CDOT’s Complete Streets puts pedestrians first, but not in the simplest ways

September 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Push-to-walk buttons are a classic example proving that pedestrians are below drivers on the urban roadway hierarchy.

I’ve had a months-long email exchange with Alderman Ameya Pawar’s (47th) office about a push-to-walk button at Ashland and Leland. To my knowledge, it is the only such button left at an intersection in a one- or two-mile radius around my home in Uptown. A relic of an age where traffic was king, the button should go.

At least I thought it was a relic.

After many months (and one day where the light was functioning as I wished, but it turns out was actually malfunctioning), Bill Higgins of Pawar’s office (who has helped me extensively and been patient with my replies and inquiries) emailed me back stating that the head engineer at CDOT said (emphasis mine):

The traffic volume on Leland is so low that the standard green light with no Pedestrian is very short – too short to cross width of Ashland safely on foot.  With the push button walk signal the green light is extended so that there is time to cross… with the major intersection at Lawrence just a block north, the timing of the light would disrupt traffic flow if Ashland regularly had a longer red, even when pedestrians are not present.

I didn’t feel like this was the case, but I wanted to check it myself. I went to the intersection last Friday morning and timed the intersection for about 10 minutes. Here’s what I found:

  • The time cars have to move north/south on Ashland is always 45 seconds
  • The time cars have to move east on Leland is always 30 seconds, regardless if the pedestrian button is pushed, or if a car has activated the sensor

The light is timed such that, no matter if the button is pressed or not, or if a car is waiting on Leland, there are 30 seconds of crossing time for pedestrians to cross Ashland. The only difference is this: Pressing the button gives pedestrians the crossing signal and countdown timer, making it safer to cross. Currently, many pedestrians see the green light on Leland and assume they can cross, crossing signal or not – but Ashland is a wide street (75 feet), and some cannot cross the entire street quickly enough. The green light for cars is only on one side of the street, since Leland is a one-way eastbound.

Furthermore, the traffic lights at Lawrence and Wilson, a block north and south (respectively), are timed such that when Ashland traffic has the green light, the green lights at Lawrence and Wilson are also activated. This means most traffic is still able to freely cross those intersections, not “disrupting traffic flow” as the CDOT engineer allegedly stated.

There is a sensor on Leland to recognize a waiting car. Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

There is a sensor on Leland to recognize a waiting car. Image: Shaun Jacobsen.

CDOT recently released a Complete Streets Plan for Chicago, full of great ideas for pedestrians. It puts pedestrians at the top of the hierarchy. There is no mention of the remaining push-to-walk buttons on intersections in the city, however. Simply reprogramming the intersections that still have these buttons is a simple fix requiring no new infrastructure. It actually reduces the need for maintenance since the buttons don’t have to be maintained!

By refusing to always give pedestrians the crossing signal when Leland traffic has the green light, CDOT is ignoring its complete streets policy of putting pedestrians first. The human is the common element of all transportation – walking, riding public transportation, riding a bicycle, or driving a car – and is rightfully at the top of CDOT’s streets priority hierarchy. In this case, though, CDOT is ignoring its own promise by refusing to make walking a little safer for the sake of traffic flow on Ashland. While the Complete Streets guidelines apply to future roadway project planning (e.g. resurfacing), this is a simple, identifiable fix requiring no new infrastructure.

There is hope, since Ashland is slated for repaving in the next few years. However, as is the case with Harrison St downtown, having a detailed complete streets policy in place does not always mean the pedestrian or bike rider will come first – they merely have to be “considered” in the design.

I wish the city would reprogram all intersections that still have push-to-walk buttons so that pedestrians do not have to ask to cross the street. This is a remaining, easy-to-fix relic from the traffic-first days. Why the insistence on moving traffic first in a part of the city where as many as 40% of people do not drive?