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Madison median removals: Letting people drive faster is a ped safety improvement?

Photo: West Loop Community Association.

What can you do with $400,000 in city funding? You could pay for the recent $75,000 complete streets project on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square, which used paint and posts to improve safety and create more space for pedestrians and bicyclists, three times over. Or you could just use all that cash to destroy a bunch of concrete median planters that annoy drivers, creating wider travel lanes that make it easier to speed, and then claim the project is going to make pedestrians safer.

As reported by Block Club's Mauricio Peña, that's what's happening with the planters that then-mayor Richard M. Daley had installed on Madison Street in the West Loop and Near West Side in advance of the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center. 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett ordered the demolition, which is being paid for with $400,000 in city money earmarked for median maintenance. The removal of the planters between Halsted Street and Ogden Avenue should be completed in a few week. (Yes, I realize that the funding source probably couldn't be used for a project like the Milwaukee makeover, but still.)

“In recent years, Chicago Department of Transportation had received numerous complaints that the planters blocked traffic and created congestion, particularly during events at the United Center," CDOT spokesman Michael Claffey told Block Club. Notice that Claffey didn't say that the planters actually blocked traffic and created congestion, but rather that some motorists blamed the infrastructure for the traffic they themselves were creating by choosing to drive to events that can be reached fairly easily by CTA express bus service. (And accessing the stadium is going to get even easier after the new Damen Green Line station opens -- it's currently slated for completion in 2021.)

Burnett didn't provide a comment to Block Club about the current work, but two years ago Burnett told DNAinfo that he was thinking about removing the planters, which he scapegoated for causing traffic jams. “It holds up traffic. You just can’t go around them,” Burnett said.

Representatives of local business and community groups told Peña they were surprised by the destruction of the planters, since there had be no announcement about the work from Burnett's office. But Armando Chacon, president of the West Central Association, said his group initially supported the demolition because the medians and plantings weren't properly maintained. Uh, isn't that what the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the median maintenance fund were actually intended for? Rather, it's likely the planters were allowed to deteriorate because decision-makers figured people would be less likely to object to their removal once they became eyesores. However, the association dropped its support for removing the planters because some business owners wanted to retain them.

Still, Block Club reported that Chacon supports the removals because it "will help alleviate traffic and will make the area safer for pedestrians." He argued that the project would improve driver's sight lines.

The plantings had already been trimmed short to improve sight lines, so that probably wasn't a major issue. It's highly unlikely that widening lanes for drivers and eliminating de-facto pedestrian refuge zones will result in a net improvement in safety for pedestrians. But it's definitely a huge waste of city funds.

But there is one way for the city to redeem this dubious project. Use the extra road width freed up by the planter removal to install new bike lanes on Madison. That would actually improve safety for all road users by calming motorized traffic and shortening pedestrian crossing distances, and help people get to Bulls games and U2 concerts more efficiently.

Read the full Block Club article here.

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