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5+ years after senior was killed at Surf/Broadway, CDOT is finally installing a crosswalk

New curb extensions at Surf/Broadway last week, looking north. A new crosswalk and flashing beacons will be added.

In January 2014 a Streetsblog reader emailed 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney to alert him that a new marked crosswalk was urgently needed to improve safety at Surf Street (a block north of Diversey Avenue) and Broadway in Lakeview, due to the increased foot traffic generated by a then-new Walmart. Ultimately, city officials turned down his request arguing, paradoxically, that the intersection was too dangerous for the proposed safety improvement.

On February 3, 2016, the Streetsblog reader's fears came true when a driver fatally struck local senior Maureen M. Wilson, 69, as she attempted to cross at Surf/Broadway. But the city still took no action, continuing to claim that a crosswalk wouldn't work at that site.

Nearly five and a half years after that tragedy, the Chicago Department of Transportation recently began installing a crosswalk and curb extensions there. The question is, what changed to make them finally take action after all these years?

First, some background on the situation. Surf jogs at Broadway, so there are actually two different T-shaped intersections. As you approach Broadway from the west on Surf, you come to the northernmost of the two Ts, which has crosswalks marked on all three legs. About 200 feet south, as you approach Broadway from the east on Surf, there’s a second T, but there was only a marked crosswalk on the east leg, not the north or south legs crossing Broadway.

The layout of Surf/Broadway. Image: Google Maps
The layout of Surf/Broadway. Image: Google Maps
The layout of Surf/Broadway. Image: Google Maps

Back in January 2014, the Streetsblog reader alerted Alderman Tunney that many residents, including plenty of seniors, regularly crossed at this intersection in order to reach the Walmart, T.J. Maxx, and other retail south of Surf. It was legal for them to use the unmarked crosswalks at the north and south legs of the T, even though the lack of striped crosswalks made it less likely that motorists would be looking out for them.

The Streetsblog reader recommended striping the crosswalk on the north leg of the southern T. He argued that that location wouldn’t conflict with a parking garage exit located on the west side of Broadway at the south leg, or require the removal of metered parking.

The Streetsblog reader’s request was forward to Sougata Deb, Tunney’s infrastructure specialist at the time. When the reader followed up that March, Deb acknowledged that the unmarked crosswalks at Surf/Broadway got plenty of use. “I cross here at least three times a week, so I understand the benefit of having a crosswalk here,” he wrote.

However, that April, after CDOT staff surveyed the intersection to look into the possibility of a crosswalk at the north leg of the southern T, Deb told the Streetsblog reader the engineers had decided against striping the crosswalk. They reasoned that the crossing would conflict with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines because it would still be too close to the garage exit and because of a light pole near the garage, which would block sight lines.

The Surf/Broadway intersection as it appeared in September 2015, a few months before Maureen Wilson was killed there. Image: Google Street View
The Surf/Broadway intersection, looking north, as it appeared in September 2015, a few months before Maureen M. Wilson was killed there. Image: Google Street View
The Surf/Broadway intersection as it appeared in September 2015, a few months before Maureen Wilson was killed there. Image: Google Street View

The Streetsblog reader then asked Deb if the light pole could be relocated, or if a crosswalk on the south leg of the intersection might be feasible. Deb replied that the garage exit made it unfeasible to install crosswalks on either side of Surf. He also brought up a new argument against the crosswalks: since there’s a slight curve in Broadway between Diversey and Surf, drivers have limited visibility on this stretch.

“There is an existing crosswalk approximately 200 feet north of Walmart [at the northern T of Surf/Broadway]… which is a good alternative,” Deb added. In effect, he was recommending that people crossing the street add an extra 400 feet to their trip, even though he’d already stated that he himself used the unmarked crosswalks at the southern T on a regular basis instead of detouring north. “We do not want to introduce a safety hazard, especially with the high volume of seniors in the area,” Deb concluded.

So it's a tragic irony that the decision not to stripe a crosswalk at Surf/Broadway, which would have helped alert drivers to the presence of pedestrians, was a contributing factor in Maureen M. Wilson's February 2016 death. The senior was crossing in the south leg of the southern T when a driver making a right turn out of the garage driveway south onto Broadway struck her, police indicated. They did not say which direction Wilson was walking at the time. No charges or citations were filed against the driver.

In the wake of the deadly crash, Streetsblog called for striping a crosswalk at the intersection immediately. To address the curve and sightline issue, we suggested installing a raised crosswalk and curb extensions.

“We are saddened to hear about this pedestrian traffic fatality,” stated CDOT spokesman Mike Claffey at the time. “Our goal remains to eliminate all traffic fatalities in Chicago. It is the department’s practice to perform a field visit after all fatal pedestrian crashes to identify any potential enhancements that should be considered, and we will do that in this case.”

However, no changes were made to the intersection until now, five-plus years after the tragedy. So why was it recently considered feasible to do a crosswalk on the south leg of the southern T when it wasn't back then?

"We studied [the Streetsblog reader's] proposal for a crosswalk at the north leg," Claffey said last week. "It was problematic because it would have interfered with the garage driveway." Asked why the current project to install a crosswalk at the south leg wasn't approved back then, but it was recently, he replied, "I don't know."

Claffey did say that Alderman Tunney requested the current project and offered to pay for it with menu money. "We were happy to work with him." The spokesperson added that rapid-flash beacons will be installed at the crosswalk by next Friday to warn drivers to watch out for people crossing. Again, a raised crosswalk would have been helpful as well here.

Tunney's director of public outreach and public safety Calvin Cottrell shed some more light on the subject. "In 2016, after a senior was hit at Broadway and Surf, the alderman's office worked with CDOT to conduct a traffic study of the southern section of the intersection," he wrote in an email. "That study found that to put in a crosswalk first there would have to be curb extensions. After receiving that study, we have used the ward's menu funds to do just that. Alderman Tunney is very proud to deliver for constituents who advocated for a crosswalk at Broadway and Surf after that accident, and he looks forward to the work being completed soon."

So apparently part of the reason the crosswalk wasn't installed until years after Wilson's death was purely financial – officials either weren't able or willing to spend the cash for the bump-outs. That's despite the fact that the unsafe situation had already resulted in a fatality.

Cottrell added that Tunney's office recently had CDOT install a new crosswalk and curb extensions at Melrose Avenue (half a block north of Belmont Avenue) and Halsted Street, which is also a T intersection that lacked crosswalks on its north and south legs. He noted that there had previously been a fatality at that junction as well. That victim was also a senior

On August 18, 2015, a van driver struck and killed Chisun Lee, 78, as he crossed in an unmarked crosswalk at Melrose/Halsted. Like Wilson, he lived near the crash site, on the 3200 block of North Halsted. And, as in the Wilson case, the driver was not ticketed.

The south leg of Melrose/Halsted in July 2018 and July 2019. Images: Google Street View
The south leg of Melrose/Halsted in July 2018 and July 2019. Images: Google Street View
The south leg of Melrose/Halsted in July 2018 and July 2019. Images: Google Street View

Google Street View images show that, as late as July 2018, the bump-outs hadn't been installed at Melrose/Halsted. (They were in by July 2019.) So, again, it took years after Lee's death to make the improvement.

Surely we shouldn't have to wait that long after a senior is killed for the city to fix an intersection. And, of course, it would be far better to make safety upgrades to pedestrian crossings before tragedy strikes.

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