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Current plans for Ashland BRT call for a layout at unsignalized intersections similar to this design at Ashland/Ohio: a single crosswalk that passes through an opening in the median.
I was recently talking about the city’s Ashland bus rapid transit plan with Joe Hall, owner of Quick Release Bike Shop, 1527 North Ashland, when he said he was concerned about pedestrian access at unsignalized intersections after BRT is implemented. While it’s true motorists won’t be able to cross Ashland at intersections without stoplights, he was under the impression that people on foot would also have to detour to the nearest signalized intersection to cross.
Hall was worried that this would make it less convenient for customers who parked their cars on the other side of Ashland to walk to his store. He was also annoyed at the prospect of having to walk a few hundred feet out of his way in order to pick up lunch at the Thai restaurant directly across the street from the shop.
The good news is that these extensive walking detours are not in the plan — people will still be able to cross the street at 41 of the 43 unsignalized intersections that currently have crosswalks along the 16-mile project area. The median of Ashland will prevent motorists from crossing intersections with no stoplights, but there will be openings to accommodate crosswalks. You can currently see this configuration at Ashland/Ohio, as shown in the Google Streetview above.
The bad part of the current BRT design, however, is that at most unsignalized intersections where there are currently marked crosswalks on both the north and south sides of a cross street, one would be removed. So people on the non-crosswalk side of a side street who want to cross Ashland will be expected to follow an unnatural path, walking across the side street two extra times. This is one aspect of the current BRT plan that should change.
In general, the BRT project will be a boon for the walking environment. The medians will double as pedestrian islands, and sidewalks will be widened. There will be fewer cars on Ashland and less speeding. However, the elimination of crosswalks, which would inconvenience many walkers, could undermine the goal of improving pedestrian access.
“During the development of the concept design, this design element was discussed with [the Chicago Department of Transportation’s] and CTA’s engineers and planners,” CTA spokewoman Lambrini Lukidis responded via email when I asked her about the issue. “The particular design with just one crosswalk, which made its way into our concept proposal, was selected to enhance pedestrian safety by minimizing potential conflict points between pedestrians and vehicle traffic, as has been done elsewhere where there are medians.”
The question is, will this design really enhance safety, or is it just following outdated traffic engineering protocol that attempts to minimize conflicts between drivers and pedestrians by removing the pedestrians from the equation? The folly of this tactic can be seen on Michigan Avenue, where the city removed crosswalks shortly after Millennium Park opened, in an attempt to keep the increased number of people on foot from getting in the way of turning motorists.
It’s not uncommon to see people walking across Michigan in the unmarked crosswalks when it’s more convenient than making an additional crossing, even though it’s a risky move. Likewise, If crosswalks are removed on Ashland, some folks will shrug their shoulders and opt to make an illegal crossing and walk across the low median, rather than cross the street two extra times.
It would be a shame if BRT opponents use this aspect of the current design to argue that the new street configuration will be generally unfriendly to pedestrians, when the opposite is true. Thankfully, the crosswalk removals are not a done deal.
“We are well aware that [the current design] has some limitations to pedestrian access,” Lukidis wrote. “To that end, as this project goes into the next phases of design, CTA and CDOT will be considering what is optimal for each intersection, as each has its own character and context to consider, particularly sightlines, the street and sidewalk geometrics, nearby land uses as well as the location of a nearby major arterial or traffic generator.”
“Keep in mind that [removing crosswalks] is just a proposal at this point,” Lukidis told me on the phone. “As we meet more with the public, it’s possible everyone will tell us they want to keep both access points.” Just as it’s important for Chicagoans who want better transit to back the plan for fast, reliable buses on Ashland, residents should also let the city know that all existing crosswalks should be retained as part of the design.