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CDOT Puts Belmont on a Confusing, Dangerous “Binge Diet” At Western

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A CDOT rendering from the June meeting shows a plan to expand Belmont to six lanes for over 500 feet, across the intersection of Western Avenue and Clybourn Avenue.

Bicycling up and over the Chicago River on Belmont, from Avondale to Roscoe Village, will soon be more comfortable once the Chicago Department of Transportation gives the street a “road diet” and replaces car travel lanes with new buffered bike lanes. Bicyclists shouldn’t get too comfortable, though: Once they’ve crested the bridge eastbound, they’ll be dropped into the middle of a six-lane highway. Yes, CDOT is narrowing Belmont from four lanes to two on one block, and then on the very next block widening Belmont to six lanes, while eliminating the bike lanes completely.

The road diet is planned between Western Avenue (2400 West) and Washtenaw Avenue (2700 West). Its buffered bike lanes will extend west to Kedzie Avenue and, eventually, east to Halsted Street in Lakeview. Not only will the road diet give bicyclists a rare chance to safely climb over the Chicago River, but it will bring Belmont into a consistent lane configuration — it’s two lanes wide both east of Western and west of Washtenaw. Two lanes is perfectly appropriate for Belmont’s light traffic: 14,000 cars per day were counted in 2010, which two lanes easily handle on similar streets like Milwaukee Avenue and Halsted.

Yet, at the exact same time, CDOT is continuing to advance another plan for Belmont that’s at odds with the goal of making it a comfortable street for bicycling and walking. As Belmont approaches Western, where a crumbling overpass is being removed, the street will balloon from two to six lanes wide. The planned intersection [PDF] will require condemning private property, demolishing the fronts of several buildings at the southwest corner, and halt the bike lanes hundreds of feet short of the intersection.

This widening project is eerily reminiscent of how Harrison Street was widened at Congress Parkway, an unsafe and unnecessary move that was finally undone last year. The situation didn’t improve traffic flow much, since it simply created bottlenecks on either side where several lanes had to merge into one. The widening is also at odds with CDOT’s current practice of striping bike lanes through intersections, and puts bicyclists at greatest risk right where they most need protection.

Before conditions on Belmont at Western Avenue

CDOT plans to demolish at least part of the buildings at right so that it can widen Belmont Avenue. Photo: Steven Vance.

Belmont is designated as a key Crosstown Bike Route in the city’s Streets for Cycling Plan 2020, and would be a great way for bicyclists to get between the north and northwest sides if only there weren’t a huge, crowded, high-speed intersection dropped right into the middle of it. Michelle Stenzel was a co-leader for the plan’s North Side district, co-chairs Bike Walk Lincoln Park, and is disappointed with CDOT’s plans for Belmont at Western.

A wider Belmont “will never, ever attract new bike riders, when people are left with completely no help, no protection, and no direction at a huge intersection like this,” Stenzel says. “It was supposed to serve as an important east-west route,” she said, but will prove too dangerous for many potential bicyclists. Stenzel took umbrage with using city funds to buy buildings and widen the road: “It’s infuriating” that, while “city planners have a blank slate [because of the flyover teardown]… there’s not a single inch of room to provide bicyclists a safe passage.”

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Hit-and-Run Driver Killed Cyclist Aimer Robledo on New Year’s Day

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Aimer Robledo

2015 had a tragic start for the family of Aimer Robledo, a Humboldt Park man who was killed by a hit-and-run driver as he rode his bike home in the early hours of New Year’s Day.

Robledo, 30, worked in construction and catering, and also DJed Mexican music at parties. On New Year’s Eve, he threw a party at his home on the 1400 block of North Avers, where he lived with other family members, DNAinfo reported.

At about 1:30 a.m., as the party was ending, nephew Raphael Hernandez told DNA that Robledo decided to ride his bike to go visit a friend. Hernandez added that his uncle hadn’t been drinking prior to leaving his party. After wishing the friend a happy New Year, Robledo stopped nearby to visit his own wife and two daughters, ages eight and nine, who lived separately from him. 

Around 2:40 a.m., Robledo was riding home from his wife’s house when the driver of a dark-colored minivan struck him under a railroad viaduct on the 4700 block of West Division, according to Officer Veejay Zala from Police News Affairs. This industrial stretch of Division has wide lanes and few intersections, which encourages speeding.

Robledo suffered a head injury but was still breathing when the ambulance arrived, Hernandez told DNA. Robledo was transported to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 3:37 a.m., according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

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Yellow Journalism: Tribune Panics Over “Risky” Stoplight Timing

The Tribune is trying to brew a storm of controversy over the city's red light camera program by pointing out that Chicago, like every other city, times its yellow lights differently. Photo: Jamelah

The Tribune is trying to provoke controversy over Chicago’s red light camera program by pointing out that the city times its yellow lights differently — just like every other city. Photo: Jamelah, via Flickr

Day in and day out for at least 30 years (and perhaps for almost a century), over 3,000 stoplights all across Chicago have whirred through tens of millions of cycles the exact same way: green, then yellow for three seconds, then red. Yet today, this three second cycle was suddenly declared a public safety emergency, with the Tribune’s front page fomenting panic about the crisis posed by “risky” and “too short” yellow phases.

The Tribune, of course, has long pursued a vendetta against the automated enforcement of red lights in Chicago, consistently whining about a program that penalizes criminals who blow through stoplights with deadly consequences. In its newest episode, the newspaper assembled a cadre of experts to inveigh against the long-established three second yellow phase, and arguing for a few tenths of a second more leeway. (This isn’t the first time the Tribune has zeroed in on fractions of seconds in arguing against enforcement.) Drivers, it seems, feel as if they’ve been “ambushed” by yellow lights that work exactly the same way they’ve worked for decades.

One example the Tribune cites approvingly is Maryland, where a 2004 law lengthened the minimum yellow signal phase to 3.5 seconds. Yet the story there was all about political perception, rather than engineering standards. Frank Murphy from Baltimore’s transportation department told the Tribune, “The reason the law was passed was because it was represented that there was an ambush situation, when yellow lights were set so low – even though they had always been set at three seconds previously.”

True, some recent engineering guidance recommends that cities assume that drivers are usually speeding when approaching traffic signals, and such formulas find Chicago’s yellow signals to be on the short side. For example, Institute of Transportation Engineers’ formula recommends that for situations like a citywide standard (where actual travel speeds can’t be observed), adding 7 mph to the speed limit across the board — thus assuming that drivers citywide are traveling at 37 mph.

Moving forward with that assumption would endorse and enable speeding, which is a far cry from the Chicago Department of Transportation’s recent push to eliminate all fatalities from our streets. David Zavattero is head of traffic safety programs at CDOT, and oversees the red light camera program. He said that Chicago uses a three second yellow light because “we don’t believe it is a safe environment to be [in], basing your signal timing on a 40 mph vehicle traveling through the intersection.” Plus, Chicago’s citywide three second phase has a long history: The federal government’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices first recommended a three second minimum back in 1935, and continues to do so today.

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Why the Tribune’s Red Light Camera Story Is Garbage Journalism

The Chicago Tribune’s reporting ignored the human toll of car crashes at intersections with red light cameras in failing to consider the severity of injuries in right-angle crashes. Image: Wikipedia

In a huge front-page story Friday, the Chicago Tribune published yet another installment in its long-running vendetta against the city’s photographic traffic enforcement program. Because the Trib chose to obscure key information about the severity of crashes, the story is worthless as an evaluation of the city’s red light camera program.

The article lavishes attention on a $14,000 study “commissioned by the Tribune [that] concluded the cameras do not reduce injury-related crashes overall.” But if you manage to get 2,000 words into the article, authors David Kidwell and Alex Richards acknowledge that nine years ago the Federal Highway Administration also commissioned a study on red light cameras. And if you take a close look at the FHWA study, it debunks the entire premise behind the Tribune’s analysis.

The FHWA employed a methodology that closely resembles the Tribune’s, with one all-important difference: The feds incorporated the severity of crashes into their calculations. Both studies found that red light cameras tend to prevent right-angle crashes, while rear-end crashes increase. But since FHWA also acknowledged that right-angle crashes are more severe and impose higher costs on society than rear-end crashes, it found that even with increases in one crash type, the benefits of red light cameras outweigh the costs.

On its website explaining the FHWA study, the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center clearly states: ”Since the angle and rear-end crashes are of different severities, you must combine both the change in frequency with differences in severity in the analysis. This is why looking… just at changes in total crash numbers is not correct.” While the Trib interviewed a UNC researcher about camera site selection, it failed to note this basic conclusion that upends the paper’s own methodology.

Put simply, the Tribune’s methodology ignores the most important factor – the number of people killed and the severity of injuries sustained at intersections with red light cameras.

The FHWA didn’t make that mistake. Factoring in “the lesser severities and generally lower unit costs for rear end injury crashes” the agency concluded that red light cameras achieved $14-18 million in savings to motor vehicle occupants in urban and rural intersections in seven municipalities. Only thousands of words into the piece, when mentioning the FHWA study, does the Tribune admit that there is a difference in severity of different crash types.

The Tribune also drew unwarranted conclusions from its own study, which found that the change in total crash numbers was not statistically significant. The study itself says “the increase in crashes may not necessarily be because of [adding red light cameras], but may just have happened by chance.”

But the data the Tribune collected is sufficiently robust to bolster the conclusion that red light cameras reduce right-angle crashes.

“[The] Chicago Tribune’s study confirms that these cameras help to reduce dangerous angle crashes that are more likely than rear-end crashes to cause serious injury or death,” Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said in a statement today. They’re less severe because they’re slower – drivers are decelerating, and going the same direction, during rear-ends – and cars have crumple zones in the front and rear, but not the sides. Read more…

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Could Rauner Stop the Illiana Boondoggle? Sure. But Will He?

Rich guy Bruce Rauner running for Illinois governor

Rauner says he needs to “see the studies” on the Illiana before making a decision on whether it should continue.

The Illiana Tollway, a joint proposal by the Illinois and Indiana departments of transportation to build a 47-mile highway through thinly populated farmland about 40 miles south of Chicago, rolled over another hurdle yesterday when the Federal Highway Administration approved the project’s environmental impact study. FHWA’s approval allows IDOT and InDOT to proceed with soliciting bids for the highway.

In a press release, IDOT called the FHWA’s “record of decision” an endorsement of the project and process. IDOT, of course, is reading too much into this: FHWA didn’t endorse the project by awarding it a huge grant. Instead, FHWA merely acknowledged that the Illiana meets the federal government’s minimum justification standard for highways. Even though the Illiana might meet that bare minimum, the FHWA isn’t putting its own money on the line. Rather, FHWA has simply said that Illinois is now free to waste its own money on the project.

This monstrous boondoggle – one of the most wasteful road projects in the entire country – surely won’t be stopped by IDOT or by any agency, like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, dependent on IDOT. The federal government’s involvement concluded with the EIS review, so it’s now out of the picture. It’s up to governor-elect Bruce Rauner to put an an end to this travesty.

Stephen Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently told the Better Government Association that Rauner “has the authority to shelve [Illiana]. He doesn’t have to ask anyone.” Schlickman added that, because the Illiana is “moving so rapidly,” Rauner will need to act quickly and decisively. IDOT is just weeks, or months, away from formally issuing a Request for Proposals to its short list of bidders, and award contracts soon afterwards.

Rauner told the Tribune’s editorial board in September that he didn’t know if the Illiana should be built, and that he’d “have to see the studies” before making that decision. In the past, he’s hedged on the issue – both saying that the project “may have the potential to be an economic development engine,” but also that IDOT’s public-private partnership shouldn’t leave taxpayers “holding the bag.”

If Rauner does take a close look at the studies, he’ll find that the Illiana’s economic development “potential” lies entirely in Indiana, and that the state’s $1.3 billion would create just 940 jobs through 2040. The editorial board directly asked Rauner if he had seen the studies, and wrote then that “there is no upside” to the road.

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CDOT Tweaks Randolph/Michigan, But It’s Still Dysfunctional for Pedestrians

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The new right turn signal at Randolph/Michigan. Photo: John Greenfield

When you build a fabulous new attraction in the center of a bustling metropolis, you obviously want to maximize pedestrian access to make it easy for large numbers of people to walk there, right? That’s not what happened with Millennium Park.

A month after the music and art venue opened in the summer of 2004, drawing big crowds of pedestrians, the city actually took steps that made it more difficult to access the park on foot. After observing many conflicts between pedestrians crossing Michigan and motorists turning left onto the avenue, city traffic engineers solved the problem – by eliminating the pedestrians.

The Chicago Department of Transportation ground out crosswalks and barricaded corners at several intersections. Most egregiously, they removed the crosswalk at the south leg of Michigan/Randolph. At the time, a CDOT spokesman told me it was done because of safety concerns. Conveniently for motorists, however, eliminating this pedestrian movement also facilitated southbound turns onto Michigan by drivers heading west on Randolph.

The city spent $51,000 to install bollards and chains at the southwest and southeast corners of this intersection, deterring people from walking directly from the Chicago Cultural Center (which houses the city’s main visitor info center) to Millennium Park. Instead, pedestrians are now expected to cross the street three times to make the same move: north across Randolph, east across Michigan, then south across Randolph again. In addition to creating a major detour across 19 lanes of traffic, this made the remaining crosswalks more crowded.

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Formerly you could cross directly between the southwest corner and the southeast. Now it takes three crossings to make the same trip.

When the Emanuel administration took over in 2011, the appointment of forward-thinking transportation commissioner Gabe Klein suggested that this kind of cars-first planning might be a thing of the past. Shortly after he started at CDOT, I asked Klein if for his take on the Michigan Avenue situation, and the fact that the city had also taken out the midblock crosswalk between Buckingham Fountain and the lakefront in 2004.

“The Randolph/Michigan issue is interesting,” he said. “I don’t like it, from the standpoint that I would like to give priority to the pedestrians that we’re relying on to populate the park. Having said that, if the crosswalk was taken out because of safety concerns, then we really have to look at Michigan Avenue, which I think is just a problem.”

Klein added that he would like to reinstall the Buckingham crosswalk, and a few months later, CDOT did just that. Last summer, the department restriped the crossing at the north leg of Washington/Michigan, the main entrance to the park.

However, the Randolph/Michigan intersection has remained unchanged – until this fall. In October, CDOT installed a new right-turn arrow signal for drivers heading west on Randolph and turning north on Michigan. A recent newsletter from 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, who bankrolled the project with ward money, claimed the new dedicated right-turn phase is reducing congestion.

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Driver Fatally Strikes 53-Year-Old Woman in Wicker Park

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The entrance to the CVS parking lot. Image: Google Streetview

Last night, a young woman driving out of a drug store parking lot struck and killed a female pedestrian in Wicker Park, according to Officer Janel Sedovic from News Affairs.

At about 7:40 p.m., Samar Khan, 23, was exiting the parking lot of the CVS at 1200 North Ashland in her Nissan Juke mini-SUV, Sedovic said. The lot’s driveway passes through the building and abruptly crosses the sidewalk on Division.

As Khan, of the 1200 block of North Cleaver in Noble Square, turned left to head east on Division, she struck a 53-year-old woman who was “standing in the street,” Sedovic said.

A police source noted that the pedestrian was “intoxicated” and “was wearing all black clothing.” However, the police report did not include details about the movements of the driver or the pedestrian.

The victim was taken to Stroger hospital, where she was later pronounced dead, Sedovic said. As of early this afternoon, the Cook County medical examiner’s office had not released the woman’s identity.

Khan was cited for failure to exercise due care to avoid a collision with a pedestrian in the roadway. Major Accidents is investigating.

Fatality Tracker: 2014 Chicago pedestrian and bicyclist deaths
Pedestrian: 24 (6 were hit-and-run crashes)
Bicyclist: 8 (1 was a hit-and-run crash)

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On the Anniversary of Hector Avalos’ Death, His Family Is Hoping for Justice

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Hector Avalos. Photo courtesy of the Avalos family.

Last Friday, exactly one year after Hector Avalos was struck and killed by an allegedly drunk driver, his family and friends gathered to remember him at the “ghost bike” erected in his honor. The white-painted bicycle, installed at the crash site on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park, is part of a worldwide movement to memorialize fallen cyclists. Avalos’ memorial serves as a somber reminder of a valuable life lost.

Avalos, 28, was a former marine and aspiring chef who often commuted by bike. On the night of December 6, 2013, he was biking back to the South Side from his job as a line cook at El Hefe restaurant in River North. He was several blocks west of his home on the 1800 block of West Cermak when his path intersected with that of motorist Robert Vais.

Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, had reportedly spent the evening at a staff Christmas party at Francesca’s on Taylor, a restaurant in Little Italy. At 11:50 p.m., he was driving home to southwest suburban Riverside in his Ford Windstar minivan when he struck Avalos from behind. After emergency personnel arrived, Avalos was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:38 a.m.

According to a police report, Vais walked up to an officer on the scene and said, “I was the driver of that van over there. I hit him. Is he OK?” The officer testified that Vais smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes, which spurred his decision to arrest Vais and take him to the hospital for a blood draw. The test showed he had a blood alcohol content of 0.118, well above the legal limit of 0.08.

A small crowd of Avalos’ loved ones gathered on Friday to tell stories and share memories. Wrapped in scarves and blankets, they solemnly poured beer at the base of the light pole that supports the ghost bike, forming foamy puddles. Someone wiped clean the framed photograph of Avalos in his Marine dress uniform, a souvenir from his two tours of duty. Flickering veladoras — religious votive candles — were lit, creating a small circle of light and warmth in the dark, cold night.

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Active Trans to Oak Park Trustees: Quit Stalling on Madison Road Diet

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Rendering of Madison in Oak Park after a “four-to-three conversion” road diet.

Active Transportation Alliance director and Oak Park resident Ron Burke says he’s tired of waiting for the village’s trustees to move forward with making Madison a safer and more economically viable complete street. A plan was proposed nearly three years ago to reduce crashes and make the street more walkable and bikeable with a road diet on the street between Austin and Harlem. A survey at the time found the overwhelming majority of residents support the plan, Burke said.

The suburb has millions of dollars in tax increment financing, as well as a federal grant, that could be used for the project. However, no action has been taken since the plan came out, because the village board has been deliberating on whether to use TIF money for a new school district headquarters, Burke said. Now that decision is largely resolved, Active Trans recently launched a letter writing campaign to let Oak Park leaders know they shouldn’t further delay improvements to Madison, garnering over 200 signatures in a week.

Currently, this stretch of Madison is a wide, four-lane street with a limited number of left turn lanes and too much capacity for the 18,300 cars it carries on average each day. As a result, it’s got one of the highest crash rates in Chicagoland, with about 235 collisions per year. That’s roughly twice the collision rate of Lake Shore Drive, which the Illinois Department of Transportation has said is one of the most crash-prone roads in the state.

The collisions on Madison are mostly car-on-car, but an average of seven pedestrians and cyclists are struck on this stretch per year. Active Trans recently included Madison/Harlem on its list of the 20 most dangerous intersections in the region.  Tragically, 92-year-old Suleyman Cetin was fatally struck while biking across Madison at Scoville last year.

Furthermore, Madison serves as a major barrier to people on foot and bikes, discouraging travel between the north and south sides of Oak Park. The car-centric street layout and high speeds have also contributed to a lackluster retail picture on the street, with a high number of fast food restaurants and empty lots, Burke said.

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Logan Square NIMBYs Don’t Understand the Value of Housing Density

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Save Our Boulevards’ unintentionally hilarious flyer.

There must be something in the water along Milwaukee Avenue, since lately Logan Square NIMBYs have been giving their Jefferson Park counterparts a run for their money. Exhibit A is an unintentionally hilarious flyer protesting plans for transit-oriented development in Logan, circulated by the local group Save Our Boulevards.

As reported by DNAinfo, the handout, headlined “1,500 Units Coming to You,” warns residents that fixie-pedaling, Sazerac-sipping “hipsters” will be moving into the parking-lite buildings. SOB insists that, even though these hypothetical bohemians will bike everywhere, they’ll simultaneously create a car-parking crunch and clog the roads.

The flyer cites an October 28 Curbed Chicago article reporting that nearly new 1,500 apartment units are currently planned for Milwaukee between Grand and Diversey. The development boom is in response to the demand for housing along the Blue Line, largely from young adults who want a convenient commute to downtown jobs. It’s worth noting that only about a third of this 4.5-mile stretch lies within Logan Square.

“Many of these [apartment buildings] have little or no parking,” the handout states. “Parking space is important to most of us. Most of us don’t ride our bikes to work. Most of us think density and congestion adversely affect our quality of life.”

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This man is not coming to steal your car-parking spot. Photo John Greenfield

SOB scolds 1st Ward Alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno for paving the way for more density, since he supported the city’s 2013 transit-oriented development ordinance. The new law makes it easier for developers to build relatively tall buildings near transit stops, and halves the number of required parking spaces.

“Tell [Moreno] to stop representing the hipsters who don’t live here, but want to move her [sic], drink fancy cocktails for a few years, and then move to the suburbs because it’s too congested and their friends can’t find a place to park,” the flyer exhorts. Obviously, this is pretty scrambled logic.

Ironically, SOB was formed in 2011 as an anti-parking group. Back then, 35th Ward Alderman Rey Colón introduced an ordinance that legalized the longstanding practice of church parishioners parking in the travel lanes of Logan Square boulevards on Sundays. It also permitted weekend parking on the lanes by drivers patronizing local businesses. The neighborhood group argued that this practice detracted from the historic character of the boulevard system.

Nowadays, SOB is particularly upset about a plan to build two 11- and 15-story towers on vacant lots at 2293 North Milwaukee, just southeast of the California/Milwaukee intersection and the California Blue stop. The development would have 250 housing units, but only 72 parking spaces, as opposed to the standard 1:1 ratio.

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