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95 Problems: A Walk Down the South Side’s Most Notorious “Stroad”

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Memorials to the people who died in the Oak Lawn crash. Photo: John Greenfield

[A version of this article also ran in Checkerboard City, John’s transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

“I avoid 95th Street as much as possible for my safety and sanity,” said Beverly resident and Streetsblog contributor Anne Alt, in the wake of a horrific multi-car crash on the massive road earlier this month. This senseless disaster in west suburban Oak Lawn injured almost a dozen people and killed three, including two nuns.

On Sunday, October 5, at around 4:30 p.m., witnesses noticed retired contractor Edward Carthans, eighty-one, slumped over the steering wheel of his pickup near 95th and Western, police said. Carthans refused help and instead sped west on 95th, colliding with three cars at Keeler. He kept driving, blew a red light at Cicero, and then veered into the eastbound lanes, causing an eleven-car pile-up. After his truck became airborne, he was killed, along with Sister Jean Stickney, 86, and Sister Kab Kyoung Kim, 48, who were driving home from a shopping trip.

“It’s a miracle that we don’t have serious crashes on 95th more often than we do,” Alt commented on Streetsblog. She noted that much of 95th is a “stroad,” a street/road hybrid with straight geometry and multiple, wide lanes that encourage highway speeds within populated areas. “The mix of congestion and speeding — depending on location and time of day — can be quite scary, even when the situation isn’t as extreme as what happened on Sunday.”

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95th Street near the Oak Lawn Metra stop. Photo: John Greenfield

Before this tragedy occurred, I was already planning to walk the entire length of 95th in Chicago. So far, I’ve hiked more than a dozen streets, as part of my ongoing quest to see as much of the city on foot as possible. After 19th Ward Alderman Matthew O’Shea recently blamed Beverly’s lackluster retail scene on a supposed dearth of parking along 95th, Streetsblog’s Steven Vance suggested I stroll the 7.5-mile street. It’s one of the least pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares in town, but I’m never one to say no to a sustainable transportation challenge.

When I get off Metra’s Southwest Service line in Oak Lawn on a gorgeous Indian summer afternoon, I gaze at the bleak, seven-lane expanse of 95th and wonder if I’d bitten off more than I can chew. As I trudge east through several blocks of big-box retail, I encounter almost no pedestrians. There are a handful of people on bikes, but they’re all riding on the sidewalk.

I get an eerie feeling as I approach as I approach 95th and Cicero, the gigantic intersection where Carthan’s trail of destruction ended. Next to an empty storefront, there are two white, wooden crosses for Stickney and Kim, plus a red, wooden heart for Carthans. Stuffed animals and flowers are scattered at the bases of the memorials, and nearby someone has lit a votive candle for Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes and desperate situations. A wide groove, between the sidewalk and the curb, is still filled with shattered auto glass.

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Inspector General Issues a Reality Check on Trib’s Red Light Cam Spin

Last summer, the Chicago Tribune reported on the mysterious spikes in red light ticketing at dozens of cameras around the city. Recently, the paper discovered the city had started enforcing violations that took place after slightly shorter yellow phases. This resulted in tens of thousands of additional tickets.

Given the track record of corruption in the red light camera program, the press needs to keep an eye on it. However, it appears that the Trib went a bit overboard by conflating the yellow light issue with the program’s troubled past.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has blasted the previous oversight of the red light cam program as “fundamentally deficient,” has said that the motorists who got those additional tickets basically deserved them. “We saw no evidence [by the city] of intent to do anything nefarious or unfair,” he said in a recent Chicago Tonight interview.

State legislation for Chicago’s red-light camera program dictates that the minimum length of a traffic signal’s yellow phase should be three seconds, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Pete Scales. The reasoning for this standard is that motorists expect yellows to last at least that long. If a yellow light was to turn red much before three seconds elapse, a driver might be caught off-guard and blow the stoplight without doing anything reckless.

However, the state law allows for tickets to be issued when yellow lights deviate ever so slightly from the three-second standard, which can be triggered by minor fluctuations in the flow of the electrical current to the stoplight, according to Scales. So if a yellow phase dips a few hundredths of a second below the standard, the ticket is considered legal. “Those slight deviations are imperceptible to the motorist,” Scales said.

While RedFlex Traffic Systems, the previous red light camera contractor, was running the program, the city directed the vendor to set the cameras so that they would only issue tickets when a driver ran a red following a yellow phase of at least 3.0 seconds. Last year, in the wake of allegations that the company bribed a CDOT official, the city fired the company. This February, Xerox State & Local Solutions took over the contract.

Since then, administrative hearing officers have started to see tickets issued for reds run after yellow phases between 2.9 seconds and 3.0 seconds. Although these tickets were legal, some of the officers, who operate independently from CDOT, threw out the violations. A recent Tribune investigation discovered that 77,000 tickets had been issued for violations that occurred after sub-three-second yellows, resulting in $7.7 million in fines.

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Peter Norton: We Can Learn From the Movement To Enshrine Car Dependence

It used to be normal to play in the streets. We're just one revolution away from being able to do that again. Photo via Peter Norton

It used to be normal to play in the streets. Photo via Peter Norton

Yesterday, we published part one of my interview with Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. We talked about whether the push for infrastructure investment is always code for increasing car capacity, and how the Vision Zero campaign bears the legacy of 100-year-old movements to make streets safe for everyone.

Norton will be speaking on November 13 at the opening reception of Transportation Alternatives’ national Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in New York City.

Below is the audio of our conversation, which went on long after this written transcript. Feel free to take a listen, and forgive the background noise — we were talking in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, one of DC’s most iconic urban green spaces.

Here is a transcript of part two of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

We keep calling [the current movement for Vision Zero and livable streets] a “fundamental restructuring,” and I’m curious whether you think that’s accurate. What you’re talking about at the beginning of the last century, which you wrote about in “Fighting Traffic,” was a much more fundamental questioning — because it was new — of the role of cars on streets and in cities. And I’m wondering if you think what’s happening now really gets to those questions or whether it’s just, “Oh, can we just have a little space; we just want some accommodation; we want the buses to be a little better, we want a little bike lane”?

Such an interesting question, because I think that dilemma that we’re in right now in 2014, between fundamental rethinking and just fixes here and fixes there, is the same dilemma that advocates of the automobile found themselves in, especially in the early- to mid-1920s. At first a lot of them said, “We need to take the street as it is and do some fine tuning, things like optimize the traffic signal timings–”

The same solutions we’re looking at!

Exactly! The first synchronized traffic lights for motor vehicles were timed in Chicago in 1926, and at the meeting I was just in, they were still talking about getting the timing right.

Then there were others who began to say, “Stop talking about just retooling the streets to make cars fit in them better; we need to actually re-concieve this.” There was an editorial in Engineering News Record in 1920 — Engineering News Record then and now is the journal of the civil engineers — and the editorial said, “We need a fundamental re-conception of what a city street is for.”

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Q&A With Peter Norton: History Is on the Side of Vision Zero

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Public safety posters like these fought against the pervasive violence of motor vehicles on public city streets in the first part of the 20th century. Images via Peter Norton

Last week, a bunch of bigwigs gathered to talk infrastructure in one of Washington’s most historic and prestigious sites, the Hay-Adams Hotel across the street from the White House. I was offered an opportunity to interview former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and a host of other VIPs. But — no offense to those guys — the person I wanted to talk to was Peter Norton, listed as the “lead scholar” of the Miller Center’s new commission to “develop innovative, bipartisan ideas on how to create and sustain middle-class jobs through infrastructure policy.”

Peter Norton. Photo: ##http://www.virginia.edu/topnews/releases2006/20060627PeterNorton.html##UVA##

Peter Norton. Photo: UVA

Norton is a professor at the University of Virginia (where the Miller Center is housed) and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. The book is a chronicle of the battle over who and what streets were for as automobiles were proliferating at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s a conversation worth revisiting today.

We had that conversation on a shady park bench in Lafayette Square, one of Washington’s most iconic green spaces, between the Hay-Adams and the White House.

If our interview piques your interest, you can catch Norton in person at the opening reception of the upcoming Vision Zero for Cities Symposium, a national gathering organized by Transportation Alternatives in New York City next month (November 13-15), where public officials and street safety advocates will strategize about “how to achieve Vision Zero in cities around the world.”

First let me ask about the Infrastructure campaign that you’re part of here as the lead scholar –

That’s the title!

I have questions about the push for infrastructure investment from the point of view of someone who is skeptical of increasing car infrastructure. Not to start on a negative note, but a lot of the push for increased infrastructure investment is not necessarily choosy about whether that infrastructure goes toward sustainable, ethical, environmentally friendly, city-friendly infrastructure, or whether it’s highways and cars.

Right. When I was invited to this thing, that question that you’re asking was foremost in my mind. And you find yourself thinking, I could stay out of it as a way of saying I don’t really think these discussions are being held in an inclusive way that includes all kinds of ideas, including ones that haven’t been on the table before — or I could join in and see if I could work in some of those less orthodox perspectives. And I chose the latter. I had some opportunities over the last two days to work in some points of view that weren’t being represented there.

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Spielman Trots Out “War on Cars” Rhetoric for Report on Parking Tax Hike

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The Greenway Self-Park at Kinzie and Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield

Veteran Sun-Times reporter’s Fran Spielman’s recent piece on Mayor Emanuel’s plan to raise the city’s parking garage tax was a classic example of windshield-perspective journalism.

As part of his 2015 budget, Emanuel has proposed raising the parking tax by 10 percent on weekdays and 11 percent on weekends, to 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Spielman reported. The mayor hopes the hike will generate an additional $10 million, which would be earmarked to hire 80 new employees for year-round pothole repair crews.

The increased garage tax “is not the only hit motorists will be asked to absorb in 2015,” Spielman wrote. The budget would also raise the tax paid by Chicago residents who lease their cars from eight to nine percent. That increase is expected to generate $60 million in additional revenue.

This would be the third time Emanuel has tweaked the garage parking tax since he took office in 2011. His first budget included a $2 surcharge for weekday garage parking, which the mayor referred to as a “congestion fee.” In 2013, he changed the parking tax from a sliding scale to a fixed percentage, Spielman reported.

Predictably, downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly and Marc Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, are griping that making it a little more expensive to drive downtown would have a chilling effect on local commerce. Gordon has said the same thing before each previous parking tax hike.

“[The garage parking tax is a popular punching bag for the mayor, in part, because it’s part of a larger plan to discourage driving by building protected bike lanes and bus rapid transit lanes that shrink the number of lanes available for passenger vehicles,” Spielman wrote. Here we see the tired “war on cars” rhetoric that’s all too common among mainstream news sources.

The purpose of street reconfigurations that make room for PBLs and dedicated bus lanes is not to stick it to motorists. For example, converting a mixed-traffic lane to a two-way protected bikeway on Dearborn created a safe place for north-south Loop bike traffic. It also reduced speeding on a street that formerly had capacity for 40,000 motor vehicles a day but only carried about 13,000.

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Transit Future Slowly Building Coalition to Fund Expanded Transit

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They're developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

CNT says there is poor transit service between where low-income workers live and where most jobs are. They’re developing research that would show the impact of building new lines outlined in the Transit Future campaign.

The Transit Future campaign sure did arrive with a bang. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle both spoke at its April announcement, which was accompanied by a splashy map and website. It seemed like a huge expansion of the region’s transit network was closer than ever, once Cook County and Chicago officials rallied around the idea (imported from Los Angeles) to use local taxes to leverage big dollars for projects. But ever since then, though, its backers — the Center for Neighborhood Technology and Active Transportation Alliance — have been fairly quiet.

CNT vice president Jacky Grimshaw and Active Trans executive director Ron Burke recently gave a glimpse into what’s next for Transit Future at DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute. Ever since its launch, 12 of Cook County’s 17 commissioners have signed on to the campaign. Several of them told Grimshaw that the campaign should also meet with mayors and other elected officials in their districts, so CNT has expanded its outreach accordingly.

“It’s important to build a coalition,” Grimshaw said, “to share the message and get the electorate involved.”

Grimshaw was candid about the progress of Transit Future since April, saying she had asked Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle to include a new transit fund within the FY2015 budget proposal. “But Toni had a bigger nut to crack,” Grimshaw said, “and that’s pensions.” (The current, election-year budget also, conveniently, does not include any new taxes.) Grimshaw added, “The best we can hope for now is the 2016 budget.”

The Transit Future map shows many new and extended ‘L’, Metra and arterial rapid bus routes. Grimshaw explained that “we didn’t just make up these lines.” Many of them were on the wish lists that transportation agencies, departments, and other governments had submitted to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, for potential inclusion in the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan. The routes “were vetted, part of a public engagement process, and screened,” she added. “What these lines lacked is funding” (unlike some other projects), and so they weren’t included in the final GO TO 2040 plan.

Transit Future is developing a compelling public case for why these transit lines are needed. Campaign manager Ronnie Harris said that they’re racing to develop a report clearly showing the benefits and return on investment “of going ahead and doing this.” The report, he said, will “outline the benefits of [the region] buying into Transit Future.”

Cook County certainly could use more extensive transit service. County residents take transit for just seven percent of all trips, Burke explained, because it’s inconvenient for most of their trips. Transit service just isn’t available, or is infrequent, in the areas where most county residents work. Decades of sprawl have pushed jobs from downtown Chicago to newer centers, around O’Hare Airport and to suburban corridors in the north, northwest, and west suburbs. Getting to jobs in those locations is impractical by transit, since these transit deserts see only infrequent Pace buses and practically nonexistent reverse-commute Metra service to faraway stations.

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An Update on the Lawrence Streetscape and the Ravenswood Metra Stop

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A curb bump-out and a pedestrian island makes it much easier to cross Lawrence than before, while a new bike lane encourages cycling. Photo: John Greenfield

The long-awaited Lawrence streetscape and road diet is is almost complete, and the project has already transformed a corridor that had been unpleasant for pedestrians and cyclists into a much more livable street. Meanwhile, construction is also wrapping up on a new, supersized Metra station house on Lawrence.

First announced in 2010 and launched in July of 2013, the streetscape has changed the stretch of Lawrence between Western and Clark from a four-lane speedway into a much calmer street, with two mixed-traffic lanes plus a turn lane. This was formerly a “reverse bottleneck,” since it was the only section of Lawrence in the city with four lanes. The road diet has made room for wider sidewalks, which will provide space for café seating, plus non-buffered bike lanes, where there were formerly only shared-lane markings.

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The same intersection as the above photo, Lawrence and Seeley, before the road diet. Image: Google Maps

The section from Ravenswood – where the new Metra stop is located – to Western is largely completed. Many pedestrian islands have been built. In a few locations, there are also curb bump-outs that reduce crossing distances for people traversing Lawrence. Crosswalks made of eye-catching red asphalt, stamped in a brick pattern, have been put in at all intersections.

Workers have installed old-fashioned acorn-style streetlamps, as well as standard inverted-U bike racks, according to to Brad Gregorka, an assistant to 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar. Benches and trash cans will soon be added. Two Divvy bike-share stations have been returned or relocated to spots by the Metra stop and at Lawrence/Leavitt.

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Seven Ways to Stop The Illiana Boondoggle

Two votes yesterday by a committee of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Chicagoland’s federally-designated regional planning organization, have cemented CMAP’s approval of the sprawl-inducing, budget-busting Illiana Tollway. Since federal transportation dollars can only be spent on projects included in an adopted regional plan, this gives Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois Department of Transportation the consent that they needed to continue preparations for the Illiana Tollway.

South suburban legislators are happy that Quinn is steering the dollars in their direction, and spoke up in favor of the road yesterday — many saying that the Illiana would free them from the scourge of truck traffic on existing roads. State Senator Pat McGuire (D-43) said the Illiana “would improve the environment” and “save lives.” He didn’t specify how, especially since IDOT’s own analysis says that the Illiana would increase car traffic (and presumably car crashes) in the study area, decrease truck traffic only minimally, and result in more smog and acid rain.

State Representative Al Riley (D-38) heads the house’s mass transit committee, and brushed aside criticism of the road in this spirited, if garbled, testimony yesterday:

The Tier 2 EIS just came out, so everybody’s supposed to be stupid. [People are saying] the FHWA, you know, who did the report, doesn’t know what they’re doing. Their pronouncements don’t make any sense. Well, of course they do. Everything made sense throughout the entire process. Of course they know what they’re doing!

Despite yesterday’s vote, there are still several ways the Illiana could be stopped well before the bulldozers arrive to pave over every pristine prairie and family farm in their path. Here are seven possible routes:

1. The state legislature could rescind the law giving IDOT authority to enter into a public-private partnership, or otherwise step in and keep IDOT from spending the funds it’s budgeted for the project. IDOT’s idea of a “PPP” amounts to bribing private investors with a $250 million (minimum) up-front payment, plus additional money when toll revenues fall short. Another avenue the legislature has is preventing IDOT from spending its $250 million budget for acquiring land, relocating utilities, and other site-preparation work.

This seems rather unlikely, given the project’s avid proponents in the General Assembly. State Senator Toi Hutchinson (D-40) spoke at yesterday’s meeting, reminding the policy committee that she helped craft the enabling legislation in 2010. She added that this project “is important to us,” referring to her south suburban district.

2. A more likely route is through the environmental evaluation process, which is already well underway. IDOT released a Tier 2 environmental impact statement for the road on September 26, but it — and its predecessor — have critical flaws that the Environmental Law & Policy Center hopes could trip up the road. The EIS outlines for the Federal Highway Administration, and the public, how IDOT intends to mitigate the road’s impacts to people, wildlife, and air and water quality.

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Ad Nauseam: Use Any App You Want While Driving — Because Safety!

Here’s the latest in wishful thinking about distracted driving. A new application called “Drivemode” wants to make it easier for you to use all your mobile apps while you’re behind the wheel — but don’t worry it’s safe! Because, at least theoretically, you don’t actually have to look at your phone.

That’s the marketing message in this spot, which goes against study after study demonstrating that even hands-free devices still lead to a dangerous level of distraction while driving. Backed by “entrepreneurs from Zipcar and Tesla Motors along with various industry specialists,” Drivemode is still in beta testing and doesn’t appear to be in imminent danger of lulling millions of motorists into thinking they can safely drive and use Instagram, though it does have some slick marketing and won an obscure award for Android apps in September.

Meanwhile, an AT&T app that goes by a nearly identical name, DriveMode, is actually pretty great. The AT&T app can be set up to automatically respond to texts whenever you’re in motion exceeding 25 mph, with a message that says you’re driving and will respond when it’s safe.

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Illiana Forced Into CMAP Regional Plan By Springfield, Suburban Reps

CMAP's MPO Policy committee

The MPO Policy Committee listened to a panel of speakers testify this morning. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s MPO Policy committee today approved the Illiana Tollway, among other projects, as part of GO TO 2040, which the agency calls “the comprehensive regional plan… for sustainable prosperity through mid-century and beyond.”

Committee members representing Chicago, Cook County, and McHenry County, which together are home to almost two-thirds of Chicago area residents, voted twice against adding the Illiana to the plan. However, they were overruled by representatives from other suburbs and from state agencies. The committee voted twice today: first on a motion to specifically exclude the Illiana from a larger package of GO TO 2040 updates, which failed 10-8 with one abstention, followed by a vote to adopt the update with the Illiana, which passed 12-6 with one abstention.

If the Illiana gets first dibs on state funding, as Governor Pat Quinn and IDOT intend, then those same suburbs will see at least $500 million robbed from the funds that pay for their own infrastructure projects.

Pace continued to stick it to its riders, with its representative supporting the Illiana in both votes. Metra’s representative abstained from voting on both motions, although its vote would not have swung either result. Metra frequently uses IDOT capital funds to purchase new equipment — but, next year, it intends to stick its riders with that bill, hiking fares by 11 to 19 percent.

Erica Borggren, the acting secretary at the Illinois Department of Transportation, began the meeting by introducing herself as an expert in being dropped into unfamiliar situations, like the debate over the tollway. She previously served in the military, but has no prior experience evaluating transportation improvements.
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