Volunteers protect pedestrians from DLSD red light scofflaws, CPD enables the lawbreakers

The responding officers and the crosswalk enforcement volunteers. Images: Twitter user @Nova99999 and Chicago, Bike Grid Now!
The responding officers and the crosswalk enforcement volunteers. Images: Twitter user @Nova99999 and Chicago, Bike Grid Now!

Update 8/16/22, 5:00 PM: In the wake of Friday’s incident, Active Transportation Alliance executive director Amy Rynell provided the following statement: “Clearly, the plastic flexible posts installed at the intersection after Gerardo Marciales was killed by a driver running a red light have not helped, and nor does increasing the light cycles for cars. This continues to be a very dangerous intersection that is threatening pedestrians as huge numbers of people on foot and bikes use this crosswalk. Other infrastructure changes are needed to make accessing our lakefront, trails, and parks safe for people of all ages and abilities. The solutions in place are not sufficient. The city and state must implement more robust safety measures to the street design to ensure safe passage.”

On February 28, a BMW driver fatally struck technical consulting engineer Gerardo Marciales, 41, as he rode a Divvy bike west from the Lakefront Trail across DuSable Lake Shore Drive at Balbo Drive. Merciales had a walk signal as he rode in the crosswalk on the north leg of the intersection. The northbound motorist had a green left-turn arrow, but the light for proceeding north was was red, and he ran it.

It turned out that northbound drivers blowing reds at DLSD’s T-shaped downtown intersections, endangering pedestrians and bike riders in the crosswalks, is a disturbingly common phenomenon. At a February 2018 Mayor’s Pedestrian Advisory Council meeting hosted by the Chicago Department of Transportation, an attendee voiced concern about this hazard, but no action was taken.

Looking south at Balbo/DLSD in May 2022, after CDOT made changes to the intersection in the wake of Gerardo Marciales' death. Photo: John Greenfield
Looking south at Balbo/DLSD in May 2022, after CDOT made paint-and-post changes to the intersection in the wake of Gerardo Marciales’ death. Photo: John Greenfield

After Marciales’ killing, CDOT installed flexible plastic posts at Balbo/DLSD to make it more difficult for drivers in the northbound left-turn lane to proceed north. However, traffic safety advocates who’ve been observing the issue say that motorists running reds on the drive at Balbo is still incredibly widespread.

As advocate Michelle Stenzel noted on Twitter, safety problems at the intersection are exacerbated by the fact the east-west crosswalk is 125 feet long, but people on foot and bikes are given only given a 45-second walk signal. That means means pedestrians have to walk a brisk pace of almost three feet per second to get across on time.

The layout of Balbo/DLSD. Image via Michelle Stenzel
The layout of Balbo/DLSD. Image via Michelle Stenzel

Leading the charge to highlight the Balbo/DLSD red light-running problem has been Mike Perrino, who works as a Segway tour guide by day and tweets under the handle Segway Batman (but is more often seen riding a hoverboard electric unicycle). He has organized volunteers to keep counts of how common it is for drivers to disobey the traffic signal. For example, during a recent five-hour period, he observed 1,827 drivers running the red while pedestrians and bike riders had a walk signal. That is, breaking the law almost seems to be the rule rather than the exception. This extremely unsafe situation is illustrated in the video below.

Perrino organized an action last Friday after 5 p.m. in which volunteers in safety vests and carrying stop signs prevented drivers from running the red during the walk signal, thereby shielding other pedestrians. It was sort of the walking equivalent of a “human-protected bike lane” protest. See how it worked in the video below.

The Chicago Police Department should have been happy about having a little extra help enforcing the the stoplight, right? Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

Rather, drivers running the stoplight at Balbo/DLSD is so normalized that responding officers seemed to view the safety demonstration as a traffic jam generator. That’s because the drivers who tried to blow the red light and were obstructed by the volunteers then got stuck in the middle of the intersection. When the light changed and eastbound drivers on Balbo attempted to make a left turn with a green, they couldn’t do so because they were blocked by the marooned northbound red-light scofflaws.

The police reportedly manually took over the traffic signal, modifying the phases to give drivers a solid five-minute green, eliminating the walk signal.

In the video below recorded by a volunteer, one of the officers says they changed the signal phasing in response to “the traffic problems [the volunteers] were creating” by simply requiring the drivers to obey the red.

“If they hadn’t run the red light and stopped behind the stop line, the turning drivers would be able to proceed uninterrupted,” the volunteer notes in the video. “But because people ran the red light and stopped in the middle of the intersection, in the middle of the crosswalk, they were the ones causing traffic [jams].”

“Pedestrians are not traffic – cars are traffic?” the volunteer asks the officer sarcastically. The cop nods.

On Saturday afternoon, Perrino tweeted that the city was still manually controlling the traffic signal, creating long delays for pedestrians and bike riders.

This afternoon Perrino told Streetsblog, “The light cycles at all four [downtown DLSD] intersections have been increased for cars.” He says he and other volunteers have already started discussing plans for another action.

Police News Affairs did not respond to Streetsblog’s request for a statement on the incident.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG