Slowing Drivers Down at Urban Stop Signs

November 5, 2012 at 10:03 pm

On most secondary streets in Chicago, like Wilson Avenue in my neighborhood, there are stop signs every few blocks. You won’t find as many stop signs on major arterial streets, like Montrose (to the south) or Lawrence (to the north). I don’t like walking down these major streets at all when I know I need to cross – they’re dangerous, with fast moving cars (and cemeteries on one side of the street, lowering the perceived height of the surroundings and making drivers feel like they can go faster):


Lawrence Ave. (left) and Fullerton Pkwy. (right). Credit: Google Maps.

Lawrence Ave. feels wider and causes drivers to drive faster. Don’t think it’s true? Try driving 30 MPH on a rural road, then drive 30 mph in downtown Chicago, and tell me which one feels slower.

On a side note, what is up with Fullerton Parkway, directly adjacent to DePaul University, having such narrow sidewalks? They hardly look wider than the bike lanes.

The low perceived height of surroundings is bad enough, but the lack of any stop signs or traffic lights along these stretches of arterial roads means danger for pedestrians and those on bikes due to faster driving. The posted speed limit in Chicago is 30 MPH. This is rarely observed, and Americans know that 30 MPH means 35 MPH. I found two conflicting reports – this one in FastCoExist says that pedestrians people have a 20% chance of dying (80% chance of surviving) a crash with a vehicle going 30 MPH, but the Chicago Pedestrian Plan, page 48 says there is a 40% chance of dying (60% chance of surviving) at 30 MPH. At 40 MPH, the Pedestrian Plan says there is a 80% chance of death.

Any death is a failure of the built environment. At 20 MPH, the chance of death is only 5% – a significant improvement. Why aren’t we requiring drivers to slow down? There is no reason for a driver to be going so fast on an urban street with pedestrians and people riding bikes. Yet I continue to witness drivers speeding down arterial, secondary, even residential streets in Chicago.

Something I brought up at the Participatory Budgeting meeting in my ward a few weeks ago was how drivers speed down residential streets like my own. There are 4-way stop signs at every intersection on a residential street in my neighborhood, yet drivers speed down these streets to the next stop sign. There are no speed bumps or any sort of traffic-calming measures on my street, and a quick glance around shows there aren’t many on other streets as well. When they do exist, speed bumps are placed at the middle of the block. Where it probably matters more, I argue, is nearer to the intersection.

Because these are residential streets, there are rarely impediments to fast driving. Low traffic and parked cars mean drivers can speed to the next stop sign, and they do. Even when there are speed bumps, there is enough time to reach a high speed from the speed bump to the next intersection. Parking which runs to the intersection reduces the angle at which drivers can see, hiding pedestrians and making the intersection almost invisible. How many times have you been trying to cross a street, only to take a second thought about crossing because a driver has sped up to the stop sign? How many times has a driver stopped in the middle of your crosswalk to look farther into the intersecting streets for clearance? This isn’t safe in our neighborhoods.

Traffic calming designs like curb bump-outs have been tried but haven’t reached widespread implementation:

Curb bump-out on a complete street. Rendering of Milwaukee. Credit: J-Lab.

The not-so-high resolution image above is a rendering of a concept for a complete street in Milwaukee. Notice the curb bump-outs, which reduce the width of the crosswalk and help drivers notice pedestrians trying to cross. I think the idea is good in practice, and it might work, but probably not enough on quieter, residential streets. What would probably work better in slowing drivers down is chicanes. There are no good images of chicanes on the internet, so I will include an image from the Chicago Pedestrian Plan’s diagram of the Albany Ave. Home Zone:

Albany Ave. Home Zone

Albany Avenue Home Zone. Credit: Chicago Pedestrian Plan.

The green bump-outs force drivers to meander through the street, making it harder to reach a high speed. Safer for bicyclists in one way as well, since they do not have to go over speed bumps.

The one downside to the “home zone” and chicanes is that they generally come with angle parking instead of parallel parking. While you can argue that angle parking reduces the possibility of being doored, it probably increases your chances of being run over by a vehicle backing out of a spot. There are three alternatives:

1. The city should fit as many spaces as they can with a parallel parking design. The parking spaces on residential streets are free of charge (except those with permit requirements, but permits are inexpensive anyways), so there’s no incentive for the local government to have so many.
2. Angle parking with a bike lane installed between the sidewalk area and the angle parking. This gives bicyclists a buffer from drivers.
3. Parallel parking with a bike lane installed between the sidewalk area and the parked cars.

I think option 3 is the best option. Option 2 is a good compromise if opposition to free parking removal occurs (and it will), but cars might pull in too far and obstruct the bike lane unless a physical barrier is installed.

Dover St Traffic Calming

Traffic calming on Dover St. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

Above is a quick image I made of Dover St. in my neighborhood. It is currently a one-way street with free parking on both sides. A traffic calming measure like alternative 3 above would have parallel parking (yellow stripes), green space (dark green), and a bike lane (light green). Parallel parking, green space, or a concrete barrier protect bicyclists from automobile traffic until the intersection (at the intersection, poles would protect the bike lane and prevent automobiles from using the lane as a turn lane or standing zone). Dover St. is a southbound one-way, so in this diagram, the street ends only one lane in width, dramatically reducing the length of the intersection. A speed bump placed just before the intersection or a raised crosswalk would slow drivers down at the intersection.

This would be an expensive transformation, but aren’t residents worthy of neighborhoods that are safe to walk in? At the very least, we should install speed bumps at intersections to slow drivers down where pedestrians are crossing.

Take this 4-way stop at Wilson and Magnolia:

Wilson at Magnolia, before

Wilson at Magnolia. Credit: Google Maps.

Why not take Wilson, a secondary street, and Magnolia, a residential street, and turn them into something more like this:

Wilson at Magnolia, after

Wilson at Magnolia, after. Credit: Shaun Jacobsen.

The intersection is tighter, the crosswalks are narrower and raised (acting both as an speed bump and to elevate the pedestrians), there are bike lanes, not sharrows, and they are protected by parking. The driving lanes are narrowed and closer to the width of the other street uses, like biking and walking. This intersection is close to so much public transportation, businesses, and residences – there’s no reason the street should feel like an arterial street.

In what is a bike rider’s dream come true, the intersection is also a 4-way stop for vehicles, but a yield intersection for cyclists. Bikes would still slow down, and stop when the intersection is congested. This would legalize what is already common bicycle behavior.

One thing is missing from my design, which is bus stops along Wilson. Buses could still pull aside into the bike lane to pick up passengers because the frequency of buses along Wilson is low enough that it would not be a regular impediment.

Many secondary streets in Chicago don’t do much to actually stop drivers at stop signs – and many drivers see “slow down,” not “STOP”. Pedestrians trying to cross often come very close to drivers who think they have enough time to clear the intersection. These intersections aren’t really doing much as it is to make a more human-scale neighborhood.

Coupled with residential complete streets or other traffic calming measures like chicanes, the streets in our densest neighborhoods could become even more walkable and slow down fast drivers. Slowing down drivers means fewer pedestrian deaths, a greater incentive to ride a bike, and more livable space that isn’t dedicated to subsidized parking for the few that drive cars. We should be changing the urban landscape to include safer ways of getting around, not maintaining the same infrastructure while these neighborhoods become more desirable places to live, work, and visit.