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When Will the Trib Get to the Bottom of Chicago’s Traffic Violence Problem?

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Members of the Trib’s investigative reporting team at Tuesday’s discussion. Jim Webb is on the right. Photo: John Greenfield

Tuesday night, the Chicago Tribune hosted a discussion of its red light camera coverage with members of its investigative reporting team. During the Q & A session, I noted that 48 pedestrians were killed and 398 were seriously injured in Chicago in 2012, the most recent year that we have accurate data for. “It doesn’t seem like you guys have done much coverage about what can be done to address Chicago’s crash epidemic,” I said. “Are there any plans for a multi-part series to address this issue?”

“The issue isn’t really whether or not there’s a pedestrian fatality problem in Chicago,” responded Jim Webb, political editor for Chicago, Cook County and Illinois. “The issue is what the city [should do] about the pedestrian fatality problem.” Webb asserted that while Mayor Emanuel has touted the safety benefits of red light and speed cameras, the paper has found that the cams aren’t as beneficial as advertised.

Afterwards, Webb sent me a couple of links to Tribune stories questioning the effectiveness of traffic cameras in reducing crashes. A November 2011 piece reported that fewer than half of Chicago’s 251 pedestrian fatalities between 2005 and 2009 occurred within “safety zones” — the areas near schools and parks where the speed cams can legally be installed. A March 2012 article reported that Emanuel had handed reporters a study that overstated the effectiveness of existing red light cameras in reducing deaths at Chicago intersections.

In both cases, City Hall should have conveyed the safety effect of cameras better, but the Trib also neglected to give readers an accurate picture of the existing research. The fact that automated traffic enforcement saves lives is settled science, and yet the Trib still frames it as a matter of ”camera advocates” debating “critics.” Reading the Trib’s reporting on the subject, you would think the enforcement cameras are a purely speculative venture with no proven track record.

To the contrary, a 2011 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that red light camera programs in 14 large cities reduced the rate of fatal red light running crashes by 24 percent. And a 2010 review of 28 studies of automated speed enforcement programs found they were uniformly successful in decreasing speeding and fatality rates.

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Road Diet Curbs Lawrence Avenue’s Dangerous Mile

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Refuge islands allow pedestrians to cross the street one lane at a time. Bump-outs, in the background, shorten the distance across the street and reduce the chance that motorists will park in the crosswalk. Photo: John Greenfield

The one mile of Lawrence Avenue between Ashland and Western avenues, through the Ravenswood neighborhood, went on a road diet this year. The diet slimmed Lawrence from four to two travel lanes, and used the extra space to create room for bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and extensive landscaping. The streetscape project right-sized this stretch of Lawrence, bringing it in line with the two-lane segments both west of Western and east of Ashland.

Crashes at Damen and Lawrence

11 people were injured in pedestrian crashes at Lawrence and Damen avenues, near McPherson elementary school and the Levy senior center. Source: IDOT, via ChicagoCrashes.org

“Road diets” are a widely accepted method to make streets safer, and (as on Lawrence) are often combined with other safety-enhancing streetscape improvements like bump-outs and median pedestrian refuges. Just the road diet, though, can be enough to reduce speeding by drivers and cut the number of crashes and injuries, while also opening up space for uses like bike lanes, street trees, and sidewalk cafés.

The road diet on Lawrence will improve the safety of a notoriously dangerous street. Traffic crash data from the Illinois Department of Transportation tells us that from 2005 to 2012, 72 people were injured in pedestrian-car crashes within the nine blocks (just over one mile) of Lawrence between Clark and Western avenues.

That means that there have been many more pedestrian-car crashes along this stretch of Lawrence than on comparable streets: This stretch of Lawrence has 11 times more injuries from crashes than the average mile of street in Chicago.

Lawrence even has many more injuries than comparable busy arterial streets. 60 percent more injuries from pedestrian crashes occurred on this previously four-lane stretch of Lawrence than on the one-mile stretch to its west through Albany Park. There were even 54 percent more injuries from pedestrian crashes on the dangerous mile of Lawrence than on a comparable one-mile stretch of Halsted, between Grand and Van Buren through Greektown. That part of Halsted carries a similar number of cars on its two lanes, but probably sees more pedestrians due to its thriving shops and nightlife.

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Across the U.S., Poor Job Access Compels Even People Without Cars to Drive

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Metropolitan share of zero-vehicle commuters driving to work, 2013. Source: Brookings analysis of American Community Survey data

Cross-posted from Brookings’ The Avenue blog. This article is the second in a short series examining new Census data on transportation trends.

While more Americans are relying on alternative modes to get to work every day, cars still define most of our commutes. Over time, these high driving rates not only reflect a built environment that continues to promote vehicle usage — despite recent shifts toward city living and job clustering — but also call into question how well our transportation networks offer access to economic opportunity for all workers.

This is especially important for those workers without cars.

The most recent 2013 Census numbers shed light on the commuting habits of the 6.3 million workers who don’t have a private vehicle at home. That’s about 4.5 percent of all workers, up from 4.2 percent in 2007.

Zero-vehicle workers still do quite a bit of driving. Over 20 percent drive alone to work — meaning they find a private car to borrow — and another 12 percent commute via carpool. Both rates jumped between 2007 and 2013, defying national trends toward less driving. This paints a discouraging picture about transportation access across the country for a segment of commuters who must expend extra effort to get to work.

Metropolitan data underscores the breadth of this problem. Transit-rich metros like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago have the most zero-vehicle workers, and they drive less frequently. However, in other large metro areas like Dallas, Detroit, and Riverside, over half the zero-vehicle workers find a car to drive to work. Driving rates jump to over 70 percent in metros like Birmingham, AL; Jackson, MS; and Provo, UT. Across 77 of the 100 largest metro areas, at least 40 percent of zero-vehicle commuters drive to work.

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Proposed River West Towers Would Be Better With Even Less Parking

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Proposed development at 1001 W. Chicago Ave. Rendering by FitzGerald Associates.

Security Properties from Seattle recently received Plan Commission approval to build 14- and 15-story buildings on the site of the Gonnella bakery at 1001 W. Chicago Avenue, near the busy intersection with Milwaukee and Ogden avenues and the Blue Line’s Chicago stop. 363 apartments and 35,000 square feet of retail would fill the two towers, helping to meet the burgeoning demand to live near transit and downtown and potentially bringing a grocery store to the neighborhood. The alley between the towers would become a shared space plaza, fronted by a bike repair room for residents. Less fortunately, though, the buildings will also include 318 car parking spaces.

The city’s transit oriented development (TOD) ordinance allows developers to build 50 percent fewer car parking spaces than normally required for buildings whose main entrances are within 600 feet of a train station. The proposed zoning for this development would require only 182 car parking spaces for the residences and none for the retail space — but instead of a 50 percent reduction, Security has only requested 12 percent fewer spaces than the usual requirement.

This many new parking spaces would add even more cars to the six-way junction out front. The long queues of cars here slow buses along the Chicago Transit Authority’s 56-Milwaukee and 66-Chicago bus routes, and also make it difficult for bicyclists to navigate the hazardous intersection.

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Driver in Bobby Cann Case Hires High-Paid Celebrity Lawyer

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Ryne San Hamel

Ryne San Hamel, the driver accused of fatally striking bicyclist Bobby Cann while drunk and speeding, has retained attorney Sam Adam Jr., whose previous clients include ex-governor Rod Blagojevich and R&B star R. Kelly. Adam also served on the defense team for Carnell Fitzpatrick, the driver who intentionally ran over and killed Chicago cyclist Thomas McBride in 1999.

On the evening of May 29, 2013, Cann, 26, was biking from work when San Hamel, 28, struck him at the intersection of Clybourn and Larabee in Old Town. San Hamel was charged with reckless homicide, aggravated DUI, misdemeanor DUI, reckless driving, and failure to stay in the lane.

The Chicago Reader reported that San Hamel comes from a politically connected family from the affluent northwest suburb of Park Ridge. His father William was politically active in the 1970s and ‘80s, managing the successful campaign of Cook County assessor Thomas Tulley, as well as Ted Kennedy’s Illinois campaign in the 1980 presidential race.

In 1985, William San Hamel secured a low-interest loan and bond financing from the state of Illinois to launch the Center for Robotic Technology in Edison Park, the Reader reported. After the school defaulted on the loan, attorney Ron Neville defended him against a state lawsuit to recover the money. In the wake of allegations of insufficient training resources and skeleton staffing at the school, the Illinois Board of Education revoked its license.

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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 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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