Why Isn’t There a Crosswalk Here? A Pedestrian Desire Line in Wicker Park

Located just north of a Blue Line station, the North/Damen/Milwaukee junction is the epicenter of the Wicker Park and Bucktown shopping district and one of the busiest locations in town for foot and bicycle traffic. But it’s also one of the city’s most dysfunctional intersections in terms of traffic management.

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Pedestrians heading north on Damen from the Starbucks to the Walgreens are currently required to cross to the Coyote Tower first, but few do so. Image: Google Maps

Case in point is the phenomenon illustrated in these videos, shot this evening between 4:45 and 5 p.m. from in front of the Walgreens at the northern corner of the six-way, looking south. Commuters heading north on from the train station who want to continue north on Damen are supposed to detour west and make two different crossings in crosswalks.

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An aerial view of the complex intersection. Image: Google Maps

Instead, most people choose to take the most direct route by making a beeline from the Starbucks to the Walgreens. It’s the most logical path but, because the intersection is set up to prioritize car traffic, this is an illegal, and risky, maneuver.

In the mid-2000s, the city erected the railings in front of the Starbucks in an effort to discourage pedestrians from making this crossing. But, as these videos show, that strategy didn’t work.

Instead of pretending that people aren’t making this crossing, the city should accommodate this obvious pedestrian desire line by making it legal and safe to take the direct route. The simplest way to accommodate this move, as well as other direct crossings at this intersection that are currently banned, would be to implement a pedestrian scramble signal phase, in which all motorized traffic pauses while people on foot are permitted to cross in all directions. This was done a few years ago downtown at Jackson and State.

Yes, this means drivers would have to wait a bit longer at this already-congested intersection. But, since it would make the location much safer and better organized, and there would be fewer pedestrian crossings during other phases, the change would benefit all road users.

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  • Henry

    Wouldn’t a simpler solution be to mark/signal another crosswalk directly north-south from Walgreens to Starbucks?

    The biggest downside: due to crossing distance, and since this crosswalk would only be usable during the Damen green phase, that phase *might* need to be extended slightly. (The diagonal crosswalk to the west is longer, but I believe its walk phase lasts for both Damen and Milwaukee greens.) But a phase extension would be much less disruptive than a pedestrian scramble phase.

    I’m generally against increasing traffic device complexity, but a scramble would scare me at an intersection when there are so many possible crossing distances.

  • Typo report: “making a B-line” should be beeline or bee-line (it’s a reference to actual bees, who go straight back to the hive after visiting a trail of flowers).

    Also that first video should probably lose about its first minute, because it’s really tedious sitting there waiting for the example thing to happen.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Fixed, thanks.

  • JC

    I do this every day, would be great to just make it legal and put a crosswalk connecting those two corners.

    I would also consider prohibiting turns during peak times, like other 6 corner intersections around Chicago. Too many people/bikes/cars trying to go in all directions, and drivers turning are constantly stuck in the middle of the intersection when their light has passed and have to drive through people already crossing. Maybe you should get video of that, a pedestrian scramble would just make that even more dangerous

  • Pat

    The city couldn’t even figure out how to put crosswalks at a simple T-intersection from last week. Good luck with them figuring out a solution here.

  • One would think that Milwaukee having formal pedestrian-street designation makes this a no-brainer. One would of course be wrong.

    I’d love to see a similar short article on Milwaukee, Diversey & Kimball – one of my pet peeves as a pedestrian (made more extreme on “p-streets”) is when pedestrians are given a don’t walk signal to accommodate right turners. This is ridiculous, as beyond discouraging foot traffic it also sends a mixed-message to drivers that they have the right of way when turning right, which they very rarely do.

  • Frank Kotter

    I’ll take this a step further and ask how this entire intersection is allowed to exist in Chicago in its current form? The icing on the cake really is the 6 foot drop in front of Flash Taco but the problems run much deeper. It looks like something out of Karachi.

    This five way is bursting with life and the intersection currently is killing it. It sucks. Most of the problems could be fixed by giving automobiles only the minimum possible amount of lane space instead of the current form of giving them as much as is humanly possible.

    A bigger intersection doesn’t speed anything up and only makes it more dangerous for everyone involved.

  • Frank Kotter

    That’s why your initial comment is the most important in my opinion: the crossing distances need to be greatly reduced. In its current form, the room for cars is the primary goal of this intersection.

  • Every CTA station with only one entrance (which is frustrating for other reasons too) should have crosswalks. People do this at my stop, Lawrence, to cross the street to get the westbound bus. The only station entrance is on the eastbound side of the street. People cross anyway.

  • Pat

    Ditto for Diversey.

  • ejande

    I’ve wondered if this intersection would be well suited to be turned into a shared space intersection. There would be no traffic control at all. Vehicles, bikes, and peds would all have to navigate the intersection with each other in a slower but more continuous fashion. It would be interesting to see how this intersection acts when the signal is in flash.

    Here’s more info on the shared space concept: http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/05/living/shared-spaces-future-cities/

  • JacobEPeters

    The 1st Ward Transportation Advisory Committee suggested adding a Pedestrian Scramble at this intersection because of the variety & complexity of crossings. It got Zero traction, but this is the most appropriate location for it of any intersection in the city. It meets more of the criteria of a successful “Barnes Dance” than the current one at Jackson and State.

  • kclo3

    A contributing solution to the issue of safety and traffic, especially with regards to the extremely narrow sidewalk fronting Starbucks and the southern corner sidewalk island, is to extend the sidewalk from the corners where vehicles don’t touch the asphalt; the next opportunity to photograph the sneckdowns created would provide undeniable proof of its effectiveness.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Great idea.

  • Bernard Finucane

    This intersection fails in a lot of ways. Notice how the North side of North Ave bulges out in the intersection. The crosswalks should be straight. The curb at Milwaukee and Damen should be extended to accomodate that. The curb on the East side of Damen should extend across the no parking zone at the corner.

    Milwaukee should curve south into the intersection, narrowing the sidewalk on the West side and widening it on the East side. This would eliminate the “straight shot” of Milwaukee here. Then the sawed off corner in front of Starbucks could be extended into the intersection instead of being fenced off.

    The same applies to Damen. The slip lane to Milwaukee should be the main route to the intersection.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Here’s an even easier way to do it. Look at the intersection from above with Google maps. You see two grey triangles in the middle of the intersection. Experiment with simplifying the intersection by removing one or more of the legs of each triangle. Also take the abnormally large grey areas between the marked roadways and the buildings into account as possible areas for rerouting traffic.

    For example, in my post above I recommend removing the Western leg of each triangle and moved a triangle of land on the North side of the intersection. The result is much simplerThe next step would be to widen a little.

  • Elston suffers from this weird “bermuda triangle of concrete” at 6 corner intersections as well, I’ve never understood the logic behind it.

  • Henry

    Damen and Milwaukee are major bike routes. This doesn’t preclude adding sidewalk extensions – I think they’re completely reasonable here. But hopefully any changes would still allow space for cyclists to stay to the right of cars (and NOT require a full merge) as they approach the intersection.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Similarly, every CTA with stairs on both sides of the street should have an entrance on both sides of the street eliminating the need to cross. Since the fare system is completely automated, it’s a simple matter of replacing an exit gate with a turnstile.

  • Henry

    As a Milwaukee cyclist, I would NOT look forward to navigating that every day. Neither would 50/56 the bus drivers, I suspect.

  • Doing the right thing at the wrong places, they are.