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Lightfoot unveils $6 million in investments to bolster West Side traffic safety

Although pedestrian fatalities are declining, they still have a a disproportionate impact on poor people and minorities. African-Americans are more than twice as likely to die in traffic accidents than whites.

A new traffic island installed on Madison near Garfield Park.
A new traffic island installed on Madison near Garfield Park is among the types of improvements being made to improve safety. This island includes a “pedestrian refuge” where people can wait while trying to cross the busy street.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Two years ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled an ambitious plan to combat an epidemic of traffic crashes that had created a “public health crisis” with a disproportionate impact on poor people and minorities.

With African-Americans more than twice as likely to die in traffic accidents than whites, the plan called for improvements at 300 intersections, 25 CTA stations and assorted bus stops. It included more speed cameras, lower speed limits, fewer traffic lanes and designs that made streets safer for pedestrians — all bankrolled by “new revenue streams.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has yet to identify a dedicated revenue stream for the project known as “Vision Zero” with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2026.

But, she is chipping away at the problem, nevertheless.

On Thursday, the mayor stood at Madison Street and St. Louis Avenue — where the city has installed a pedestrian refuge island — to announce a $6 million commitment to improve traffic safety on Chicago’s West Side.

Tom Carney, acting commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, speaks at a news conference Thursday in Garfield Park. At right is Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Tom Carney, acting commissioner of the Chicago Department of Transportation, speaks at a news conference Thursday in Garfield Park, touting $6 million in spending to improve traffic and pedestrian safety on the West Side. At right is Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

“Seven of the eight high-crash areas are on the West and South Sides. Folks who live in communities that have experienced economic hardship are three times as likely to die as a result of a traffic crash. We are acting with urgency because it is unacceptable that, if you are poor or low-income, you are more likely to be involved in a fatal traffic crash,” the mayor said.

“Vision Zero is as much about equity as it is about safety. It’s why a similar Vision Zero community engagement process will begin on the South Side in 2020.”

Most of the $6 million is federal money, but some tax increment financing funds will be used for the work on Madison and North Avenue.

The money will be used to implement 15 recommendations crafted with input from residents of Austin, North Lawndale and East and West Garfield Park.

A so-called “street transformation” project will reconfigure the “Five Corners” intersection where Ogden Avenue crosses Pulaski and Cermak roads.

The plan also includes such “traffic-calming” devices such as bump-out curbs that force motorists to slow down and make wider turns, more pedestrian refuge islands like the one on Madison and targeted safety improvements around CTA stations.

Last year, the Active Transportation Alliance argued Chicago needs more speed cameras, lower speed limits and a $20 million-a-year fund to re-design local streets to combat a “very troubling” surge in pedestrian fatalities.

Since then, the trend has been reversed. The city’s decision to implement “Vision Zero” in smaller bites appears to be paying dividends.

Through August, there had been 66 traffic fatalities in Chicago; that’s down from 82 during the same period last year, which bucks a national trend showing traffic fatalities on the rise.

Chicago police at the scene of a fatal accident July 17 in the 800 block of South Central Avenue.
Chicago police at the scene of a fatal accident in July in the 800 block of South Central Avenue.
Justin Jackson/Sun-Times

Moved by a 2015 truck crash that mowed down a Mexican immigrant and her children, Chicago aldermen agreed to spend $5 million to retrofit the city’s truck fleet with safety-equipment and require private contractors to do the same.

In 2017, the city completed over 90 pedestrian improvement projects.

Sixteen miles of new bikeways were created; 22 miles of existing bikeways were re-striped. Dashed bike lanes were installed on Milwaukee Avenue, along with narrower vehicle lanes and a new and lower 20 mph speed limit.

Ron Burke, the now-former executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance, has made the case for more speed cameras in Chicago in addition to the 151 speed cameras that Emanuel installed around schools and parks.

Burke, who now oversees Lyft’s bike sharing expansion, has argued that, “All around the world and in the United States, all of the research shows that, when speed cameras are deployed properly and used to really improve safety and not just to create revenue, they work. They really do work. They save lives.”

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to audit the city’s network of red-light cameras and “sunset those cameras that are only being used for revenue — not safety.”

Against that back-drop, the mayor was asked if she is giving any thought to adding speed cameras.

“We’re looking comprehensively at the speed cameras. There’s a lot of, I think, cynicism as to whether or not the cameras are installed for speed or simply as a revenue-generating exercise,” she said.

“Speed cameras are not something that’s loved universally across the city...Speed cameras are not something that’s universally loved by me, either.”

What about the call for a dedicated revenue source to bankroll traffic safety improvements?

“We are gonna certainly make incremental progress towards making sure that we can realize the specific plans that are in place because we have to,” she said.