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After recent deaths, Edison Park residents push for safety upgrades on Touhy, NW Highway

Richard Haljean, right, with his friend Robert Drell. Image via Block Club Chicago

Streetsblog recently reported on the hit-and-run death of retired Chicago police officer, Richard Haljean, 57, on January 20 in the 7600 block of West Touhy Avenue in Edison Park. Although the Jeep driver who fatally struck Haljean as he crossed the street reportedly left a license plate at the scene, this afternoon Police News Affairs said no one is in custody, and no images of the vehicle have been released.

Haljean's death has renewed longtime calls for speed cameras on Touhy. Paul Struebing, vice president of the Edison Park Community Council provided this statement to Streetsblog in the wake of the death.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the officer’s family, friends, neighbors, and brothers and sisters on the Chicago police force as they grapple with this unspeakable and avoidable tragedy.

Touhy Avenue through Edison Park has long been plagued by an unsafe design that encourages high vehicle speeds. Despite this longstanding issue, and the residential nature of the street, which abuts St. Juliana’s Parish and School, local officials and transportation authorities have failed to take adequate steps to reduce speeds and prioritize the safety of the young students, elderly parishioners, and neighborhood residents who commonly cross Touhy on foot.

This is the second time in as many years that a pedestrian has been struck and killed while crossing an Edison Park street. In both cases neighborhood residents had long complained of high speeds, countless near misses, and the dangerous nature of the roadways where these collisions occurred. It is long past time that these concerns be taken seriously, that comprehensive changes made to prevent further injury and death, and that appropriate steps be taken to make Edison Park a safer place to live.

Prior to Haljean’s death, in December the community council launched an online petition advocating for safety improvements to Northwest Highway, which runs through downtown Edison Park and sees lots of high-speed driving. The petition has garnered more than 775 signatures so far.

Struebing told me more about the group’s efforts to engage residents on local traffic safety matters, a mix of in-person and online outreach. I was curious about the response from business owners, given that opposition from merchants is a typical excuse for not implementing road diets and/or installing wider sidewalks, bikeways, or bus lanes.

He said the feedback from business owners has been positive, because the merchants recognize that a large portion of the people driving on Northwest Highway are not stopping to patronize their businesses. The merchants believe traffic calming could help them gain and retain more customers. “When people were eating outside because of COVID, many of them noted how loud the area was due to all the car traffic," Strubeing said. "I think that was the beginning of people recognizing how much of an impact this traffic has.” Aside from noise and air pollution, there’s also the issue of more crashes and fewer bike trips due to vehicular volume and speed.

The blocks of Oliphant Avenue at Northwest Highway were pedestrianized for outdoor dining last summer. Photo: John Greenfield
The blocks of Oliphant Avenue at Northwest Highway were pedestrianized for outdoor dining last summer. Photo: John Greenfield
The blocks of Oliphant Avenue at Northwest Highway were pedestrianized for outdoor dining last summer. Photo: John Greenfield

I asked Struebing if there are any particular changes he’d like to see along Northwest Highway. He declined to prescribe specific treatments, but said he wants to see a traffic study conducted that takes community input into account and “implements the best strategies for slowing down traffic through Edison Park and making the roadways work together.” He did say he'd like to see "all options on the table," including sidewalk bump-outs, wider sidewalks, and a narrower roadway. Ultimately he wants a street layout that reduces crashes and creates an enjoyable environment for folks to patronize local businesses.

Northwest Highway is a state-controlled road, but it’s maintained by the city of Chicago. Organizers with the community council are hoping that the number of signatures on the petition for changes to Northwest Highway will spur more action from 41st Ward alderman Anthony Napolitano and local Illinois state representative Brad Stephens.

Struebing said the group would be thrilled if its petition receives 1,000 signatures. EPCC plans to engage the community further over the spring and summer with a bike safety event for neighborhood kids. Struebing said, “Since COVID I’ve seen more children on bikes than ever before. Their parents may or may not know how to bike amongst drivers and we want to encourage children and parents to learn safe ways to bike in the area.”

Of course the community council and other traffic safety advocates know that bike education is just one piece of the puzzle for creating a safe cycling environment. Infrastructure like roads designs that encourage safe speeds, protected bike lanes, and more are necessary to reduce preventable traffic deaths like Richard Haljean's and countless others who have been killed on Illinois roads in recent years.

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