Eyes on the Street: Pedestrian Islands Taking a Beating From Drivers

Refuge island at Chicago and Hoyne, as it looked on Monday. Photo: John Greenfield

Pedestrian islands make walking across a street safer and easier. At signalized intersections, they allow individuals who might have trouble crossing the street in a single walk cycle, such as people with disabilities, seniors and parents with small children, to make a partial crossing and then safely wait for the next cycle. At unsignalized crosswalks, they allow everybody to cross half of the street when there’s no oncoming traffic to the left, and then wait safely until the coast is clear on the right. However, Chicago drivers sure dish out plenty of abuse to these concrete refuges.

No one stops
The Chicago/Hoyne island in 2011. Photo: Steven Vance

The Chicago Department of Transportation installed this island at Chicago and Hoyne in Ukrainian Village in 2009. Drivers knocked out the diamond-shaped pedestrian sign on the island in the above photo on at least two occasions. More recently, CDOT replaced that sign with a “Stop for Pedestrians Within Crosswalk” placard, which is designed to bounce back up when struck. When I dropped by Monday, that has also been torn out of the brickwork, and several bricks were missing from the corner of the island.

Humboldt Park pedestrian island in May 2012. Photo: Steven Vance

In 2011 CDOT installed pedestrian refuges as part of a road diet on Humboldt Boulevard through the eponymous park. These make it easier to cross between the two sides of the park on foot, and the removal of travel lanes helped calm traffic. Unfortunately, the new configuration also created pinch points that make it unsafe for drivers and cyclists to share the remaining travel lanes. As you can see from comparing these before and after photos, motorists have also done a number on these islands, knocking out traffic candles and “Stop for Pedestrians” signs.

Humboldt Park island as it looked on Tuesday. Photo: John Greenfield

This refuge island shown below, at Clark and Berteau in Ravenswood, was installed as part of the Berteau Greenway, completed last fall. In addition to making it easier to walk across Clark, it includes a cutout, which allows eastbound, contraflow bike traffic from the greenway to turn north on Clark. At the northwest corner of the intersection, a bumpout and bioswale further shortens the crossing distance, tightens the turning radius for drivers turning west onto the side street, and absorbs storm water.

The refuge island at Clark and Berteau creates a pinch point for cyclists. Photo: John Greenfield

Unfortunately, this refuge island also creates a pinch point for cyclists on Clark, making it advisable to take the lane here to avoid being passed too closely by motorists. Shortly after the greenway opened, a driver flattened one of the warning signs; it has since been reinstalled. Several chunks of concrete are missing from the north end of the island, and a motorist busted the curb around the bioswale — debris from this crash still sits in the planter.

A driver took out a chunk of this bioswale at Clark and Berteau. Photo: John Greenfield

I’m not sure what lesson can be learned from all this battered infrastructure. It’s clear that these islands are doing their job protecting pedestrians, but perhaps more needs to be done on these streets to reduce car speeds. One thing’s for certain: one should never underestimate the recklessness of the Chicago driver.

  • Jim Mitchell

    To me, driver education seems key to solving this problem. It’s sad, and it is no excuse, but drivers really don’t understand the laws regarding pedestrian right of way. That’s why the “stop scouts” made some sense, but they obviously are a “stop gap” measure given their short useful lives compared to their cost. If drivers know what to do, there is at least a chance they will do it without constant visual reminders at every crosswalk. I think money spent educating drivers is probably money better spent than on stop gap measures like the little “stop scout” signs (which may also have a negative unintended consequence of “educating” drivers in the false belief that *only* where the stop scout signs are present do they have to stop for pedestrians … just my hunch).

    But it’s not just me saying this. The need to educate drivers was recognized in the 2012 Chicago Pedestrian Plan. (See in particular Ch. 15, but really throughout the document.) The problem is that the core educational programs are not even scheduled to begin until 2015, and not really come into full swing until 2018 (and that’s assuming the recommendations in the plan are being implemented as proposed).


  • CL

    Yes, most people have no idea that the law requires them to stop for a pedestrian entering the crosswalk. This is the biggest problem.

  • Making driving more difficult, slower, and more expensive, as is the case in most of the world’s great cities for walking, transit, and biking, means fewer cars on the street, traveling at less dangerous speeds. That in itself makes walking, biking, and transit safer and more efficient.

  • oooBooo

    Those signs themselves in the current set up state the obvious. In most conditions they are redundant. But the island is an odd duck. 8 inches of snow at night and something like that pretty much vanishes and there’s no visual clues that one should be there. The lanes skew around it. A subtle hump in the snow is all there will be. Something has to mark the island’s location for safety. Last thing anyone would want is to have someone not see it in the snow, bounce off the the curb and hit someone.

    If the island were redesigned, so it could be driven over or bumped without causing a loss of control or bouncing a car in a new direction or damaging a car then the sign could go away. Otherwise something has to be there to say it is there.

  • oooBooo

    That’s simply not true. Hans Monderman proved that all can be made better at the same time.

    I have learned that when the focus is anti-something the reasons given are ultimately just excuses to sell the goal, but not the real reasons for the goal. Any movement that isn’t seeking to raise all ships is suspicious IMO and usually ultimately has ulterior motivations.

  • David Altenburg

    Maybe it’s time to start taking pictures of all the tire marks I see in the islands and boulevards. I don’t blame you (or anyone else) for failing to believe how terrible Chicago drivers are at avoiding physical obstacles. It truly is unbelievable.

  • CL

    I do believe Chicago drivers would drive over the islands if they could — I just know that physically, cars can’t just plow over things and be okay. Tire marks have to be from big trucks turning.

  • On Montrose in Horner Park people hit the accelerator if they suspect you want to cross the street. Those cute little yellow bouncy pickets were devoured within the year. Only the bolts still stick out where they once were. Their demise is a blessing in disguise—the two places where they remain create what Johns calls “pinch points”, I often have to yield to cars (of course I could “take the lane” as the law permits, at my own peril.)

  • You’re right about our lovely climate, and the other causes you mention. Add to that that a large part of the cars driven in Chicago are heavy trucks in the form of SUV’s, too often navigated by people whose driving expertise is limited to turning the ignition key and locating the accelerator.

  • That was all preceded by design from very uninformed planners. Chicago still needs to learn to look at and accept what other cities have already done successfully.

  • The real problem with this plan is that, after you pass your first licensing test, there really is no way for the State of Illinois to reliably get ideas or changes in the law across to motorists in any way that is confirmable — they can put things in the nightly news, newspapers, even signs near some roads, but there will always be a large mass of drivers who ignore or miss it, and their licenses are automatically renewable (barring major moving violations) from 16 right out until they’re elderly enough to require a new eye test — but not a new written test.

    Worse than that, the written test barely covers a tenth of the relevant info, and does in stupidly. Many of the people I knew in college passed it without ever cracking open the ‘rules of the road’ book, and many of them repeated ‘rules’ of driving that they got orally from their parents or grandparents while they were learning to drive THAT ARE ACTIVELY ILLEGAL under current code, and many of them dangerous if followed. And they passed the test. And had no idea that the ‘rules’ they knew weren’t rules at all.

    But if the state implemented a “pass the written test every ten years or lose your license” law the screaming could be heard on MARS …

  • The traffic aides at the United Center on game nights regularly wave cars directly into the bike lane, even when bike commuters are nearby and proceeding legally, such that the bikes end up having to stop and wait as much as two light cycles (or dangerously jam themselves between two car lanes) to be allowed to use their own lane.

  • Pete

    That’s the first thing I thought. Most of this is snow plow damage. You’d have to hit a concrete curb awfully hard with your car to break it.

    The article doesn’t even mention this possibility, and instead states that Chicago’s reckless drivers go around bashing up curbs pedestrian islands for fun.

    Streetsblog, if you want people to think that you are more than just rabidly anti-car, then stop being just rabidly anti-car.

  • Pete

    So fewer cars on the street makes walking biking and transit safer? John by your logic, downtown Detroit is one of the safest cities to walk and bike since there are relatively few cars.

    When you post things like this, people will think you’re a smug anti-car elitist and they will discount anything else you say.

  • As has been stated and proven: Painted crosswalks are just that, paint on the road. Ignored by most if not all drivers. Islands are harder to ignore, and the investment, even at the number you quote, pales by comparison to the cost of injury or death (not to speak of the tragedy alone).

  • Virtually all great cities for walking, biking, and transit are inconvenient places to drive. But, true, not all places with few cars are thriving cities. Detroit is a very easy place to drive, but that’s part of its problem. They have completely solved the congestion problem there, but congestion can be a good thing for a city.

    There’s nothing elitist about wanting to make Chicago a place where you don’t have to own a car to safely and conveniently get around the city.

  • Pete

    You already can get around Chicago without a car, which I presume you are currently doing. Telling other people they can’t have a car because you say so is the very definition of elitist.

  • Sure, it’s possible to get around Chicago without a car. One out of four households here don’t own one. The problem is that doing so is often not convenient or safe, especially for low-income individuals, seniors, people with disabilities, and kids. The main reason for that is a history of government policy that has prioritized making driving easy and cheap at all costs. No one’s telling anyone they can’t have a car. But the world’s great cities for walking, transit, and biking are the ones that prioritize those modes over driving.

  • lana1550

    I believe Peter is trying to point out that we are investing in infrastructure designed to accommodate drivers who are breaking the law. These islands seem to be slightly concerned with pedestrian safety and very concerned with driver convenience. The solution to lack of enforcement of traffic regulations should be to actually *enforce* the regulations, not just kowtow to criminally reckless drivers.

  • As someone who crosses busy streets at uncontrolled intersections often, I don’t think pedestrian islands ‘kowtow’ to dangerous drivers; I think they give the braver segment of pedestrians enough confidence to get out there and be visible and encourage the drivers to notice that we exist. They also make some intersections that were previously uncrossable at all, crossable with moderate safety for most pedestrians.


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