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08.12.2011
City of Broadening Sidewalks
Chicago drafts first-ever master plan for pedestrians.
Chicago bolsters its pedestrian environment.
Courtesy Car Free Chicago

Throughout the summer in Chicago, planners have canvassed residents for ideas big and small about what works—and what doesn't—for walkers ambling their way through neighborhoods across the city.

The feedback, be it about a corner that floods over following every downpour or fundamental safety concerns walkers face in communities struggling with crime, will inform the Chicago Pedestrian Plan.

"What the pedestrian plan is going to do is develop a general framework, sort of a one-stop shop for everyone to look at how we treat pedestrians in the built environment, and how we continue to encourage more pedestrians," said project consultant Mark de la Vergne, of Sam Schwartz Engineering, at a public meeting in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood on August 10.

The plan will establish specific goals on safety, pushing for an end to auto-pedestrian fatalities in 10 years, and reducing walker injuries by vehicles by 50 percent every five years. Thirty-four people were killed and 3,130 injured in pedestrian-related crashes in 2009. Both numbers are down from 2005, though the numbers do not trend consistently lower. More people were injured in walker-vehicle wrecks in '08 than '05, for example.

The document also is meant to serve as a tool for neighborhood organizations seeking ways to improve local streets and will help set priorities for spending public dollars.

Kiersten Grove, the Chicago Department of Transportation's pedestrian safety coordinator, said the plan will fit into ongoing departmental efforts to add countdown timers at all city crosswalks, deploy more "leading pedestrian intervals," where a walker gets permission to cross a street while turning vehicles stay behind a red light, and roll out road diets, which see full lanes of traffic removed from the roadway.

The varied walking experience in different Chicago neighborhoods poses challenges for planners creating a citywide document. "We don't have the same issues across the city," de la Vergne acknowledged. "In Jefferson Park, they have tons of infrastructure issues. Talking in Little Village, we heard lots of issues about crime."

At the hearing, Lorraine Kells, who said she had moved back to Chicago from California, contrasted driver behavior on the West coast with her recent experiences in Chicago."In Berkeley, you could close your eyes and step off a curb, and cars will slam their brakes and stop," she said. "In Los Angeles, cars will stop if there's a pedestrian in the crosswalk. In Chicago, that doesn't happen."

"I've never been hit, but I'm in constant fear of crossing streets," another woman in the audience chimed in.

Resident Ken Cluskey spent part of the Uptown meeting point out some locations along the city's busy Western Avenue corridor he believes could be make better for walkers. Still, Cluskey thought Chicago deserved some credit for its present walking environment. "It is one of the most, in my opinion, pedestrian friendly cities in the country," he said.

Siim Soot, the former director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Urban Transportation Center, said the pedestrian planning effort was part of a general shift in how in cities, including Chicago, think about getting around. "I would just generally say the city is much more inclined to support non-motorized forms of transportation," he told The Architect's Newspaper. "Whether that's pedestrians or biking, the city is in tune with what's happening nationally."

A draft of the plan is scheduled for release by the end of year.

Micah Maidenberg