Making the Whole Route to School Safer for Walking and Biking

Miguel Kilgore getting ready to bike to school this week. Photo by Michael Burton.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Tribune published an analysis of Chicago traffic crash data, finding that “from 2007 through 2011, nearly 1,700 youths, ages 5 to 18, were struck by vehicles in Chicago within about a block of a school.” Half of all pedestrian injuries to children occur near schools, and it’s great to have the local press draw attention to the problem. The next step is to start thinking about how to make entire routes to school safer for walking and biking.

Gin Kilgore bikes or runs alongside her 6-year-old son from their home in the Logan Square neighborhood to the Goethe school, also in Logan Square, a 1.3 mile trip. They routinely experience unsafe situations and a lot of close calls along the way. “At gatherings of friends who also frequently walk and bike with children,” she said, “stories of near misses and harassment often come up: the green light jumping right turners, the red light runners, the honk from behinders, the barely-even-slowing-down-at-stop signers, the crosswalk ignorers, and – our favorite – the ‘you are endangering your child and I am going to call protective services’ threateners.”

Kilgore, a program manager with the League of Illinois Bicyclists, wants to have access to the type of information about street safety that isn’t recorded by the Illinois Department of Transportation. “The crossing guards, some of which the Tribune interviewed, are the keepers of the information,” she said. “We could survey them, asking them to rate how good drivers are at yielding.”

Riding near the lagoon
Gin Kilgore and her son Miguel ride through Humboldt Park.

Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein told the Trib that the perception of safety affects livability. “It will be impossible to attract families with children to live in the city if the streets are deemed unsafe,” he said.

So how can the city make walking and biking to school feel safer? Kilgore is calling for a system that collects input from the public about where they perceive danger on the streets. “Near misses likely prevent people from wanting to bike with their kids in Chicago,” she said.

During our conversation, Kilgore drew a map of her bike route to school and marked the hotspots: the jogged crossing at Kedzie Boulevard and Belden Avenue; California Avenue at Milwaukee Avenue; Belden Avenue at Sacramento Avenue, where many drivers fail to make complete stops; and Talman Avenue at Belden Avenue, right outside the school.

“A project I have been mulling for a long time is an interactive map where people can easily locate and describe these kinds of incidents,” Kilgore said.

Mapping the qualitative experience of getting to and from school could have policy implications. “A web form would inform the ‘the powers that be,’ such as their alderman, the police department, and CDOT,” said Kilgore. “Such a tool could identify possible hotspots that could benefit from targeted enforcement, infrastructure tweaks, or, thinking long term, a complete redesign of the street.”

CDOT has some experience with a system like what Kilgore described: The agency built a site to accept people’s suggestions about where to site bike sharing stations. The site was built by Streetsblog’s parent organization, OpenPlans. Another OpenPlans project, “Make Brooklyn Safer,” is soliciting help from Brooklynites to identify intersection that people perceive to be dangerous.

Kilgore explained that she wants to foster independence in her son. “This map would be another way to show that there is an active transportation constituency – including the little ones in the single digits. If I didn’t love taking my son to school by bike, I wouldn’t do it”.

CDOT bike sharing station suggestion website
A screenshot of CDOT's bike sharing station suggestion website.
  • CL

    Where I’m from, school zone speed limits are enforced at certain times (something like the hour when kids are going to school, and the hour when they’re leaving) — and the signs blink to let you know that the speed limit is in effect. Here, the signs just say “when children are present” — this seems less safe to me because drivers might not see a critical mass of children that makes them realize they need to slow down. It also creates problems with speed cameras, which we have discussed before. As much as I hate the speed cameras, putting them in school zones, and having a school speed limit enforced between certain hours whether you see kids or not, might make it safer.

  • Adam Herstein

    The “when children are present” also causes issues in court. How can you prove that a child was there while the accused was speeding? The school zone speed limits need to be enforced at set times, or all the time.

  • This is an issue with the speed cameras. The speed limit is 20 MPH in a marked school zone, when children are present (it should be that at all times on school days). At other times the speed limit will be 30 MPH.

    The speed camera will be operational during both periods (when it’s 20 MPH and 30 MPH) and the vendor will be responsible for determining if children are present to determine which speed limit applies.

    If a person drives 31 MPH or higher, then they are in violation, regardless of the presence of children.

  • AB

    My daughter is in the same class as Gin’s son and we bike virtually the same route to school. There is an additional CPS school on the route before we reach our ending point. While I agree of all the dangerous intersections listed, by far the greatest concern are other parents dropping off at both schools. A good deal of time, those are the individuals not yielding, running lights, etc. Educating public in general about looking for pedestrians and cyclists and respecting their space could go a long ways towards making walking and biking in this urban setting a lot safer.

  • Thanks so much for covering this issue and including my experiences. I want to add/emphasize that biking with Miguel is a “puppies and rainbows” experience most of the time. Many of Chicago’s side streets and even some collectors are fine for on-street riding, especially if you are with other families (and, to be fair, the biking families I know have years of experience under our helmets so we are prob more traffic tolerant). At rough spots, we just hop on the sidewalk and slow down. The biggest challenges IMO are intersections and the attitude of some drivers. Most give us big smiles and a wide berth.

    For anyone interested in learning more about family riding, feel free to contact me or connect with Kidical Mass, a free family bike parade that happens monthly on Saturdays in Hyde Park, Logan Square and Lincoln Square. If you are not ready to ride with your kids, or are just curious. stop by at the ride’s starting point where you can talk with other parents and even try out some of our bike set ups. You will find bucket bikes, bike seats, trail-a-bikes, tandems, and kids on their own two wheels.

    Miguel has outgrown his bike seat, but we have graduated to a tandem for those trips that are too long (or slippery, as today was) for him to ride one his own.

  • Pete

    The cameras are going to issue tickets whether a child is in the picture or not. Rahm is not about to let some little legal technicality get in the way of his money making machines.