CDOT: Citizen Support is Necessary For Us to Redesign City Streets

MBAC September 2016 meeting
Yesterday’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting may have had the biggest turnout ever. Photo: Steven Vance

Illinois Bicycle Lawyers - Mike Keating logo

About 45 “civilians” – people who weren’t obligated to attend – showed up for yesterday’s Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting yesterday, making it one of the most democratic MBAC meetings ever. The council, which meets quarterly at City Hall during the workday, usually draws only about 10-15 attendees who aren’t there in an official capacity, many of whom are regulars who show up for almost every meeting.

At the MBAC meetings staff from the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Chicago Park District, Divvy, and the Active Transportation Alliance report on their recent and upcoming projects to make the city more bike-friendly. One reason for the big turnout from yesterday was this summer’s epidemic of fatal crashes. Since the previous MBAC meeting in June, four people biking were struck and killed in Chicago by reckless drivers of commercial vehicles within the space of about two months.

After art student Lisa Kuivenen was killed by a truck driver in a Milwaukee bike lane on August 16, and North Lawndale resident Francisco Cruz was fatally struck by a hit-and-run cargo van driver the next evening, I decided to encourage people to show up for the next MBAC meeting. That way more residents would hear for themselves what city officials say they’re doing to prevent more of these tragedies.

I’m a member of the 33rd Ward transportation advisory committee, so I invited alder Deb Mell to the meeting, and she attended. Mell’s district includes the intersection where Divvy rider Virginia Murray was run over on July 1 by a truck driver who turned right without looking.

I also created a Facebook event and posted about the upcoming meeting on Streetsblog last week, which likely encouraged many new attendees to come. Show up they did, and the meeting was better for it. With more citizens in attendance, transportation commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld, assistant commissioner Sean Wiedel, who oversees the Divvy program, and assistant director of transportation planning Mike Amsden, who manages CDOT’s bikeway program, seemed to answer questions a little more directly than in the past.

There were no bike fatalities in Chicago prior to the June 15 death of courier Blaine Klingenberg, who was fatally struck by a tour bus driver. Scheinfeld noted that the four bike fatalities that have occurred so far this year are in line with the year-to-date average for the last five years. However, she said, “just because we’re on average doesn’t mean that’s okay.”

Multiple CDOT staffers noted during the course of meeting that while it’s important that residents show up to MBAC meetings, it’s also important for them to lobby for better conditions for biking within their own communities. For example, by talking with aldermen and local business owners about the benefits of good bike infrastructure, residents can help drum up political support for robust bike facilities.

This was good advice. Political support can make the difference between CDOT being able to install protected or buffered lanes, rather than inferior bikeways like conventional bike lanes or shared-lane markings. We saw this phenomenon play out on the Northwest Side in 2014, when backlash from residents killed a CDOT proposal to build protected lanes on Milwaukee Avenue north of the Jefferson Park Transit Center.

Some other comments by Scheinfeld seemed a bit off the mark. “This goal of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries, is only achievable if we all work together,” she said. “It’s not just about our built environment, it’s about changing behaviors. It’s important for each of you for being ambassadors to help spread the message.”

She asked that people in the room “lead by example” and “think of yourselves as an unofficial ambassador” for safe streets when walking, bicycling, or driving in the city. She even suggested “calling out other people” for unsafe or inconsiderate behavior on the roadway if one felt comfortable doing so.

That sounded a little like last week’s misguided Tribune editorial that, in the wake of the four deaths, urged “Bicyclists be careful. Motorists, be watchful. Everyone, slow down.” Everyone should travel responsibly and mindfully, whether they’re on foot, on bike, or in a car. But the the greatest responsibility lies with those piloting multi-ton vehicles that can easily kill people.

Likewise, Scheinfeld downplayed CDOT’s own power and responsibility to prevent traffic deaths as the chief implementer of new street designs in Chicago. (The Illinois Department of Transportation does this, too). The department also serves as the mayor’s expert on transportation policy and will be leading the city’s just-announced Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2026. Of course the police department has a major role to play as well, by enforcing traffic laws and ensuring reckless drivers receive citations.

“I know there are folks here today who want to talk about [the bicyclist deaths] more, but I want to reiterate CDOT’s mission,” Scheinfeld added. “We’re working to provide safe, affordable, efficient, and effective transportation options all over the city regardless of age or ability. We’re thinking about all modes. Pedestrians, bicyclists, people taking transit, and people driving in cars and trucks.”

Scheinfeld is right that the built environment isn’t the only factor in preventing future bike deaths and other traffic fatalities, but it’s the most important one. Redesigning the physical layout of streets is the most effective way to change driver behavior for the better.

Still, I think the message was heard: It’s easier for CDOT to get approval to redesign streets to become safer for bicyclists – infrastructure for which percolates into making it safer to walk and drive, too – when those at meetings like MBAC express their support for these projects to elected officials and business leaders.

This post is made possible by a grant from the Illinois Bicycle Lawyers at Keating Law Offices, P.C., a Chicago, Illinois law firm committed to representing pedestrians and cyclists. The content is Streetsblog Chicago’s own, and Keating Law Offices neither endorses the content nor exercises any editorial control.

  • Anne A

    Aldermen who stick their heads in the sand and are resistant to changing the built environment are part of the problem. If they refuse to acknowledge that bike and pedestrian safety are important and choose to continue prioritizing motor vehicle traffic, they are a BIG part of the problem.

  • I fear Chicago’s approach to VZ may result in responsibility denial where nobody is actually responsible since they’re all responsible. Nobody will be fired or voted out as a result.

  • Yeah, calling out other people isn’t going to work very well since all the culprits aren’t everyday drivers, but commercial drivers. Also I would have loved to come, but this meeting is during hours when the vast majority of people are at work.

  • Also did we ever even figure out if that lane closure where Lisa was killed was illegal?

  • Dan Korn

    Well, I think the “culprits” in this case are residents who don’t support complete streets, especially those who speak out against them at public meetings.

    I do agree that the timing of the MBAC meetings is very inconvenient for many working people.

  • Pat

    The City should lead by example and crack down on the illegal habits of two of the most visible classes of drivers in the most visible place in the city: cab and bus drivers, in the Loop.

    Traffic enforcement in the Loop non-existent. Every day is a constant stream of:

    – Cab drivers: speeding (only to get caught at the next light!), running reds, weaving through traffic (failing to signal), honking, failing to yield for pedestrians, blocking bus stops and bike lanes, and using the middle lane as turn lane (both right and left). The unfortunate part is now I see Uber drivers emulating cabs.

    – Bus drivers (private and CTA): blocking bike lanes, running yellows/red and then BLOCKING THE BOX, and private shuttles illegally using bus lanes.

    If the city can’t enforce the rules for PROFESSIONAL DRIVERS in most visible part of the city, then what hope do we have that it will anywhere else?

  • JacobEPeters

    It looks like the lane closure just south of where Lisa was killed has been reduced so that it is at least possible for cyclists to merge with traffic. It still is a regular occurrence that a truck or van associated with this construction is blocking the bike lane for periods north and south of this lane blockage. I see that as more related to the numerous instances across the city where professional drivers ignore basic laws of the road & put their vehicle wherever they want without fear of punishment, as Pat refers to above. Less site specific, more systemic. We need an enforcement revolution.

  • Anne A

    Agreed. I see red light running, intersection gridlock, crosswalk violations and many other violations in the Loop EVERY SINGLE FREAKIN’ DAY! And many of those violations are committed by professional drivers. Enough!!!

  • ohsweetnothing

    You’re absolutely right, but when it comes time for testimony and public comment in Ward nights and in council chambers the loudest voices are the anti-auto-enforcement crowd (“you’re nickel and diming working class citizens!!!” is a personal favorite of mine) and the anti-bike crowd (“Our people don’t bike!” “How about licensing bikes?!” “They’re the most dangerous things on the street!”).

    As someone who was in that arena for years. I can’t emphasize enough that most Aldermen abide by the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” adage. Is it annoying/frustrating? Absolutely. But at least we know what we’ve got to do…ESPECIALLY at Ward Nights and community town halls/meetings.

  • I’ve looked through all the permits related to this site in the city’s data portal and can’t find any that would make it legal at this time. I am so sick of people foaming at the mouth about cyclists obeying laws, when developers seem to have a blank check on just doing whatever they want with no enforcement.

  • planetshwoop

    Be careful what you wish for.

    Enforcement could just as easily lead to a crackdown on cyclists.

    Also, like, how would an enforcement revolution happen? It’s legally quite difficult to install lots of cameras with the intent to ticket as the issues with red light and speeding cameras have shown.

    I also think one of the biggest issues is that with fixed enforcement, it enforces the behavior only at the point of measurement. So everyone speeds in the road, slows down for the camera, and then speeds up again.

    And I don’t think the usual suspects (police) have additional resources to spare.

    I can only imagine that changing the built environment is the long term solution. Short term? 311/911 until it shows up on someone’s radar.

  • JacobEPeters

    Changing the environment is the long term solution. An enforcement revolution would be actually hiring people specifically tasked with enforcing illegal blocking of dedicated right of ways. Then dispatching those officers to areas that have proven to have a history of violations (Greyhound station, Post Office, 200 North Dearborn, Kinzie) and do a blitz on ticketing to a point where no one dares to break the law in that area. Based on the data generated by this, CDOT could identify which areas need better infrastructure to permanently eliminate the recurring blockages.

  • JacobEPeters

    They might be in a data portal other than building permits. Which portal are you looking in? https://data.cityofchicago.org/browse?tags=permits

  • JacobEPeters

    I would guess it has to be scheduled during workday hours in order to have the attendance of other agency representatives.

  • Anne A

    Yes!!!!

  • Carter O’Brien

    Yeah, I have had this on my calendar for years and still haven’t been able to get free to attend. But I appreciate the government employees in attendance have insane schedules, and just getting them in the same room where the public is at least free to attend is progress. The minutes are also helpful as they can be distributed easily to large groups (I circulate them to the Field Museum’s more hard core bike advocates).

  • eric299

    Resistant to change or resistant to what you want and think is in your best interest? There are many people in this city that don’t care one bit about bikes…and no we aren’t fat and lazy. I run five miles every Sunday and lift weights at the Y every Wednesday. Sometimes more.

    As far as pedestrians go it is very simple. When I was a kid I went through a program called Safety Town and they taught us to look both ways before crossing the street, and only cross busy streets at a light. That is a simple formula that has kept me alive and healthy for decades. In the vehicle vs. pedestrian encounter the vehicle is going to win every time. And you can’t stop people from being stupid with laws or by putting up little signs everywhere. People are still going to drive drunk, talk on their cell phones while driving, get distracted by attractive women on the street, etc. Step off the curb into one of those situations and you’ll be in trouble. It is up to pedestrians to be aware and keep themselves safe.

    As far as drastically rebuilding the city grid in any fahsion I hope you are friends with Warren Buffet. The City, State and Feds all have significant debt problems right now.

  • Mcass777

    I kind of agree with the city. Who is your best advocate, the city, the guy next to you, or you? Having commuted by bike since 1995, I have seen no bike traffic to intersections packed with bikers of every possible skill level. Putting PBLs and curbed lanes really have helped. However, it does not take away the fact that every biker needs to be ready for anything and expect everything. I ride to relax and chill after a day of work, not to stress out in a car. Calling out fellow bikers or drivers is not something that is relaxing, so no agreement with the city there. But we are all out there sharing the space. The environment is changing drastically for bikes and cars. If you drive, bikes are the rule breakers; If you bike the motorists are the rule breakers. Biker or driver, we each need to get away from to our one dimensional approach to transportation that “I do no wrong” This week at Milwaukee and Chicago rolled thru the red light literally into the path of a west bound bus! I yelled “yo” and he avoided collision. This stuff happens all the time!

  • Anne A

    If European-style traffic education was offered in our schools (teaching ped safety, then bike, then eventually driver), we might all be a lot better off.

    We would also be better off if there was even a moderate level of traffic enforcement. The city would have more money and we’d have fewer people running red lights and plowing through crosswalks full of peds. Your mileage may vary….

  • Rambo

    I think that if they stop trying to remove driving lanes on roads that were never meant for bikes lanes so big trucks and buses could safely travel! Then again Chicago has a bigger problem when 4 murders a day happen and 20 shootouts ! More children die in Chicago to gun violence then citizens getting killed by autos!

  • eric299

    None of that changes the fact that people must be responsible for themselves.

    And this is never going to be Europe. Expending gobs of energy to try and make it that way is squandering resources needed to address serious problems.

  • So by providing opportunities to rebuild our city through education, construction and ultimately provide more transportation options to struggling neighborhoods isn’t addressing serious problems?

  • eric299

    No. First of all what is education, telling people to behave the way you personally think they should? Second of all struggling neighborhoods don’t care. I heard they raised holy hell when a bunch of you guys tried to install bike lines out around Portage Park. And I know someone on the South Side who laughs at all the bike lanes and DIVVY stations that have been installed basically in the middle of the ghetto, and especially that bike park. She says if you want to help the South Side you can put that money toward schools and decent housing.

    I heard the State of Illinois curtailed the installation of more bike lanes on city streets designated with state routes and they were absolutely right. People are never going to give up their cars and embrace a bicycle utopia. People do what makes their lives easiest. You guys have been able to make a lot of waves over the last ten years, probably because a lot of people in power during that time have been old hippies. But enjoy the party while it lasts, because in the long run these things are based on very limited real demand.

    If you want to tackle a serious environmental problem why don’t you form a group to try and get China to address is catastrophic and deadly emissions problem? It is very easy to paint a few lines on the sidewalk here in Chicago and then pat yourself on the back for helping the Earth. Getting an entrenched Communist government to curtail a massive pollution problem that impacts the whole world is not so easy.

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