

  • I have personally called 311 about the alley outside of the Bank of America Theatre twice since August, but nothing has been done about it.

  • The alley next to Bank of America Theater was recently paved, so it offers smoother rolling for anyone in a wheelchair and less chance of tripping for anyone else. Unfortunately, come winter, it might not be an improvement on icy days. The way it’s pitched to allow drainage towards the street creates an area that’s likely to be sporting a slick sheet of ice once the weather is below freezing again.

  • Ross Guthrie

    Yes, it has been repaved. Although it would be nice if ALL ALLEYS in downtown Chicago were the raised sidewalk above.

  • Sidewalks remain in the domain of the property owner. If they want to rebuild it, they can. The city is unlikely to touch it, especially downtown.

  • cjlane

    “Raised crosswalk at a driveway intersection”

    Steven: That’s actually a street intersection. The address of the house in the background is 1794 Newcomb. I think that makes your point stronger.

    The issue with putting these in (some/many/most) loop alleys is the question of drainage–the alleys I am most familiar with rely mostly on flow to the street to drain. So, in those case, there would be a *large* cost to installing additional drop inlets and connecting them to the understreet mains. Basically, it’s not just a matter of funding raised crosswalks.

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