Traffic safety advocates helped defeat ordinance to allow deadly speeds near parks and schools

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) argues for his ordinance to allow 9 mph speeding at today's City Council meeting.
Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) argues for his ordinance to allow 9 mph speeding at today's City Council meeting.

When multiple Chicago traffic safety advocacy organizations pull in the same direction to achieve a common goal, it’s a beautiful thing.

That’s exactly what happened with the successful campaign against Ald. Anthony Beale’s (9th) ordinance to allow 9 mph speeding in speed camera zones near schools and parks. The Active Transportation Alliance launched a petition against the proposal. Bike Lane Uprising did a great job of tracking alderperson-ic support and opposition to the measure. And Better Streets Chicago eloquently explained why Beale’s call for raising the speed camera ticket threshold back to 10 mph was wrongheaded, while proposing ways to make automated enforcement, and Chicago traffic safety strategies in general, more equitable and effective.

I’d like to think that Streetsblog Chicago pulled our weight on this issue as well, including zillions of blog posts on this subject, and a public comment at today’s City Council meeting.

Let’s take look at some of the more notable statements from today’s debate, and some of the takeaways.

During the discussion before the vote, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) said she has several high speed multilane roads in her ward. She saw a man get fatally struck on Cottage Grove Avenue. “I’m not willing to turn back the clock” she said, because her constituents have told her she needs to do something about the current traffic violence epidemic.

First Ward alder Daniel LaSpata started his comment by reading a list of 2022 Chicago traffic violence victims, which he later told us he got from one of Streetsblog’s Fatality Tracker posts. “What would we have done to save their lives?” he asked. “We know that it’s about infrastructure and education, but it’s also about enforcement… I can’t cast a vote in good conscience that would lead to more names on that list.”

24th Ward alder Monique Scott said she attended she attended the funeral for Ja’Lon James, 11, who was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver in North Lawndale last month. “It is heartbreaking to look in a parent’s face and know their child has been killed by a speeding driver.” She added that there’s never an excuse for speeding. “If you’re late, you’re late.”

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th) said his Northwest Side district is plagued by speeders who come in from the suburbs. “According to the budget office, 45 percent of the people that get these tickets [citywide] live outside of the city of Chicago.” He said he’s been asking the Chicago Department of Transportation for more speed cameras.

41st Ward alder Anthony Napolitano noted that drivers have killed three pedestrians on Touhy Avenue in recent years, and he’s also been asking for cameras, but complained CDOT has been dragging its feet about installing them. But, weirdly, Napolitano said he was planning to support the ordinance to make speed cameras less effective.

40th Ward alder Andre Vasquez noted that Napolitano’s position was completely irrational. He also added that when you discuss speed cam equity issues, you also have to consider that the victims of traffic violence are also disproportionately Black and Brown. He suggested adding speed cameras to DuSable Lake Shore Drive, where he admitted he himself is prone to speeding.

Ald. James Gardiner (45th) also pleaded for speed cameras, at Austin Foster Park, and Milwaukee and Kilbourn avenues. Two bike riders have been killed at the latter intersection in recent years. Lightfoot said she will look into getting him speed cams.

26th Ward alder Roberto Maldonado said a month ago he was planning to vote in favor of 9 mph speeding. But he added that he recently received more than 35 calls and emails to his office, and all of them were to keep the status quo of ticketing for 6 mph speeding, so he changed his mind.

Both Ald. Michael Rodriguez (22nd) and Scott Waguespack brought up the idea of lowering Chicago default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph, as New York City did. “[The Chicago Department of Transportation] has been studying this,” Waguespack said. “Can we reduce the overall speed limit in Chicago? I think we can.” In a press conference after the vote, Lightfoot expressed interest in the idea.

Some of the most absurd commentary came from Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), who’s running for mayor. He literally complained that there are speed cameras near “every” school in his wards, as if it’s a bad thing that drivers aren’t able to endanger students with impunity. He falsely implied that speed cameras are concentrated in communities of color, a widespread misconception that a recent University of Illinois at Chicago study confirmed is not the case.

Lopez also told they alders who requested new speed camera “Don’t be fooled,” claiming there’s a moratorium on speed cameras in Chicago. Lightfoot debunked that notion, explaining that while that’s true in some suburbs, it’s not the case in the city.

The Racial Dot Map of Chicago (2010 data, but demographics generally haven't changed dramatically since then)haven't The UIC study confirmed that Chicago speed cameras are not concentrated in communities of color. Images: Racial Dot Map, CDOT
The Racial Dot Map of Chicago (it shows 2010 data, but demographics generally haven’t changed dramatically since then) and a map of Chicago speed camera locations. The UIC study confirmed that Chicago speed cameras are not concentrated in communities of color. Images: Racial Dot Map, CDOT

In her own comments, the mayor acknowledges that more must be done to fight traffic violence in the wake of a recently unprecedented 174 Chicago crash deaths last year. “It’s surreal to me that we’re even having this discussion… [about] increasing the speeds to allow people to do more damage.”

Beale protested that his ordinance had been mischaracterized as increasing the speed limit. However, in effect, his ordinance would have condoned 9 mph speeding. “Not one fatality has been around a speed camera,” he said. That talking point was lampooned by both Streetsblog and Vasquez.

Beale actually admitted that allowing 9 mph speeding “might have an adverse effect” on traffic deaths. It was remarkable to hear him acknowledge that saving speeders money, which he called “the real issue affecting our communities,” is more important to him than preserving human life.

Thankfully, the measure was defeated in a landslide of 26 to 18 votes. All 16 alderpersons who voted in committee to allow 9 mph speeding voted the same way, with the exception of Ald. David Moore (17th), who changed his vote to oppose the measure. The other supporters of exposing children to deadly speeders included alders Ed Burke (14th), George Cardenas (12th), and Samantha Nugent (39th).

Interestingly, Democratic Socialist Northwest Side alders Rossana Rodriguez (33rd) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) both abstained from voting, explaining on Twitter that they didn’t want to choose between enabling dangerous driving and, as Rodriguez said, “penaliz[ing] the Black and Brown communities” with “inequitable fines.”

Neither Rodriguez nor Ramirez-Rosa, who generally have good records on sustainable transportation issues, responded to my question about exactly what is so inequitable about the city offering speeders who make less than $41,000 a half-off discount on traffic tickets, plus debt forgiveness. That means that a 10 mph speeding ticket costs only $17.50, or a couple bucks more than Chicago minimum wage. At any rate, their socialist colleagues LaSpata and Vasquez apparently didn’t see things that way.

But there’s one thing livable streets advocates of various stripes can agree on. Now that Beale’s ordinance has been defeated, there’s much more we can do to be done to make Chicago’s speed camera program, and traffic safety strategies in general, more fair and effective, as outlined in the tweet above. (We should also lower the speed limit to 25.) Let’s get to work.