What Illinois needs to do to help communities improve pedestrian, cycling safety

There are very concrete steps that the state can take to align its road and transportation work with national best practices.

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A stretch of Irving Park Road near Hoyne Avenue. State regulations are a barrier to safety along busy Irving Park Road, Ald. Matt Martin writes.

A stretch of Irving Park Road near Hoyne Avenue. State regulations are a barrier to safety along busy Irving Park Road, Ald. Matt Martin writes.

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On June 12, a driver hit and killed Peter Paquette as he crossed Irving Park Road on foot in a marked crosswalk. Peter was a long-time 47th Ward activist and volunteer who was beloved by many, and had just left an early voting rally that I and dozens of other elected officials were attending.

The state-owned road he was attempting to cross is notoriously dangerous, and this specific intersection had been, to many nearby residents, a tragedy waiting to happen.

Two years ago, my office advocated for significant pedestrian safety improvements to this same stretch of Irving Park, only to find many of our recommendations nixed by the Illinois Department of Transportation due to conflicting state regulations. This cannot continue.

North Center residents know full well how dangerous a road Irving Park is, and the numbers back them up. The 1.5 miles of Irving Park that fall within the ward (from Clark Street to the Chicago River) see six times as many crashes as the city-wide average.

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But it’s a key corridor that my constituents have to navigate if they want to walk to any of the three parks, two senior housing complexes, three schools, two grocery stores, or the L station that all line Irving Park, not to mention dozens of other restaurants, bars, and stores.

Soon after I came into office in 2019, I learned that the Chicago Department of Transportation aimed to repave a large portion of Irving Park in the 47th Ward on behalf of the state. My office immediately began working with CDOT engineers to take advantage of this opportunity to improve safety for our constituents.

The local chamber of commerce and two neighborhood associations also lent their voice to support improvements to pedestrian safety along Irving Park Road. In the end, the final project included over a dozen new curb extensions; however, multiple proposed improvements were rejected during IDOT’s review.

The most egregious example concerns the intersection of Irving Park and Bell. North of this unsignalized intersection is an elementary school; to the south is a church with its own school. My office pushed for the design to include a pedestrian refuge island that would allow the most vulnerable pedestrians to cross Irving Park in segments. However, state regulations banned us from including this vital piece of pedestrian safety infrastructure, in order to ensure that a 60-foot semi-trailer truck instead had enough space to turn out of a residential street onto Irving Park.

State regulations like these are stopping Chicago and other communities from making the improvements necessary to protect our most precious and vulnerable residents. The state must modernize its approach and begin prioritizing pedestrian and cyclist safety. There are very concrete steps that it can take to align its work with national best practices, which are highlighted by the Active Transportation Alliance.

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For example, Illinois can follow the lead of other states including California, Minnesota, and Tennessee, by endorsing the National Alliance of City Transportation Officials’ Urban Street Design Guide, which provides essential design guidelines for creating safe streets in urban areas. It can also require bike and pedestrian improvements for resurfacing projects on state roads like Irving Park. And it can make it easier for Illinois cities to reduce their default speed limit to 20 miles per hour — an important option given the fact that a person hit by a car going 20 mph is five times less likely to die than if that car is going 35 mph.

Illinois can help ensure that Chicago and its other cities design our streets to ensure that senseless deaths like Peter’s are a thing of the past. I am willing to work with local elected officials at the state level to ensure that these important safety improvements happen. Until then, our community grieves for Peter, as well as for 2-year-old Rafi Cardenas, 3 year-old Lily Shambrook, 11 year-old Ja’lon James, 15-year-old Joshua Avina, and the other Chicagoans lost to drivers.

Ald. Matt Martin serves the 47th Ward on the city’s North Side.

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