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.

  • Anonymous

    Same occurs in my neighborhood at the corner of North and Central Park where a Speedway station has just kind of absorbed the sidewalk as it’s parking lot/driving area. Very unfriendly to people trying to walk by.

  • Endless Mike

    Its pretty much lipstick on a pig. I mean the LED lights are very cool. But its still a street that I would avoid walking along just because of the rushing traffic trying to make it to the Circle Interchange. It still feels like a pretty large barrier between the Loop and Printers Row. Some sort of road diet and expanded sidewalks or bike facilities would have really been a big deal for it.

  • Fred

    The intersection at Wells/Congress is scary. Cars come from under the train tracks and fly through that intersection at waaay too dangerous speed. I’m waiting for a pedestrian standing on the curb to get clipped by a car doing 70 heading onto the highway ramp.

    I realize that large capacity on Congress is nice to get people to/from Soldier Field, but when there are not events there the roadway is really too wide. I wish the city would close lanes when the capacity is not needed. This would also keep pedestrians from needing to cross 7 lanes of traffic with no island refuge.

  • “Heeeeey, it’s Chicago” is also a remark they made, it was a bit frustrating. Two calls to 911 and zero officers responded.

  • Now that you mention it, it is an issue I see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesbondsv/8138571159/

  • It’s weird: the width of Wells goes from two lanes north of Van Buren to at least four lanes in the one block from Van Buren to Congress (and then south of there it’s two-way). There are two right-turn lanes to turn from Wells to Congress and these always make it complicated to bike through (as Wells connects to Harrison, which has a bike-friendly bridge treatment).

    Aside: With the widening of Harrison (because of Congress Parkway/Wacker reconstruction) between Wells and the river, it’s less comfortable to bike through.

  • SLC

    I’d really love to know what the market value of that BP is (ditto for the roosevelt and wabash one). I’m sure those stations are generating loads of cash but I’m kind of surprised that those two sites haven’t been turned into something else. Urban gas stations are just killer.


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