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West Side Vision Zero Plan downplays the role of police enforcement, stresses education

A Vision Zero outreach event on Chicago’s West Side. Image: CDOT

Last week, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the release of the West Side Vision Zero Safety plan. The plan was written by the Chicago Department of Transportation with input from residents and community organizations on the West Side, including the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, Lawndale Christian Health Center, BUILD, and Austin Coming Together.

According to the plan, 9,000 West Side residents were engaged throughout the Vision Zero process with 130-plus events and meetings attended by organizers as well.

I read through the document and came away with some key highlights:

    • Addressing larger issues of safety: As residents described the barriers to traveling safely throughout the West Side, some themes came up. Violence was mentioned as a reason for not feeling safe biking, walking, or using transit, in addition to dangerous driving. One resident quote highlighted said, “There’s a great park on our block but someone was shot there recently. I don’t feel safe walking there with my kids, so we all drive to parks elsewhere.” Though the report isn’t explicitly about the issue of tackling violence, the recommendations for improvements to certain streets are about encouraging more foot traffic and enhancing pedestrian experience. Visibility and foot traffic is one part of creating safer streets. This touches on why safety is a lot more nuanced in communities. I would be interested to see how anti-violence can be more of a prominent feature of the work moving forward, particularly if residents highlighted it.
    • Complex issue of policing: The issue with enforcement and policing has been one of the most controversial aspects of Vision Zero locally and nationally. The report seems to imply that the role of the Chicago Police Department won’t be enforcement. One line in the report read, “Residents would like to see the Chicago Police Department involved in Vision Zero primarily through education and community engagement events.” It’s unclear from the report how that conclusion was made, though. Recent Chicago Tribune reports found that police were writing exponentially more bike tickets Black communities than majority-white neighborhoods. There have been high-profile cases of residents killed by police officers after being stopped for traffic safety infractions, such as the killing of Byron Lee Williams, who was stopped in Las Vegas for not having a bike light, last Thursday. The Vision Zero plan seems to echo concerns about police involvement as it states, “Regarding traffic safety enforcement, the Vision Zero Chicago Action Plan prioritizes education over fines or other punishment. Traffic safety interactions are to be treated as educational opportunities in most cases.” Though the report describes relationships with CPD as being an important part of the plan, there is no mention of Vision Zero being about enforcement tied to criminalization, but rather education. If this holds true, it would help dispel the fears some have about the potential for Vision Zero to cause harm in communities of color in Chicago. As some of these recommendations are implemented, it’s important for stakeholders involved with Vision Zero to continue stressing the importance of not criminalizing community members.

However, Oboi Reed, founder of the local mobility justice organization Equiticity, is not convinced there is a safe way for CPD to be involved. Reed has called for all references to CPD and enforcement to be removed from Vision Zero Chicago, particularly given the risks of CPD further criminalizing Black and Brown neighborhoods. Reed argued that the use of CPD at education events is, in effect, enforcement. “Whenever CPD is involved in public events where they are interacting with people moving around our neighborhoods, this is essentially an enforcement strategy,” he said.

    • Focus on major street corridors in North Lawndale, Austin, and Garfield Park: The thorough recommendations about major corridors in the three focus neighborhoods fell into three major themes: enhancing the  pedestrian experience to improve safety and economic development, addressing environmental justice, and improving safety for all modes on the streets.

Austin: In Austin, one of the focal points is Central Avenue. Some of the recommendations include lowering speed limits along the corridor and adding green elements to the streetscape. One of the more interesting recommendations suggests designating Chicago Avenue in the neighborhood as a pedestrian-friendly "P-Street," a city of Chicago classification that prohibits new auto-centric land uses like-strip malls and drive-throughs. I was happy to see the issue of truck traffic on Cicero Avenue mentioned in the report. One of the recommendations says, “Advocate for safety and air quality over truck traffic capacity on Cicero.” Part of the strategies for this is to collaborate with the Chicago Department of Public Health to conduct asthma counts or more in-depth asthma research in Austin. This can go a long way in making the important connection between traffic and health, an issue that groups in the Southwest Side have been prominently discussing over the last few years.

Garfield Park: A focal point for Garfield Park is to improve the Kedzie and Lake intersection for all users. Some recommendations include installing additional street lighting under the L and adding a permanent sidewalk bump out. Continuing the focus on major streets, the report concentrates on Madison Avenue and suggests it also becomes a P-street.

North Lawndale: In North Lawndale, the focus is on increasing the neighborhood’s bikeability, which speaks to some of the desires of partners in the community process. Ogden Avenue is also a major focal point and suggestions include implementing a street transformation project at the 5-corners Pulaski/Cermak/Ogden intersection (which is much-needed!). The recommendation of targeting safety improvement around public transit stations also resonated with me, as the Pulaski and Central Park pink line stations in the neighborhood are situated in areas without much foot traffic at night. It’s important to think about all the ways people may feel unsafe using transit.

The report content and recommendations show promise, particularly if the robust community input process continues into the implementation stages of the process. Oboi Reed argues, however, that if true change is going to happen, the ownership of Vision Zero Chicago and the accompanying funding should be transferred to a community-based organization on the West Side. The West Side deserves safe streets and I hope this document is one step in ensuring serious conversations continue to happen about how to make our city streets more equitable for all.

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