City Should Retain All Ashland Crosswalks in BRT Plan

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Current plans for Ashland BRT call for a layout at unsignalized intersections similar to this design at Ashland/Ohio: a single crosswalk that passes through an opening in the median.

I was recently talking about the city’s Ashland bus rapid transit plan with Joe Hall, owner of Quick Release Bike Shop, 1527 North Ashland, when he said he was concerned about pedestrian access at unsignalized intersections after BRT is implemented. While it’s true motorists won’t be able to cross Ashland at intersections without stoplights, he was under the impression that people on foot would also have to detour to the nearest signalized intersection to cross.

Hall was worried that this would make it less convenient for customers who parked their cars on the other side of Ashland to walk to his store. He was also annoyed at the prospect of having to walk a few hundred feet out of his way in order to pick up lunch at the Thai restaurant directly across the street from the shop.

The good news is that these extensive walking detours are not in the plan — people will still be able to cross the street at 41 of the 43 unsignalized intersections that currently have crosswalks along the 16-mile project area. The median of Ashland will prevent motorists from crossing intersections with no stoplights, but there will be openings to accommodate crosswalks. You can currently see this configuration at Ashland/Ohio, as shown in the Google Streetview above.

While intersections with stoplights will generally retain all crosswalks, most unsignalized intersections would lose a crosswalk.

The bad part of the current BRT design, however, is that at most unsignalized intersections where there are currently marked crosswalks on both the north and south sides of a cross street, one would be removed. So people on the non-crosswalk side of a side street who want to cross Ashland will be expected to follow an unnatural path, walking across the side street two extra times. This is one aspect of the current BRT plan that should change.

In general, the BRT project will be a boon for the walking environment. The medians will double as pedestrian islands, and sidewalks will be widened. There will be fewer cars on Ashland and less speeding. However, the elimination of crosswalks, which would inconvenience many walkers, could undermine the goal of improving pedestrian access.

“During the development of the concept design, this design element was discussed with [the Chicago Department of Transportation’s] and CTA’s engineers and planners,” CTA spokewoman Lambrini Lukidis responded via email when I asked her about the issue. “The particular design with just one crosswalk, which made its way into our concept proposal, was selected to enhance pedestrian safety by minimizing potential conflict points between pedestrians and vehicle traffic, as has been done elsewhere where there are medians.”

The question is, will this design really enhance safety, or is it just following outdated traffic engineering protocol that attempts to minimize conflicts between drivers and pedestrians by removing the pedestrians from the equation? The folly of this tactic can be seen on Michigan Avenue, where the city removed crosswalks shortly after Millennium Park opened, in an attempt to keep the increased number of people on foot from getting in the way of turning motorists.

Crossing illegally at Michigan/Randolph, where a crosswalk was removed. Photo: John Greenfield

It’s not uncommon to see people walking across Michigan in the unmarked crosswalks when it’s more convenient than making an additional crossing, even though it’s a risky move. Likewise, If crosswalks are removed on Ashland, some folks will shrug their shoulders and opt to make an illegal crossing and walk across the low median, rather than cross the street two extra times.

It would be a shame if BRT opponents use this aspect of the current design to argue that the new street configuration will be generally unfriendly to pedestrians, when the opposite is true. Thankfully, the crosswalk removals are not a done deal.

“We are well aware that [the current design] has some limitations to pedestrian access,” Lukidis wrote. “To that end, as this project goes into the next phases of design, CTA and CDOT will be considering what is optimal for each intersection, as each has its own character and context to consider, particularly sightlines, the street and sidewalk geometrics, nearby land uses as well as the location of a nearby major arterial or traffic generator.”

“Keep in mind that [removing crosswalks] is just a proposal at this point,” Lukidis told me on the phone. “As we meet more with the public, it’s possible everyone will tell us they want to keep both access points.” Just as it’s important for Chicagoans who want better transit to back the plan for fast, reliable buses on Ashland, residents should also let the city know that all existing crosswalks should be retained as part of the design.

  • cjlane

    “The bad part of the current BRT design, however, is that at most unsignalized intersections where there are currently marked crosswalks on both the north and south sides of a cross street, one would be removed.”

    *THAT* is the bad part. Pfffft.

    Anyway, will the buses be required to stop for people in the crosswalks? Will they in fact do so? Why bother with signal prioritization, when the buses will have to stop for anyone crossing at every damn block all the way along? Also, won’t signal prioritization make crossing Ashland ‘unfriendly’ for pedestrians, forcing them to wait longer to cross?

  • JacobEPeters

    Since there will be pedestrian islands formed by both the BRT stations and the medians, it will actually shorten pedestrian crossing times. Signal priority means that you could get halfway across the intersection before the signal changed, think the way you can get to boulevard medians before a signal changes. Additionally at intersections without left hand turns pedestrians will have a less dangerous crossing due to not having to deal with left turning vehicles. Everyone has had that experience of nearly getting hit my an overeager left hand turner.

    Pedestrians crossing a street can quickly get out of the bus lane due to the aforementioned pedestrian islands. They won’t have to wait for traffic in the other direction to clear, since they will be protected by the median. This means that both buses and pedestrians will be less impeded by all types of traffic on Ashland.

  • oooBooo

    Who yields? was my immediate question for the reasons you outline. But then as I read your post I realized something, CTA buses don’t yield.

  • In my opinion this goes against CDOT’s own “pedestrians first” thing they released with the Complete Streets guidelines. Simple obversation, like with the ones on Michigan Ave as well as anywhere construction closes an entire sidewalk, show that pedestrians don’t detour themselves. Don’t get rid of the crosswalks.

    In general from what I know, crossing Ashland without a signal is already next to impossible if there are cars. If you’re lucky a driver will stop to let you cross — but then 3 more also have to stop, and you run the risk of a driver behind the stopped driver swerving around and hitting you as you cross. That needs to be changed… and the bus drivers will need to learn it too; they’re no better that the average driver here as well.

  • Also this looks like it would impede east-west bike flow… I understand why they’d want to keep cars from crossing, because cars are bigger and could cause issues blocking the lanes, but wouldn’t bikes be able to fit? Lots of smaller streets are good east-west bike streets.

  • david vartanoff

    Depends entirely on how the signals software is written. For example at the closest intersection to my home where there is claimed to be signal extending hardware for a BRT-LITE service, I only get a walk signal to cross if I have first hit the “beg” button. Otherwise the cross traffic signal is ti,ed based on cars queued up. I must say though that crossing 2 lanes to a median without signal protection is saner than the full 4 lane street. And removing crosswalks is grounds for recycling.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Blocking east/west bike and pedestrian traffic is one of my major concerns with the BRT plan. There’s a very real potential that BRT could turn Ashland into a hard to cross boundary similar to Irving Park if the medians and crossings aren’t designed properly.

  • cjlane

    “Signal priority means that you could get halfway across the intersection before the signal changed”

    There are and will be no signals at 75% of these crosswalks. I’m *completely* unconcerned about how it all functions where there is a signal, notwithstanding my rhetorical point.

    “Pedestrians crossing a street can quickly get out of the bus lane due to the aforementioned pedestrian islands.”

    BUUUUUUT–when I’m a pedestrian, I don’t want to run across the bus lane. I want to have ZERO inconvenience. BRT MUST stop for me–that’s the LAW.

  • cjlane

    “There’s a very real potential that BRT could turn Ashland into a hard to cross boundary similar to Irving Park”

    For the BRT to work as well as the projections, it will be a *harder* to cross boundary.

  • cjlane

    “CTA buses don’t yield.”

    This it very true. And I, as a pedestrian, deem this an unacceptable inconvenience.

    Seriously, tho, that bus non-yielding thing is 100% more of a PITA, to me, than the crossing to the north side of 86th (as in the image John used) would be. There certainly are *some* places where retaining both crosswalks make sense, but I suspect that most of those are places where having a signal *also* makes sense.

    I will note a *HUGE* stupid mistake than CDMSmith made in that rendering–check out the traffic flow on/off of 86th and which side of the street that they chose for the single crosswalk–on both the E and W sides, 100% of the traffic that turns from 86th would conflict with the crosswalk as shown, while if they had placed it south of 86th, 0% of turns would conflict. That’s a clown crosswalk location, bro.

  • Peter

    Yielding? If you want yielding you should move to the suburbs… We are only worried about building a city transportation system that will move many many people, very very fast… we can’t have both! It simply CAN NOT happen! Better move to Idaho… :-) (this is sarcasm)

  • JacobEPeters

    Buses will have to yield, but someone walking across the bus lane will impede it much less then traffic waiting to turn left, or stopping for a non prioritized signal phase. My point was that pedestrians won’t have to wait in the bus lane for a break in traffic, because they will have a protected refuge island. Stop creating imaginary scandals. Better public transportation = better accessibility for people who have to walk everywhere.

  • Fbfree

    This discussion has me thinking that the cross-walks on Ashland should have a chicane in the median to force pedestrians and cyclists to face the direction of oncoming traffic before crossing the entire median. Network Rail and the RAIB in the UK have extensively studied fatal collisions with trains at footpath crossings. Due to the low-frequency and high speed of trains approaching these crossings, the design of most of these crossing have a chicane to encourage pedestrians to stop and look before crossing.

    A 4 to 6 foot chicane to the right in the median will increase the time for both pedestrians and drivers to identify conflicts, increase the predictability of pedestrian actions in the crossing, and provide room in the median for more pedestrians before crossing. This would likely be a much more effective way to improve safety than by removing crossing points.

  • cjlane

    “Better public transportation = better accessibility for people who have to walk everywhere.”

    And the *transit* will be better if there are not two crosswalks at every intersection.

    And the left turns you mention are a *strawman* wrt anything I comment. I’m more in favor of limiting left turns on/off Ashland than Greenfield appears to be, bc he goes soft on it regularly–raising the ‘possibility’ of keeping open crossings of Ashland at un-signalized intersections, that more the 3 planned left turn locations could be considered, etc.

    And, John basically sez “well, people will just cross everywhere, anyway”, which, while true, isn’t actually a basis for prudent decision-making. People will cross street when there are not walk signals, too, so should we just stop including them when we put in new traffic signals? They will (I do it too!!) cross in the middle of a block, so we should just make the whole street a crosswalk, bc *not* doing so would require inconveniencing a pedestrian.

  • cjlane

    Got a visual example? Cause I can’t see it (maybe just being dense), at least in keeping with not inconveniencing pedestrians.

    Do look at the CDMSmith rendering John included, and note that–for the obvious reason of stopping cars from crossing–the crosswalk is about 5′ wide thru the median, and John’s suggestion (in this post) is that there be two of those at each intersection, not a wide open crossing, amenable to 6′ shifts in the path.

  • cjlane

    “some folks will shrug their shoulders and opt to make an illegal crossing and walk across the low median”

    John: Serious question: Why do you think the medians will be “low”?

  • Fbfree

    I was thinking of something along the line below, with a short fence around the chicane preventing going straight through the cross-walk. The drawing is to scale. The idea is to slightly inconvenience pedestrians so that there is an opportunity to look before entering the bus lane. There’s should also more than enough room in the median (8′ wide) with some tight maneuvering for two wheelchairs or strollers to pass.

  • cjlane

    Thanks, Got it now.

    Think it’s contrary to John’s point of not inconveniencing pedestrians. Also, (and I am moving beyond the render, to think how it might work in practice) it would seem to work best with off set crosswalks, which would be challenging. And it would be a giant bear w/r/t bikes using the crossing points, too.

  • To clarify, I am in favor of only permitting left turns at expressway entrances. If the plan is watered down by allowing too many left turns, it will significantly slow down the buses and other through traffic, which would undermine the purpose of the dedicated lanes. I’m also opposed to allowing cars to cross Ashland at unsignalized intersections.

  • The bus platforms will be about 14″ high, easy for an able-bodied person to step onto.

  • cjlane

    Thanks for clarifying, John. I feel like (w/o tracking down where exactly) you’ve responded to comments with [paraphrase] ‘there might be more left turns allowed’ in a context that implied non-opposition, if not necessarily favoring it. Ditto the uncontrolled crossings.

    Both were, in my recollection, in response to specific “well that’s awful bc” comments, where you said “the final plan might not do that everywhere”.

  • cjlane

    And you think that the *rest* of the median will be that high, why??

    All of the platforms will be adjacent to signalized crosswalks, where I am 100% in support of maintaining 4-side crosswalks–and could see the value in a scramble, too, that was tied to arrival of the bus–so if you’re on the far corner just before it arrives, you don’t miss it.

    [edited to fix dumb typo]

  • Fbfree

    I feel that mounted cyclists shouldn’t be an intended user of these crosswalks. The crosswalks are designed to lead straight onto the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride. Conflicts with pedestrians in the crosswalk are encouraged and cyclists have to weave across other traffic to get to the cross walk cut. Rather, mounted cyclist should use straight through crossings in line with the cross-street, a la Vancouver or Portland. I don’t believe such infrastructure is appropriate at every intersection on Ashland or that such infrastructure at unsignalized intersections will be appropriate.

    Rather, should a cyclist need to cross at a low bike-use location, there shouldn’t be any problems for a dismounted cyclist to use one of these chicanes. At high use locations where there is not existing crossing signal, one should be installed and synchronized with bus movements. This will add cost, but with the benefit of a design that minimized collisions.

  • cjlane

    “mounted cyclists shouldn’t be an intended user of these crosswalks”

    Agreed, but their access across Ashland has been mentioned as an issue here that doesn’t draw objections of ‘why should we care’ . So, factors that further complicate that access would not be well received by some BRT advocates.

  • There wouldn’t be any purpose to building higher medians, unless the goal was specifically to make it hard to cross outside of the crosswalk.

  • As someone who lives up by IPR and Pulaski, Irving Park isn’t nearly as hard to cross on foot as Elston is up here. There’s lots of stoplights, so even at the unsignalized intersections, cars tend to come in tranches (outside rush hour; I’ve never tried at rush, I’m mostly doing kid-to-park stuff).

    Elston is a free-flowing stream of cars that don’t want to do under 40 under any circumstances, and the way it’s built makes it really hard to see if any traffic is coming without actually standing in the traffic lane. I’ve actually memorized which through-streets in each direction (four, because of all the one-ways) go straight across Elston without being doglegged or otherwise weird-ified, and which of those have traffic lights to aid my crossing.


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