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Better Late Than Never: Chicago Is Finally Moving Forward With Vision Zero

mannequins and flags
Previous CDOT efforts at raising awareness of pedestrian safety issues have included 32 installing mannequins along Wacker representing the 32 people killed by cars in 2010, and placing safety flags at dangerous intersections. Photos: Kevin Zolkewicz, John Greenfield

Back in 2012, the Chicago Department of Transportation put out the Chicago Forward Action Agenda and the Chicago Pedestrian Plan, with the stated goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities by 2022. Today Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city is finally launching a Vision Zero initiative, an interdepartmental effort improve roadway safety, which means we’re finally catching up with peer cities like New York, which has had a Vision Zero policy for years.

However, the mayor announced today that Chicago’s original deadline for eliminating traffic deaths has been pushed back by four years to 2026. Still, it’s great to see some motion on this effort, and that all the relevant city agencies have signed on to the policy.

Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance interviewed then-CDOT commissioner Gabe Klein after Chicago Forward came out, asking if the commissioner really believed all traffic fatalities could be eliminated. “I think [zero fatalities] is achievable,” Klein said. You shoot for zero, you [may] end up at ten. Every life is important, but it’s better than shooting for fifty and ending up at seventy. We have to push ourselves.”

We obviously still have a lot of work to do. In 2014, the latest year for which the Illinois Department of Transportation has released crash data, there were 130 traffic fatalities in Chicago, including 34 pedestrians and three bike riders. Judging from news reports, in 2015 there were 33 pedestrian deaths and eight bike fatalities in 2015, and there have been 18 fatal pedestrian crashes and four bike deaths this year.

According to today’s announcement, the city will release a three-year Vision Zero Action Plan later this fall. “The plan will look at traffic safety as a public health issue and identify priorities for the city’s engineering and education initiatives, as well as enforcement support for reducing crashes,” stated a release from CDOT, the lead agency for the project. “City departments are currently working with stakeholders and the public to develop the final goals and strategies included in the plan.”

“Every day someone is injured or worse as the result of a car crash on Chicago’s streets – and that is simply unacceptable,” Emanuel said in a statement. “These crashes are preventable, and that is why we are stepping up our efforts, developing partnerships with communities and private industry. We are going to use all the resources at our disposal to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Chicago.”

According to CDOT, under Vision Zero CDOT will strengthen its longstanding practice of using crash data in planning safety infrastructure improvements. “Our goal is to provide a transportation network that is safe for all people, whether they are driving in vehicles, walking or biking,” stated current CDOT Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld. “Through Vision Zero Chicago, we will be collaborating with other city departments and community partners to create an action plan to help us achieve our goal.”

CDOT says that by the end of the year more than 100 intersections will have received additional pedestrian safety. For example, the department has installed ten pedestrian islands in high-crash areas along Madison Street and Chicago Avenue on the West Side in order to make it safer for local students to walk to school. There are ten schools located within a half-mile of the islands. The release also notes CDOT plans to install 25 miles of bike lanes this year.

A recent road diet on Lawrence included pedestrian islands and bike lanes. It has been successfully in reducing speeding and, likely, crashes. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT says the Vision Zero initiative will also include safety education for all road users, as well as community engagement on traffic safety and outreach to private businesses. This summer the city continued its safety education and outreach efforts, including distributing information about safer driving practices at block parties, festivals, community events and traffic stops. Targeted Police enforcement at crosswalks also continued in locations with high pedestrian fatally rates.

A big difference in today's announcement from past Chicago safety initiatives, is that the police department is explicitly included and given a voice in the press release. “The Chicago Police Department is committed to working with the public on Vision Zero Chicago,” stated police superintendent Eddie Johnson said. “We plan to engage the community and work with nonprofits, the private sector, and other City departments on improving traffic safety.”

The following Chicago departments and agencies will be involved in implementing Vision Zero:

    • Office of the Mayor
    • Chicago Department of Transportation
    • Chicago Department of Public Health
    • Chicago Fire Department
    • Chicago Police Department
    • Chicago Transit Authority
    • Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection
    • Department of Fleet and Facility Management
    • Department of Innovation and Technology
    • Office of Emergency Management and Communication

“We’re thrilled to see this Vision Zero process moving forward, shining a spotlight on the need to keep everyone on our streets safe, particularly the most vulnerable users on foot and on bike,” said Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke in a statement. "There are proven strategies to prevent crashes and ultimately eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. Now all the relevant city agencies can work with advocates, community leaders and the public to get it done.”

Burke told me today that Active Trans plans to make the case to City Council for a Vision Zero fund that will help pay for implementing the plan, in particular infrastructure. “CDOT generally has to piece together funding for complete streets improvements and to provide matching dollars for federal grants to do complete streets,” he noted.

Earlier this year, Chicago was named as one of ten focus cities asked to participate in a new national program designed to advance Vision Zero. “By collaborating closely with other focus cities, Chicago will be part of a national effort to develop and share best practices aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries caused by traffic crashes,” CDOT stated.

Today’s announcement may lead to criticism that the city is focusing too much attention on traffic fatalities, and that there should be more emphasis reducing the number of deaths from homicide, which takes far more lives in Chicago. In 2014, for example, there were 390 murders in the city, according to the police department, three times the number of traffic deaths that year. Nearly 500 people have been murdered in Chicago so far this year, according to the police. I explored that issue in an article written in 2012, after the “Zero in Ten” goal was set.

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