The Real Reason There Are Speed Cams by Challenger Park

CDOT crash map of the Challenger Park safety zone.

Uptown’s Challenger Playlot Park is the poster child for the anti-traffic camera crowd. Along with Mulberry Playlot Park, in the McKinley Park neighborhood, Challenger is frequently cited as a small, little-used park that’s not even visible from the locations of speed cameras that are supposedly there to protect park users. This is proof, according to the naysayers, that the camera’s true purpose is revenue, not safety.

Challenger is a roughly five-acre park located on a narrow strip of land, bordered by Irving Park Road, Montrose Avenue, Graceland Cemetery, and the Red Line tracks. Last year, the Chicago Department of Transportation installed three speed cameras nearby: two on Broadway north of Montrose and one at 1100 West Irving Park. State law dictates that speed cameras may only be installed inside Children’s Safety Zones, the area within one-eighth mile of schools and parks. These three cams sit within those boundaries.

The driver advocacy blog The Expired Meter noted that the southern half of Challenger is occupied by a parking lot, used by Cubs fans on game days. “[Challenger seems to defy the definition of what most people consider a park to be,” wrote the pseudonymous Mike Brockway. “It’s essentially a glorified parking lot next to train tracks. But now there’s a speed camera on Irving Park… protecting the thousands of dead behind the fences and buried in the ground of Graceland Cemetery from the speeders.”

The Uptown Update blog went ahead and implied the cams are a money grab:

The city’s new speed camera program says it exists to protect the children who play in Challenger Park, not to plunder your paycheck.  If children’s safety is paramount, we think it might have been a wiser move not to turn half of the park into a parking lot, but … oh well.  We all know why the cameras are there.

Although Challenger would, in fact, benefit from being de-paved, there are still plenty of reasons to walk there. A fenced in “dog-friendly area” at the center of the park is known as “Challenger Bark.” Just east is Buena Circle Playlot Park, which has a good-sized playground. And the northern half of Challenger is a nicely landcaped green space with walking trails. When I visited on a warm afternoon a few weeks ago, I saw a handful of people with pooches, and a couple of dads taking a walk with their toddlers.

A father and son stroll in Challenger Park. Photo: John Greenfield

But, granted, one could argue that Challenger doesn’t draw enough pedestrians to warrant the speed cameras. So why are they there?

“The Challenger Park Children’s Safety Zone ranks 54th out of 1,400 zones across the city, putting it in the bottom one percent for safety,” explained CDOT spokesman Pete Scales. So far this year there have been a total of 339 crashes within the safety zone, nine of which had serious or fatal consequences. 36 collisions involved children, and 28 involved pedestrians or bicyclists. In 99 of the crashes, speed was a factor.

A crash map Scales provided shows that most of the collisions took place on main streets, and the majority weren’t particularly close to the park. Therefore, it appears that the purpose of the Challenger speed cameras — similar to the cam near Mulberry – is to address the problem that the general area has a high crash rate. In effect, the cameras aren’t just there to protect children walking to the park, but to protect pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers of all ages, in various parts of the safety zone, from speeding motorists.

This situation highlights a problem with Chicago’s speed cam program. The city really should be allowed to install the cameras anywhere in the city where there’s a speeding problem, not just by parks and schools. However, it seems that Mayor Emanuel felt he wouldn’t be able to get the speed camera law passed in Springfield unless it was sold as something designed to protect kids. As a result, when CDOT uses small parks like Challenger as a justification for installing cams, it provides ammunition for the opponents.

However, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything shady going on here. Sure, the Challenger cams weren’t installed to protect children in particular, but they’re there to protect all of us.

  • banThecams

    Well hopefully a republican governors will block any further expansion of camera programs.
    And John you can keep telling yourself the cameras aren’t about revenue- but one day you’ll realize how foolish you look

  • skyrefuge

    While CDOT is able to produce a safety-related rationale for this camera, that still falls well short of definitively proving “the real reason” for them. To do that, you would have to show that there is a both high correlation between camera placements and the zone’s ranking on the safety list (to show that safety is of great concern), as well as a relatively low correlation between their placements and number of cars that speed in that area without causing crashes (to show that revenue-collection is unimportant).

    This one data point is insufficient to prove anything. Yes, the zone may be ranked #54 for safety, but maybe it’s ranked #2 on the number-of-speeding-cars list (which wouldn’t be too surprising on that open stretch of Irving Park between the cemeteries). As a start, did you ask CDOT if they have cameras at all 53 zones that are more dangerous than this one?

    I certainly appreciate the straight-talk about the mayor’s “it’s all about the children” political smokescreen though.

  • No one is doubting that the speed cameras collect revenue, especially not John nor I. Fines are a behavior modification tool. And study after study shows that speed cameras installed in American cities lead to less incidence of speeding and fewer serious injuries (near the camera and with some citywide effects).

    New York City just lowered its speed limit today to 25 MPH. I hope for a similar change in Chicago. Actually, a handful (maybe a dozen or more) streets have 20 MPH and 25 MPH speed limits (look at Dearborn just north of Kinzie for a lower-than-30 speed limit).

    That would really help us see fewer of our parents, friends, grandparents, cousins, and babies seriously injured.

  • They say that only a sith deals in absolutes, but it seems republican’s do too. Why is it that the fact that camera’s generate revenue means they cannot possibly also improve safety. Typical justification defense from those who want to continue to break the law with impunity. And endanger the lives of others for their own selfish (and ultimately futile) gains.

  • CL

    Exactly — the cameras aren’t about protecting parks / the children. They’re meant to target speeders and make money, so the city wants to put them where the most speeding occurs. The extent to which Rahm Emanuel cares about crashes vs. money, we’ll never know, because speeding and crashes are correlated. But the whole park / school thing was just for the politics.

  • PulSamsara

    “The Real Reason There Are Speed Cams by Challenger Park”

    To pay for pensions… next.

  • PulSamsara

    “Fines are a behavior modification tool”

    indeed – the behavioral change is from keeping our own money to paying for bloated pension welfare.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    Read the Tribune for the awfully bad deal on borrowed money for CPS. More speed cameras coming.

    Here’s whwt eventually will happen is taxpayers will hit a tipping point and leave the city.

  • PulSamsara

    already heard the story on the radio. Poor investing is one thing – and bad enough – but the blatant societal theft penned into Chicago city worker contracts is altogether more disgusting.

  • Barnet Fagel

    The Mayor claims cameras are for kid safety. Yet no pedestrian safety school course exists at CPS. So Kids by the Mayor’s logic are only “safe” at speed camera locations. Will that carry over into adulthood? Life doesn’t work that way Mayor. Go run another traffic signal or speed to your important luncheon. Don’t worry about the kids, the cameras will protect them.

  • CDOT does pedestrian and bicycle safety instruction in the schools via the Safe Routes and Bicycling Ambassadors:

    But I agree, pedestrian and bicycle safety courses, similar to driver ed classes, should be mandatory at CPS.

  • Voltaire

    I walk that stretch of Irving (with the speed camera) almost every day. I bike that stretch of Irving frequently, too. The street was horrible before the camera came – now I feel far safer using the road. Cars are noticeably slower (not speeding) anymore, and it’s actually possible to cross the street sometimes, too! That camera is one of the best things to happen to this area.

  • HJ

    Want to keep your money? Don’t speed. Pretty simple.

  • PulSamsara

    Nothing to do with safety – everything to do with revenue collection. Pretty obvious.

    If you think that’s ok – that’s an entirely separate argument – but that is what is going on.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if safety was a concern the crosswalks would be striped. I would hesitate to say if you examined all the crosswalks in the photo above 75% are missing the paint. The cams only have an effect in the blocks surrounding the cameras. But outside the so called safety zone we don’t have enough paint. And two or three years down the line when there’s no federal money to restripe the bike lanes, what will be the priority, bike lanes or crosswalks? Surely there will be more speed cams, but that money goes to the general fund and budgets for crosswalks, way down the line.

  • Or people could, you know, drive the speed limit. But cutting 2 seconds off a commute is more important than a few kids lives.

  • Fred

    I still don’t understand why the politicians don’t embrace the traffic cameras as revenue generators. We openly demonize millionaires to raise state revenue, why not demonize scofflaw drivers to raise city revenue?

  • skyrefuge

    There is still a giant unsupported leap to be made between your statement that safety and revenue are BOTH reasons for the speed camera program, and John’s headline claim that safety is “the real reason”. What’s next, an article claiming that “the real reason” car parking is allowed on city streets is to provide separation between cars and bicycles in a protected bike lane? After all, car parking in that case, like speed cameras, provides two independent benefits: it provides storage for automobiles, AND separates bicyclists from auto traffic. If you can just randomly pick one of them as “the real reason”, then hey, why not? In other news, “the real reason” Rauner ran for governor is because he truly cares about all the people of Illinois, and “the real reason” it rained in the spring is because some farmers sacrificed the right goats. Woo, this is fun and stupid!

    Regarding a lowering of the default speed limit, I thought you guys were at least mostly on-board with the concept that street design determines speeds, not speed limits? So lowering speed limits (and adding speed cameras) without changing street design would be about as close as you could come to saying “we’re setting up citywide speed traps in order to collect revenue”.

  • forensicgarlic

    This is just a guess, but I bet most of the actual revenue from speed cameras are from people who don’t live near the camera. That will often mean people who also don’t live in the city. So thanks for supporting our budget, suburbanites!

  • skyrefuge

    Because of how politics works. Rich people are a small enough voting block that demonizing them won’t significantly affect your re-election chances. Speed cameras affect a much broader group of voters (either through citations, or fear of citations), and that makes politicians too scared to endorse them without first shielding themselves in piles of children.

  • Fred

    But isn’t a property tax increase the penultimate in political suicide? So can’t any fee/tax increase be presented as an alternative to it to lessen the blow?

    “In lieu of a property tax increase, we will be doubling the traffic camera program. Anyone opposed to more traffic cams is directly supporting a property tax increase. What do you prefer?”

    Also, the higher 911 telephone fees that affect nearly every single city resident don’t appear to have been suicidal. Why would traffic cams that only affect some residents be?

    EDIT: Traffic cams also have the added bonus of not only not affecting every city resident, but the ability to draw from those that live outside the city as well. Hotel and airport specific fees are popular for this same reason.

  • skyrefuge

    If humans reacted completely rationally to costs and expenses, then yes, it should be easy to sell them on cameras vs. property taxes. But humans are not rational. A camera citation “hurts” a lot more than a property tax increase of the same amount.

    Property taxes really shouldn’t be all that scary for politicians, as there is plenty of room for obfuscation. The city’s levy is just one small part of the consolidated once-a-year tax bill, that comes a year late, depends on changes in your property value and assessment cycles, has some inscrutable formula to calculate it, is often covered by regular, monthly mortgage escrow payments, and is not even seen at all by a large percentage of residents (renters).

    In contrast, a camera citation smacks you into the face and unexpectedly reaches into your wallet. That pisses people off well out-of-proportion to the actual cost. (for evidence, see any comment section on an article about cameras.)

    It’s a lot like rising gas prices. Behavioral economists know that they mentally affect people more than they should. Even a doubling of price represents a relatively small impact on the yearly budget of the average American, but the up-front, weekly visibility of gas prices as you fill your tank burns you as you stand there pumping it.

    Something like the 911 telephone fee is the exact opposite. Sure you may get a few people whining about it when it’s enacted, but a month later, it’s just “part of your bill”, and never again will have enough sting to stir up a voting block.

  • ohsweetnothing

    I think one bit of evidence to support that claim is that CDOT uses crash data (although weighted towards “speed related crashes”) instead of outright speed data when determining safety zones.
    By no means is that the smoking gun, but I imagine it would be much easier to walk along each safety zone with a radar gun if revenue was the sole goal, right?

  • tooch

    i’ve been ticketed twice by speed cameras but i think having them is a net good thing. two things are immediately accomplished: 1) police get to spend their time doing things other than handing out speeding tickets 2) the city generates more revenue from the tickets that can be used to help our state’s fiscal emergencies.

    additional benefits like safety are, most likely, more medium-to-long term benefits. the cameras have absolutely affected my driving habits, and while it can be frustrating driving at a slower rate of speed than i think is appropriate, it’s also important that we take the bigger picture to heart.

  • skyrefuge

    Interesting. Do you have a source for the formula CDOT uses to calculate the Safety Zone Rank? I’ve got the annoyingly-unsortable PDF of all the Zones ( ) but can’t find how they weight the factors to create their ranking.

    I do note that #20 (Wicker Park) doesn’t have a camera, while #135 (Mulberry) does. But the youth-involved percentage of crashes at Mulberry is in fact much higher than at Wicker (22% vs 8%), so maybe they are in fact looking specifically at children’s safety (and even overriding their own ranking?), even if it’s more children’s-safety-in-cars (only 6% involved peds/bikes). However, the speed-involved percentage of crashes at Mulberry is also higher than at Wicker (32% vs 26%), so maybe that makes it a juicier revenue-source? Yeah, I think we still aren’t very close to knowing “the real reason”!

  • ohsweetnothing

    Sure, I’ll see if I can find something where they specifically mention how they rank zones. I know it’s been mentioned in the press and in some of their hearings (I imagine that’s what all those little dots are in the above map).
    I also remember that when the ordinance passed, the City was divided up into 6 zones and each zone could only have between x and y % of the cameras in the City. Probably to ease fears of the City preying on the on part of the City over another. Maybe that explains the Mulberry/Wicker Park discrepancy? I imagine they’re in two different zones.

  • ohsweetnothing

    This looks something like a formula on CDOT’s site…starting at slide 20. Who knows if that’s the current formula though. But yeah, crash data appears to be what’s primarily used:

  • Alex_H

    I’d look at Dearborn just north of Kinzie for an example of a place where drivers, in general, do NOT go less than 30 mph. ;)

  • Mike C

    “…ranks 54th out of 1,400 zones across the city, putting it in the bottom one percent for safety”. Am I missing something; how is 54/1400 in the bottom one percent? By my calculation, that puts it in the bottom (or top, the ranking is not explained here) four percent.

  • Scales may have been using a different metric to calculate “safety,” as opposed to the ranking but, yeah, he may have made an error here. Let me check in with him on this. However, whether it’s the bottom one percent or four percent, it’s still near the very bottom.

  • Fred Flintstone

    Back in the 1970s elementary schools showed films about how Johnny lost his arm sticking it out the school bus window. It was shown with similar blood on the highway films regarding walking and bicycling to and from school. (of which I don’t remember the implied gruesome parts of) It was an annual mandatory thing along with the school bus evacuation drill. I guess that got dropped.

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