Active Trans: Improve, Don’t Remove Cams, Launch a Vision Zero Strategy

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Photo: John Greenfield

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke said the advocacy group approves of reforms to Chicago red light camera program that passed in City Council on Tuesday, but the city needs to keep its eyes on the prize of eliminating serious injuries and deaths from crashes. He called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to formulate a comprehensive Vision Zero strategy for achieving this goal.

During the last election, Emanuel and many City Council members came under fire from opponents who pledged to abolish the automated enforcement program. In early March, Emanuel announced he would remove 50 red light cameras at 25 intersections that saw one or fewer right-angle crashes in 2013.

The mayor also promised to have pedestrian countdown signals installed at all of the city’s 174 red-light camera intersections by June 1. He pledged that community meetings would be held before red light cameras are installed, moved, or removed. At the time, several aldermen also proposed extending yellow signals from 3.0 seconds to 3.2 seconds, and requiring a council vote before installing new red light cameras.

The ordinance that passed codifies the requirement for the community meetings and pedestrian timers (all but nine of the red light cam intersections now have have these), and lowers the down payment that motorists with a large ticket debt must pay to avoid getting booted. The law also authorizes the Chicago Department of Transportation to appoint an outside academic team to do a full review of the effectiveness of the city’s red light camera program. The yellow light extension and City Council vote requirement did not make it into the final ordinance.

“As long as the city views these changes as a way to improve, rather than remove the cameras, that’s fine,” Burke said. “We’re all for community input on the camera locations.” He noted that local residents who walk, bike, and drive through neighborhood intersections on a regular basis have a good sense of which ones can best benefit from automated enforcement, although he wouldn’t support giving residents veto power over proposed cams locations.

Active Trans also is in favor of the pedestrian timers, even though they’re largely being installed for the benefit of drivers, which some national experts believe is an inappropriate use of the signals. “As long as the technology will benefit pedestrians, which it will, we’re all for it,” Burke said.

He’s most enthusiastic about a review of the program being conducted by impartial experts. “Back in March, we recommended that there should be a study of the program by an independent panel, or some such creature, and that’s what’s in this ordinance,” he said. He noted that there have been valid criticisms of some aspects of the program, such as questionable camera locations and the less-than-transparent way the city changed its standard to allow tickets to be issued after sub-3.0-second yellows.

“We said all along that the cams should be located where they’re going to do the most good to reduce crashes, irrespective of revenue generation,” Burke said. “That’s the right thing to do from a safety perspective, and that’s the right way to gain the public’s trust.”

Burke said it’s important to remember why we have the cameras in the first place: Chicago traffic crashes kill an average of 145 people a year, and significantly injure 21,000 more. While the city has an epidemic of dangerous driving, there aren’t enough police officers to enforce the laws, and the police already have their hands full addressing other crimes, so a well-run automated enforcement program can help fill the gap.

While the Chicago Pedestrian Plan, published in 2012, called for eliminating traffic fatalities within ten years, Burke said Emanuel still needs to put together a comprehensive Vision Zero strategy, similar to what Mayor Bill DeBlasio has done in New York. This led to DeBlasio reducing that city’s default speed limit to 25 mph.

Burke added that photo enforcement is just one piece of the puzzle for reaching that goal. Improvements to traffic engineering and street design, policy changes, and outreach and education will also be needed. “There are probably some additional strategies that need to be implemented, and more priority needs to be placed on certain strategies,” he said. “More funding may be necessary, and we’re going to need more interdepartmental cooperation. We’re hoping that a full-blown Vision Zero strategy is really going to flourish under Mayor Emanuels’ second term.”

  • BanTheCams

    Ron Buke is such a blowhard. Does anyone realize how stupid it is to talk about a Vision 0 strategy? How do you ever think you would achieve that?
    He, and the ATA need to shut up, and try and do something productive with their lives, rather than constant complaining and dreaming.
    God, what a waste

  • Anne A

    Lots of people have complained about the 103rd St. location in west Beverly. The camera is needed, but is poorly placed – east of the ideal location. It *should* be for people crossing at this location, where I’ve nearly been hit by speeding drivers (while driving) while stopping to yield to peds (often kids or old ladies walking their dogs). https://www.google.com/maps/@41.706435,-87.68411,3a,75y,270h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sc8YueYC-IqHz_XiTJejncQ!2e0!6m1!1e1

  • CL

    I’m glad they’re talking about increasing the yellow time, although 3.2 doesn’t seem like much of a difference to me.

    I walk more than I drive these days, and I honestly don’t see the red light cameras as benefiting me as a pedestrian. My biggest problem is drivers who decline to yield to me in crosswalks, not drivers who run a red light right as it changes (while I’m still taking my first step into the street). If the cameras protect anyone it’s other drivers / passengers.

    Sometimes I feel threatened by drivers turning left wayyyy after the light changes (because they didn’t even start turning until the light was red). By that time I am well into the intersection. But my understanding is that those people won’t be ticketed because they are already hanging out in the intersection.

    The one thing they might help with is drivers turning right on red without stopping to check for pedestrians. I was actually hit by a driver this way a couple of months ago. She was on her phone, not paying attention, and just started to turn right without looking even though I was already in the intersection. Cameras can’t force people to look, but it’s more likely when you have to stop.

  • Anne A

    There are a few red light camera locations near me (most notably 95th & Western) where it does seem to prevent vehicle-pedestrians crashes. This is a congested, road-ragey area with bus stops on the corners where peds would probably get hit MUCH more often and vehicle-on-vehicle crashes would likely happen every single day if not for the cameras.