Eyes on the Street: LEDs Brighten a Safer Congress. Now About That BP…

New lights on Congress Parkway
LED lights change colors every few seconds.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein held an event last Thursday to flip on the new LED lights overlooking the beautified Congress Parkway streetscape that was completed last year. I visited on Sunday evening to take a look at the lights.

Congress Parkway needed a lot of help to become a pedestrian-friendly street. John wrote in Newcity in June:

Before the rehab, the zooming cars, dearth of pedestrian facilities and abundance of grim buildings along Congress, like a Brutalist parking garage for federal employees and a windowless AT&T building, discouraged walking trips. But CDOT project director Janet Attarian says the agency did a number of things to improve safety for pedestrians and motorists alike, as well as making it a more appealing street to stroll.

Some sidewalks were widened, planter boxes and stone blocks were added to protect people from traffic, and brick crosswalks were installed along with pedestrian signals and countdown timers. The traffic lights for drivers are timed to give a green wave for motorists traveling at the speed limit of 30 mph.

These improvements will increase pedestrian safety by slowing traffic and keeping cars in their lanes. The next challenge on Congress Parkway is to attract some pedestrian-friendly ground-floor activity. Congress doesn’t have much going on: the LaSalle Blue Line station, a BP gas station, and a federal immigration office. Activity near State Street is a different story, as there are restaurants and Robert Morris University buildings up and down the street.

5+3 lanes crosswalk over Congress Parkway
Crosswalk Dearborn Street. Image from ##http://goo.gl/maps/5AsZL##Google Street View##.

The streetscape was designed before the city released its Complete Streets Design Guidelines, and it doesn’t pass all of the new tests. The most apparent is that, even with (curbless) pedestrian refuge islands at most intersections, pedestrians still have to cross more than three uninterrupted lanes on Congress Parkway in several places. At Dearborn Street, for instance, pedestrians have to cross eight traffic lanes. This goes against the new guideline recommending that “marked crosswalks should not be longer than three lanes.”

New lights on Congress Parkway
Drivers block the sidewalk at the BP station on Congress.

One issue that should be looked at immediately is the lack of differentiation between the BP gas station pavement and the sidewalk. When I came across these cars at the BP and told the drivers they were blocking the sidewalk, they replied, in what I believe was a serious tone, that there was no sidewalk. I saw many people go around the cars by walking in the roadway (see photo below); it was either that or walk through a gas station.

We’re curious whether the new light show is having a calming effect on traffic, since it gives drivers something interesting to slow down and gaze at. We may look into this topic in the future.

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